Moscow and Washington are not that far apart on Syria

If the pacification of the Syria conflict continues, the points of US-Russian convergence will come into sharper relief.

Protesters wearing masks depicting Lavrov, Obama, Assad, Putin and Ban Ki-moon in Geneva, Switzerland [AP]
Protesters wearing masks depicting Lavrov, Obama, Assad, Putin and Ban Ki-moon in Geneva, Switzerland [AP]

One of the positive and significant aspects of the Syria crisis is its effect on US-Russian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected decision to withdraw forces from Syria is merely the latest chapter of this fast-moving engagement.

Highlighting this constructive and encouraging partnership is the intensive diplomatic cooperation that resulted in the Cessation of Hostilities agreement and the subsequent joint submission of UNSC Resolution 2268 for unanimous Council approval.

Most surprising of all, however, is the unlikely operational success of the ceasefire’s vague and imprecise monitoring and non-existent enforcement mechanisms. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has pronounced the implementation of the understandings as “overwhelmingly positive”.

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The opposition’s Higher Negotiations Council spokesman noted: “The violations of the truce were great at the start, but [more recently] they were much fewer. There are perhaps some positive matters that we are seeing.”

Acknowledging violations

Washington and Moscow, while acknowledging violations, have also taken pains to minimise their significance.

The system of identifying friends and foes, reporting violations of the ceasefire, and facilitating the provision of humanitarian assistance to beleaguered communities, while far from perfect, has kept an uneasy peace far better than many expected.

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Improvements on the battlefield are mirrored by a change in the language used to describe it. Washington no longer professes faith in “changing Assad’s calculus” by arming rebel factions. Nor are US-Russian interactions on Syria limited to mere “deconfliction” of military forces.

Improvements on the battlefield are mirrored by a change in the language used to describe it.


ln this more hopeful environment there is simply no room for provocative assessments like the one declared by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in October, soon after the Russian offensive began, when he famously warned that Russia was “painting a bull’s-eye on themselves for everybody of all types who are opposed to Assad …” 

Without doubt, Washington continues to see Russia as a national security threat, especially in Eastern Europe. It believes that “Iran maintains hegemonic ambitions and will continue to pose a threat to the region”, according to testimony by General Lloyd Austin, outgoing head of the US Central Command.

And even as they endorse a negotiating process that includes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, US officials insistently declare that the Syrian president, in contrast to the system he leads, has no future.

Interests in Syria

Russia, for its part, has interests in Syria and elsewhere that challenge Washington. Yet on key elements of Syria’s emerging diplomatic roadmap, Russia is demonstrating that while its interests in Syria are not identical to Washington’s, neither are they the same as Iran’s or Syria’s.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov [EPA]
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov [EPA]

And Washington too, in large part prompted by the new environment created by the Russian military offensive, is clarifying its own preferences on Syria’s future in ways that are not necessarily incompatible with Moscow’s.

“We are talking about keeping … Syria whole as a united nation, secular nation, protecting all minorities, in which the people of Syria can choose their future leadership,” explained Secretary of State John Kerry in a March 9 interview. “We want to preserve the institutions of the government. We don’t want a complete implosion in Syria. We need to have some continuity. But Assad cannot stay at the head of that.”

Washington is absolutely not prepared, as are some Russian officials, to describe this process of accommodation as an “alliance”.

READ MORE: Analysis – a reluctant Russia in the Middle East? 

But on a number of critical fronts, the relationship forged between Washington and Moscow in recent months has for the first time in the five-year war offered the best opportunity for diplomats to begin to end the war, and in so doing establish a foundation that could resonate beyond Syria to other contentious issues on their joint agenda.

The Cessation of Hostilities agreement has been signed by almost 50 opposition groups, according to Russia’s reconciliation centre in Syria. As a consequence, they are meant to enjoy immunity from attack by the regime and its allies. The agreement has also quickened the pace and effectiveness of local reconciliation efforts managed by Damascus.


Map of the warring contestants

The important consequence of these achievements is that the Syrian battle space is becoming far more coherent, and therefore manageable both diplomatically and militarily.

Those who remain targets of the US and Russians, as well as their local allies, are being defined both politically and perhaps more importantly on the ground itself through maps that each side is drawing. The map of the warring contestants, which has long been all but incomprehensible, is slowly coming into clearer, agreed-upon focus. 

The opposition, to be sure, is paying the biggest price for this achievement, on the battlefield as well as politically.

The opposition, to be sure, is paying the biggest price for this achievement, on the battlefield as well as politically.


In both spheres, the lines separating those outside the new system of understandings from those protected by it is being clarified. This is the operational effect of dividing, and therefore weakening, the ranks of the non-ISIL opposition.

For Russia, this outcome represents a strategic achievement. This is far less the case for Washington and its uneasy allies in the Higher Negotiations Council, who are in effect dismantling the military coalition, including al-Nusra Front and others of its ilk, that has been constructed to challenge and defeat the regime.

What they may lose on the battlefield, Washington hopes, not without reason, to recoup with Moscow’s cooperation at the negotiating table.

“A political solution between the parties is the only way to end the violence and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve to rebuild their country,” explained Vice President Joe Biden in Abu Dhabi recently. “To create a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian system, a new constitution and free and fair elections.”

There is not much in this formula that Moscow will find objectionable. It would be a mistake to count Moscow as an uncritical patron of the Assad regime or of its allies in the region.

In important respects Moscow’s position on the need for a political as opposed to a military solution of the conflict, the vital role of the opposition in reconstructing a new political and social compact in Syria, and Syria’s limited place in the resistance front arrayed against Israel – offer opportunities for dialogue and diplomatic progress.

If the pacification of the conflict – at least those bits not related to ISIL and others – continues, and the time for hard choices can no longer be avoided, the points of US-Russian convergence as well as those where views diverge can be expected to come into sharper relief.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.