Lucas Jackson/Reuters
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reacts as US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Russian actions in Syria during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York Wednesday.

Syria's failing cease-fire: Is there still room for US-Russian cooperation?

The US and Russia are pointing fingers over a faltering cease-fire in Syria. But there are forces that are compelling them to try to cooperate, too. 

At a United Nations Security Council session Wednesday, diplomatic efforts to maintain the 10-day-old Syria cease-fire appeared all but dead.

While United States Secretary of State John Kerry floated the idea of a no-fly zone – hinting that Russia was behind an “outrageous” attack on a UN aid convoy Monday – Russia announced it was sending an aircraft carrier with dozens of fighter jets to the waters off Syria.

“Listening to my colleague from Russia,” Secretary Kerry said of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the UN session, “I sort of felt like we were in parallel universes.”

The cease-fire, he added, is “hanging by a thread.”

Yet neither side is eager to confirm the widespread assessment that the cessation of hostilities is beyond revival. Despite the evident pessimism and estrangement, the two powers have serious motivations for not giving up, experts say.

“Neither Washington nor Moscow is happy with where things after just over a week of this cessation of hostilities, but neither is either anxious to see a collapse of the diplomatic process,” says Michael Doyle, a professor of international relations at Columbia University in New York. “Both have reasons to try to keep it going.”

Strongest among them is the desire to keep the conflict contained and the country from splintering.

“Both sides have an interest in making sure this doesn’t escalate, both want to see Syria remain intact,” says Professor Doyle. As during the Cold War, “both of them realize that containing this is far better than having it explode into the region.”

Pointing fingers

At the moment, however, each power blames the other for bringing the agreement to the breaking point.

As Secretary Kerry implies that Russia was behind the attack on the aid convoy, Mr. Lavrov faults the US for not curbing rebel forces under its influence and criticizes the US-led “coalition” for the Friday attack that killed Syrian government forces.

Some Western experts are not convinced that Russia wants the cease-fire to survive. From Moscow’s perspective, the arrangement with the US might have helped legitimize Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, but it also curbed the Assad regime’s freedom to act against all opposition – which Mr. Assad lumps together as “terrorists.”

“The Assad regime and Russia seem to be greeting the apparent collapse of the John Kerry initiative with palpable relief,” writes Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, on the center’s website.

Moscow will never force Assad to take the steps needed for a cease-fire to hold, Mr. Hof argues. Assad is too central to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to defeat America’s “regime change agenda” in Syria.

Mr. Putin “cannot, by definition, present Assad with an enforceable ‘or else,’ ” Hof writes.

Grounds for cooperation

Yet the US and Russia have no choice but to work together on Syria – if for no other reason than that they both are militarily involved, Hof adds in an interview with the Monitor.

“Washington and Moscow are condemned to constant, nonstop communication aimed at searching for a mutually agreed pathway to peace an quiet in Syria,” he says. Each has “lethal and very high speed aircraft operating in constricted air space.”   

Russia also has an interest in joining forces against Jabhat Fateh al Sham, a leading militant group that until recently went by the name of the Nusra Front.

Russia sees the Obama administration’s desire for an end to hostilities in Syria as “an opportunity to get American help to destroy the Nusra Front,” says Hof, a former White House special adviser for transition in Syria.

Beyond that, he says, opportunities for cooperation get thinner. “It looks unlikely at the moment that the US and Russia will actually find a way to work together beyond diplomatic generalities,” he says.  

President Obama was one of the first to say he was skeptical of Russia’s determination to make diplomacy work in Syria – reflecting the widespread pessimism about the cease-fire’s prospects. Comparisons to the Cold War abound.

“At the height of the Cold War there were any number of conflicts in the Third World that were kept going and exacerbated by the US-Soviet rivalry,” says Doyle, citing wars in Africa and Central America.

But he also notes that Vietnam was “a severe proxy war multiples of magnitude higher” than what is taking place in Syria. And yet the US and the former Soviet Union managed to cooperate on issues of interest to both.

“There’s still room for diplomacy,” Doyle says. “There was room for cooperation when the rivalry was double or triple the scale we have now,” he adds, “so it would seem it should be able to work today.”

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