Why is Putin agreeing to a ceasefire in Syria?
Russia, the US and the Syrian opposition represented by the High Negotiations Committee have just agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria effective February 27. Some are hopeful that this could lead to a peaceful resolution to the devastating Syrian conflict with elections scheduled to be held in April, but most are skeptical that any lasting peace will be achieved.
According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the agreement, if it holds, will decrease violence, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian supplies to beleaguered civilians and enable the formation of a new democratic government in Syria. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as a means “to end unnecessary bloodshed in Syria and continue the war on terror, thus facilitating the political settlement in [Syria].”
Tensions between Assad and Putin?
It is interesting that Russia’s pursuit of this agreement has caused some tensions to arise between them and their allies Syria and Iran. According to DEBKAfile Assad and Iran want to continue fighting, but the Russians appear eager for the agreed upon ceasefire with America.
This tension first became apparent when Assad vowed to retake all of Syria saying, “Regardless of whether we can do that or not, this is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation.” The Russian response by Vitaly Churkin was to characterize Assad’s vow as “not in accord with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is making.”
Further indications of this rift can be found in Putin’s statements following the signing of the agreement. He said, “I would like to hope that the Syrian leadership and all our partners in the region and beyond it, will support the algorithm of actions selected by representatives of Russia and the United States.” This statement implies a degree of uncertainty whether Assad is in accordance with the agreement.
Now of course we have previously heard, early in 2015, that Putin was on the verge of abandoning Assad, only for Putin to subsequently unleash his air force upon the Syrian rebels in firm support of Assad. So it is possible that all this talk of tensions between Assad and Putin is untrue, possibly being Western misinformation. In fact Assad has reassured the Russians that he will respect the ceasefire agreement.
What is Putin thinking?
However, if these tensions, however minimal they may be are true, what is most interesting about them is that they suggest that Putin is in fact desiring a cessation of hostilities in Syria. This possibility strikes me as rather odd.
Currently the vital city of Aleppo is on the verge of being captured by Assad’s forces. If Aleppo is taken by Assad then the rebel movement will suffer a great blow, one from which it may never recover.
Wouldn’t such an outcome be favorable to Russian President Vladimir Putin? One could also argue that even if Putin does desire a peace agreement, that if Aleppo was in the hands of Assad then he would have further leverage to negotiate a peace favorable to his interests.
Furthermore, the other major participant in the agreement, the US, is viewed very suspiciously by Putin, especially following NATO meddling in the Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics. This distrust is so great that Russia is taking various countermeasures against the US and NATO, such as establishing new army divisions, the procurement of 50 Tu-160 bombers and SS-N-27 Sizzler cruise missiles among other things. With all this in mind why did Putin sign such an agreement with the US?
What could explain Putin’s behavior?
Firstly it should be noted that the agreement does not apply to the ‘terrorist’ groups ISIL and Jabat al-Nusra, which means that Russia will still be able to bomb these groups. Essentially this loophole enables Russia and Assad to continue their advances, especially in Aleppo, where al-Nusra is prominent. So to a certain degree Russian military action within Syria will not be greatly curtailed due to the agreement.
Notwithstanding the glaring loophole in the agreement, which is much to Putin’s advantage, there are numerous reasons why Putin may want such an agreement vis-à-vis Syria. Here are six possible explanations that seem reasonable to me.
The first explanation is that Putin could very well be content with what he has accomplished in Syria. When Russia’s military intervention started in Syria, Assad was on the verge of defeat. Today Assad is no longer threatened by imminent defeat. His situation secure and he is regaining control over Syrian territory, particularly in Aleppo province.
Since Putin has stabilized and strengthen the military situation of his proxy Assad, he may now be looking for a way out that preserves his gains. While Assad may eventually leave power, as long as Putin can assure that the new Syrian regime is in line with Russian interests, then he will have accomplished his limited goals, hence why he is interested in a peace agreement.
The second possibility is that Putin is weary of being sucked into a never ending and fiscally draining quagmire in Syria. Putin may be portrayed as crazy by Western media, but he is no lunatic. He understands that war is expensive (and his economy is in a poor situation to deal with such costs due to Western sanctions and low oil prices) and if possible he probably wishes to avoid direct conflict with NATO or Turkey. As such he could be seeking a way out before the situation worsens (although the situation seems to be improving in his favor).
The third possibility is that by signing the agreement Putin portrays himself as a responsible world leader who is attempting to end the bloodshed in Syria. The agreement may also validate Russia as a world power on par with the US, as the two nations have been negotiating as equals, and the US has been unable to bully Russia into a unilateral agreement.
This possibility is consistent with Russia’s geopolitical ideology of advancing a multipolar world where numerous world powers interact and negotiate a more or less equals, as opposed to the unipolar model, where a single superpower (i.e. the US) dictates to all other nations. The Syria agreement can be viewed as a victory, a small one, for Putin’s multipolar machinations.
The fourth explanation is that Putin does not expect the other participants in the agreement to abide by it. When Putin announced the agreement he said, “We will do whatever is necessary with Damascus, with the legitimate Syrian authorities. We are counting on the United States to do the same with its allies and the groups that it supports.”
