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Syria conflict: How does Russia view the endgame?

Foreign policy shift

Both Washington and Moscow may see few options other than dialogue in a conflict that has taken up to 400,000 lives.

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    A man evacuates a baby from a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel held area of Aleppo's al-Fardous district, Syria, Tuesday.
    Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
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Efforts to salvage a failing cease-fire in Syria moved to Moscow today, in a sign of Russia’s influence over the battlefield and of growing anxiety over the surge of violence in the northern city of Aleppo that has taken 250 more lives in just over a week.

A coalescing of grim milestones in the five-year conflict propelled UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura to Moscow. Peace talks in Geneva all but collapsed last week, even as government forces renewed an offensive on Aleppo. A hospital in rebel territory was targeted, killing 50, and today a government-controlled maternity hospital was hit with rebel shells.

Russia may be the right address for the first steps toward a solution. Moscow can choose to restrain President Bashar al-Assad, as it largely has since February, by applying pressure on its ally in Damascus, or simply by not lending its military heft and airstrikes to the fight. 

“The Russians are the key variable here … [and] how Russia handles Aleppo in the coming days will give us an indication,” says Noah Bonsey, the senior Syria analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “If Russia really leans on the regime to stop the offensive, that would indicate that Russia maintains some seriousness about the political process at this moment.”

Since Russia began its military intervention in September 2015, “it really seemed the Russians were determined to help the regime achieve a decisive military upper hand,” says Mr. Bonsey. “But then when Russia agreed to the cessation of hostilities, and leaned on the regime to enforce it, that really represented a new trajectory.”

The question now is how Russia views the endgame. After the Moscow meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held out hope that a cease-fire could be reapplied to Aleppo “in the very near future – maybe in the next few hours,” but only if rebels left areas where allied jihadists were being targeted.

Mr. Lavrov said the aim was to “ideally make it indefinite.”

Both Washington and Moscow may see few options other than dialogue in a conflict that the UN envoy estimates has cost up to 400,000 lives, has enabled the self-declared Islamic State to thrive, and has spread millions of refugees and insecurity from Iraq to the heart of Europe.

“The end of dialogue would be a strategic setback for the Russians, because then they would have to really own the battlefield, and they don’t want to do that,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, whose book, “ISIS: A History,” was published in March. “So we should not be blinded by the dust of the current escalation of hostilities.”

A positive effect

On Monday, Lavrov spoke to US Secretary of State John Kerry, and his office said they agreed to urge all sides to “strictly observe the cease-fire.”

That February deal, brokered by the US and Russia, effectively stopped in its tracks a regime military advance, backed by Russian aircraft, to capture all of Aleppo – a strategic prize partly controlled by rebels.

Mr. Kerry said Monday the cease-fire had a “profoundly positive effect” in saving lives, but that new violence “in many ways is out of control and deeply disturbing.” Mr. de Mistura flew to Moscow Tuesday to appeal directly for stronger Russian support to relaunch the cease-fire. 

“I think the Russians are playing a restraining role in Aleppo now, as opposed to a spoiler role,” says Mr. Gerges.

“Assad and his allies won’t be able to cross Putin,” he adds. “They need Russia, and their political future depends on Putin in many ways…. We know how pivotal the Russian military intervention has been.”

So far Russia has taken some steps to support the current regime strikes, but at only a fraction of the level it did until February. Russia says the current action is aimed solely at the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front rebel group, which is not part of the cease-fire deal.

There may have been another reason for Moscow to dial back its support of pro-Assad forces trying to recapture Aleppo.

Not only is Syria’s second city a strategic prize, but it also is the center of gravity of opposition in northern Syria, and – crucially – the “last part of the north where the intra-rebel balance of power is to the advantage of non-jihadi groups, they’re the dominant force,” says Bonsey.

Seizing Aleppo and dealing a blow to the non-jihadi opposition has great political significance, he says, because peace talks require a non-jihadi partner to implement any deal.

“If you eliminate or incapacitate or cripple that non-jihadi opposition, it is really difficult to imagine how this conflict reaches a negotiated end,” says Bonsey. “That puts us on a trajectory of unending war between a regime that’s really too weak to assert itself in much of the country, against jihadi groups who will never negotiate with it.”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 

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