Despite presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s ignorant question “What is Aleppo?,” many other politicians recognize that the grave situation in Syria can no longer be ignored. Since 2011, the country has been involved in a destructive, multi-faceted civil war, which has grown to involve four warring factions: President Bashar al-Assad’s government; moderate opposition forces; extremist ISIS fighters; and the Nusra front, a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. No side has yet claimed victory in this brutal war which has been marked by as many as 430,000 casualties and heinous war crimes committed by all sides. Earlier this month, United States Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a deal with Russia to reduce violence in Syria and de-escalate tensions. Unfortunately, the deal quickly collapsed, and Syria descended into chaos once more.
As violence has escalated, several external forces have lent support by proxy to the various factions. Most notably, Russia has supported Assad’s forces, while the United States has offered aid to opposition fighters. The ill-fated deal marked a concerted effort to end the bloody conflict via collaboration between the historically opposed United States and Russia. Kerry, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, came together to demand a seven day ceasefire across Syria, coupled with unhindered humanitarian access to all regions of the country. If the truce had held, the United States and Russia would have then worked together to target Islamic extremist fighters, namely from the Nusra and ISIS factions. Sadly, Kerry’s deal never made it that far. The plan depended largely on Russia successfully preventing Assad’s forces from indiscriminately bombing regions held by ISIS and Nusra, a move meant to reduce civilian casualties, while the US was to persuade the opposition groups it backed to distance themselves from the Nusra forces in the country. As it turned out, Russia proved unwilling to maintain the ceasefire, instead launching attacks on Aleppo. Both sides ardently claim that the other failed to uphold their side of the bargain. Despite urgent negotiations, no new deal has been reached, leaving the Syrian people in even graver danger, and observers pondering what went wrong.
From the beginning, the complicated plan faced much criticism, namely for its requirement that the United States share intelligence with Russia pertaining to Islamic extremist targets in Syria. Secretary of Defense, Ashton B. Carter and other top officials at the Pentagon asserted their opposition to the plan, citing doubts that Russia would uphold its end of the deal with regard to reduction of violence, and aversion to sharing information with a military adversary. President Obama ultimately approved the plan, despite citing “gaps of trust” between the United States and Russian governments as an obstacle to reducing violence. Ultimately, these doubts about Russia’s reliability proved true, as the ceasefire collapsed partly due to Russian air strikes on Aleppo. Predictions from U.S. government officials aside, the agreement faced further practical challenges in its implementation.
In February of 2016, similar agreements failed, as Russia continued air strikes despite ceasefire agreements. Ultimately, the current agreement was equally vulnerable to these types of failures as it contained no explicit penalties for a failure to uphold the terms of the agreement. The notable difference, this time around, was the collaborative nature of the deal, in which Russia and the US would have established a Joint Implementation Center, and worked together against extremist forces operating in the country. Though the United States and Russia have backed different sides in the conflict, they are united in their opposition of both ISIS and the Nusra front. This mutually shared goal was meant to be the key to ensuring cooperation between the two powers, who harbor deep-seated mistrust for one another, but find their strategic goals aligned. Unfortunately, the possibility of gaining U.S. help in fighting ISIS and Nusra was not enough to secure Moscow’s cooperation. Only time will tell whether another deal will bring an end to civil war in Syria, but for the foreseeable future, it seems that any solution hinging on U.S.-Russian cooperation is doomed to fail.
Image source: Wikimedia/U.S. Department of State