Aleppo cease-fire: In US talk of Syria deadlines, Russia hears an 'or else'

If the US and Russia can't see eye to eye, the fighting in Syria could devolve into a proxy war similar to Afghanistan during the cold war, some experts warn.

Hosam Katan/Reuters
Rebel fighters walk on the al-Breij frontline, after what they said was an advance by them in the Manasher al-Hajr area where the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad were stationed, in Aleppo Jan. 7, 2015.

A fragile and temporary truce took hold in the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo Thursday, the result of a week of high-level wrangling between Russia and the United States over the future of Syria's badly strained peace process.

The hard discussions over Aleppo reflect a deeper rift between the US and Russia, the two key sponsors of a cease-fire imposed in late February that's been unraveling on the ground for the past couple weeks. If the two big powers continue to disagree, experts warn, the peace process could break down altogether.

"We think that both the US and Russia have no choice but to work together on this, to keep herding their various clients to the table and making hard deals," says Irina Zvigelskaya, a scholar at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, who is familiar with the negotiations. "I don't believe in any other alternatives."

The US, and the rebel groups it backs, say they are frustrated over the lack of movement in the Geneva peace talks: in particular, no clear signs of a political transition that would remove the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that if the process leading to Mr. Assad's removal is not on track by the negotiated deadline of August 1, the US could adopt a "new approach" to the conflict. That could mean supplying rebel forces with sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which could effectively turn the Syrian conflict into a proxy war between Russia and the US.

Russian experts say that implied threat is calculated to remind the Kremlin of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan three decades ago. Then, the US helped turn the tide of battle against the Soviets by supplying rebel forces with shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

"Perhaps this threat is being made to assuage US allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who really would like to see the US jump in and support a total war to remove Assad," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

"But I really don't see the Obama administration agreeing to something like that in its final months in office. He's focused on other things, and doesn't want a major crisis to blow up in the Middle East,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “Everything we know about Obama suggests he isn't interested in taking risks like that. Also, the US must have learned from that Afghanistan adventure about the dire consequences of weaponizing jihadis."

A complicated rebel map

The Syrian regime, which has scored one territorial win after another on the battlefield since Russia intervened in its favor late last year, only reluctantly committed to the peace talks. And it has since actively pressed its military offensive against the terrorist groups, the Islamic State (IS) and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which are exempt from the cease-fire.

In March the Syrian Army scored a huge victory by retaking the historic city of Palmyra from IS, and Russia says it will back an offensive to seize the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the IS "capital," within weeks.

But elsewhere in Syria the situation has proven more complicated, with US-backed rebels – who should be subject to the cease-fire – often overlapping with irreconcilable groups like Nusra Front. The United Nations, with backing from Washington and Moscow, has tried stitching the faltering cease-fire back together, quilt-like, with temporary "regime of calm" truces in places like Damascus and Latakia. But, until Tuesday, the Assad regime, with tacit Russian support, had refused to extend such a deal to Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo.

The Russians argue that is because US-backed rebels refuse to leave and clearly separate themselves from the Nusra Front, which holds large swaths of the divided city. But they also admit that Assad would like to finish the battle for Aleppo, and that Russian foot-dragging over establishing a truce there was intended to give war a chance.

Aleppo has been a divided city for the past three years, with the biggest part remaining in government hands, and the city's eastern section held by a mix of rebel groups. For much of that time the pro-government western part of Aleppo was completely surrounded, but regime forces reversed that situation in the weeks leading up to the cease-fire. Now a single road connects rebel-held Aleppo with the outside world.

Just a bump in the road?

"Of course the Syrian Army wants to complete that job and take the whole city," says Ms. Zvigelskaya. "If they could declare the city of Aleppo is in regime hands, that would be a game-changer in the whole war. So it's understandable that the US put on a lot of pressure to extend the 'regime of calm' to the city."

Mr. Kerry rushed to Geneva late last week to discuss the fighting in Aleppo with allied leaders. But the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, did not join them. On Tuesday, UN special envoy Steffan de Mistura flew to Moscow, where he convinced the reluctant Russians to accept the 48-hour Aleppo truce that came into effect Thursday.

"The Russian understanding is that this is just to expedite the separation of rebel groups, so that those who are party to the peace talks can be clearly distinguished from the terrorists who are not," says Zvigelskaya.

Most Russian experts seem to believe that the sharp rhetorical disagreements between Moscow and Washington are mostly for show, and at the end of the day the two powers will hammer out a peace settlement that largely takes Russian concerns into account.

"This quarrel over Aleppo is just a bump in the road," says Lukyanov. "I think the US wants to find a road to peace in Syria, and they know that can't be done without Russian cooperation."

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