Despite military successes, Russia's main goal in Syria remains elusive

While Russian and Syrian forces are set for a major offensive on Aleppo after the end of today's cease-fire, the potential military success is overshadowed by the Kremlin's inability to return to superpower-style dealing with the US.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military's General Staff walks to speak at a briefing at the Russian Defense Ministry's headquarters in Moscow Thursday. A Russian lawmaker says if the Syrian rebels do not leave Aleppo by the end of a new humanitarian pause, Russian and Syrian forces will 'purge' the city.

At least from a military standpoint, Russia's campaign in Syria appears to be doing what Vladimir Putin hoped it would.

The Russian president ordered a special 10-hour Friday "pause" in combat in Aleppo, in order to enable civilians and US-favored "moderate" rebels to leave the embattled city before Russian and Syrian forces launch a full-scale assault on the city's rebel-held eastern sector. Russian air power has already played a key role in blunting a major offensive to break the siege of Aleppo led by Al Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in recent days. If the imminent Russian-Syrian offensive succeeds, rebels of all stripes would be dealt a major blow.

But experts say that while saving Russia's old Middle East client, the Assad regime, was certainly an important goal of Moscow's year-old intervention in the conflict, the bigger prize was always a return to superpower-style dealing across the negotiating table with the US. And that now looks well beyond the Kremlin's reach – as does hope of a negotiated peace plan for Syria.

"There now seems to be no short-term hope at all for resurrecting diplomacy. The relationship with the US is so bad, such ugly things have been said, that it can't be fixed," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "Maybe a new president in the US can take a fresh look at all this. But for now, I think Syria's fate will be driven by what happens on the battlefield."

A diplomatic failure

A month ago, amid the collapse of a negotiated cease-fire, Secretary of State John Kerry ended negotiations with Russia over Syria, citing Russia's brutal bombing of the rebel-held part of Aleppo. Informal talks have continued since then, but Washington-Moscow relations have deteriorated further, with the US threatening to slap even more sanctions on Russia over its actions in Syria.

The US blames Russia for scuttling the cease-fire, and Russia has its own complicated and self-serving counter-narrative. But the nub of Moscow's complaint is that the US failed to deliver on promises to help separate "moderate" rebels – those with whom political agreement might be possible – from irreconcilable jihadist extremists, whom everyone agrees must be destroyed. The Russians insist they have refrained from bombing eastern Aleppo for more than two weeks to give moderate opposition fighters a chance to leave.

The city of Aleppo, once Syria's main commercial hub, has been divided since 2012, when rebels seized the eastern sector. About 1.5 million people now live in the government-held west, while up to 300,000 are said to be trapped in the eastern neighborhoods, which have been under near-total siege for several months. Friday's Kremlin-authored pause – which is opening eight safe passage corridors during daylight hours: six for civilians, two for armed rebels – is seen in Moscow as a last-ditch attempt to salvage a political process.

But the Kremlin's big hope – that US-Russia dialogue over Syria might propel a wider reset in relations between the two powers – appears to be in tatters.

"The situation really is terrible. Russia really had hoped to find a common language with the US about singling out the real terrorists, and getting the others involved in some sort of US-Russia sponsored process," says Mr. Mukhin.

Some analysts argue that Mr. Putin had already given up on diplomacy. Rather, he is just reacting to the wave of international criticism that accompanied Russia's initial assault on east Aleppo last month, including allegations that the Russians were committing war crimes there.

"This is no time to make a major diplomatic offer. With the US presidential election just days away, who in Washington is going to take any big initiative at this point?" says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "Putin is going to great lengths to demonstrate that, yes, Russia takes humanitarian concerns seriously, we would like to separate moderates from extremists, but the US isn't able to keep its pledges. It's a goodwill gesture."

'Further than ever from where we wanted to be'

Opinion polls suggest that Russians remain broadly supportive of the military intervention in Syria, but their hopes for better Russia-US relations have dwindled dramatically over the past year. A survey released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 52 percent support the military operation now, compared with 55 percent a year ago.

A year ago 40 percent of Russians believed relations with the US would improve as a result of Russia's actions, while just 16 percent thought they would worsen. Asked last week, just 21 percent thought relations with the US had gotten better over the past year, while 32 percent said they'd become worse.

More ominously, 48 percent of Russian respondents said last week they feared the conflict in Syria could escalate into World War III.

"A year ago people hoped our intervention in Syria would be widely accepted, and it might help to ease Russia's international isolation," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center. "There was hope that Russia and the West might find a common language [about fighting terrorism], and reach some compromises. Now those hopes have almost disappeared."

Mr. Strokan says that Russia has found itself in a strategic deadlock, in which even battlefield success in Syria seems liable to deepen its antagonistic relations with the West.

"We may hope that a new president may put negotiations back on track, but for now we are stuck with very hard choices," he says. "There seem to be no diplomatic options left open to us. But if we press forward on the battlefield, the best outcome is that we end up as guarantor of the deeply unpopular Assad regime in Syria, blamed by the West for crushing the Syrian opposition, and further than ever from where we wanted to be."

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