Russia is concerned that the US “allies” (i.e. Turkey and Saudi Arabia) may intervene in Syria as they have both already indicated their willingness to do so. Although both countries have stated they will only intervene under a US lead coalition, they could possibly decide to do so unilaterally. Already the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu has stated that they are not bound by agreement if their security is threatened by Kurdish groups in Syria.
This possible scenario is taken very seriously by Russia, as they have sternly warned against the consequences of such actions. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev admonished, “the Americans and our Arab partners must consider whether or not they want a permanent war,” referring to foreign military intervention in Syria. There are also unconfirmed reports that Russia is prepared to utilized tactical nuclear weapons to repulse a large scale Turkish and Saudi invasion of Syria.
It is also likely that certain rebel groups may not abide by the agreement. There is evidence of this already happening as Ahrar ash-Sham, who are allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has stated it will not participate in the ceasefire deal, unless Jabat al-Nusra is included in it.
Putin is astute enough to realize that there is a high probability that the agreement will breakdown, not from lack of compliance from his allies Assad and Iran, but from the rebel groups and anti-Assad foreign states. By signing the agreement, he has little to lose because his enemies will likely violate it and when that happens he can go back to targeting rebel groups with renewed vigor.
Furthermore if this scenario does unfold Putin could possibly play the victim, protesting that he was attempting to bring about peace in Syria but that the opposition were not, as evinced by their actions. This could win Putin some sympathy from world public opinion, and make him look like the good guy in Syria.
The fifth possible explanation is that Putin, fearing a military intervention by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and wanting to avoid the resultant military escalation, may be attempting to forestall it through the agreement. Putin may be banking on the Americans to restrain their Turkish and Saudi allies, as with an agreement in place the American may not want to be humiliated by their rambunctious allies. The US may have secretly agreed to reign in their allies.
All of this presupposes two things. First that the Americans above all else want to avoid direct conflict with Russia in Syria and second that they are in control of their allies. To some extent both presuppositions are dubious. Pertaining to the former, we really have no clue what the US wants out of Syria. Their dithering, vacillation and ineptitude suggest they are fearful of conflict with Russia, yet they still, despite their incompetence or because of it, may be willing to confront Russia to get rid of Assad.
Numerous America officials (Ashton Carter, John Brennan etc.) have already voiced their skepticism over whether Russia will abide by the ceasefire agreement and have called for measures to “inflict real pain on the Russians.” John Kerry has stated that in case the agreement fails, that the US has “Plan B” options including the partitioning of Syria. Such talk doesn’t sound overly friendly towards Russia does it.
On the issue of whether the US has control of their allies, it appears to me that they do not. While most people view Turkey and Saudi Arabia as proxies or puppets of the US, they appear to be quite independent minded for puppets.
Saudi Arabia seems to have concluded that the US is not a reliable ally and that they have to defend their interests themselves as evinced by their uncharacteristic military intervention in Yemen. Turkey is ruled by a wannabe sultan in President Erdoğan, who doesn’t seem overly keen on playing second fiddle to Obama or Kerry. It seems that one of the problems with US foreign policy is their inability to control their allies whose foreign policy goals appear to be divergent from those of the US.
So one could argue that if Putin did in fact sign the agreement in an attempt to curry favor with the US so the latter could reign in their allies from launching a ground invasion of Syria then he may have been misguided in doing so. However, Putin has little to lose from attempting an agreement with the US on these grounds. If successful then he prevents a potential major conflagration with himself and Turkey and Saudi Arabia. If it fails, then such an outcome would have most likely occurred without the agreement.
The sixth and final explanation is one put forth by Alexander Mercouris who argues that the reason that Putin signed the agreement, which is not an actual ceasefire, is to sow division within the ranks of the disparate rebel movement. Russia is attempting to delineate “legitimate” rebel groups (FSA, etc.) from the “jihadi terrorist” groups (ISIL, al-Nusra, etc.).
Russia will not be bombing the legitimate groups but will continue to strike the jihadi ones. In this sense the agreement helps to officially sanction Russia’s and Assad’s campaign against the jihadi groups. Already the agreement appears to be working as Ahrar ash-Sham, a previous ally of the FSA, is now breaking ranks with the FSA as its wants al-Nusra to be apart of the ceasefire deal.
The situation in Syria is very muddled and it is difficult for an observer to rationalize what the participants are doing there. While we do not fully know the mind of Putin, at the very least we can work on the assumption that his mind is a geopolitically cunning and astute one. So at face value it makes little sense for Putin to agree to a “cessation of hostilities.”
However, there is no real “cessation of hostilities.” Putin will still be able to target ISIL, al-Nusra and any other group that does not abide by the agreement. Furthermore what limitations that are placed on Putin’s and Assad’s abilities to wage war against the rebel groups, have undoubtedly been considered and are most likely will be outweighed by the benefits that can be extracted from the agreement.
Exactly what Putin hopes to get out of the agreement is uncertain, but I have little doubt, that his geopolitical position will be adversely affected in any significant manner. In fact, I assume that Putin will use the agreement to expertly further and advance his interests in Syria and the Middle East. He will continue to dance circles around the inept Western and Sunni powers.
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/us-russia-jointly-set-feb-27-as-date-for-syria-cessation-of-hostilities-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95559&NewsCatID=359 , http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/syrian-civil-war-air-drops-aid-deir-az-zor-160224194355887.html
 See my previous post on the Battle of Aleppo.