Here’s How that Trump-Putin Ceasefire in Syria Is Working Out
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Is it good for the US? What about Moscow? An expert breaks down the biggest actual policy to come out of the Trump-Putin bromance so far.
On Sunday, President Trump boasted on Twitter that a freshly-inked Syrian ceasefire brokered at the G20 summit in Germany would "save lives." Later in the day, he checked back in to note that the ceasefire "seems to be holding." In his own Trumpian way, the prez was advertising to the world that he’d successfully struck a bilateral deal that might already be preventing bloodshed. This would be an early foreign policy win for any president, much less a reality TV star with next to no experience on the world stage.
But from a strategy standpoint, it’s not clear that the United States is getting anything out of the arrangement. The product of the first face-to-face meetings between self-styled Deal-master Trump and the notoriously fickle Russian president he seems to admire, Vladimir Putin, the deal did seem to largely endure through Monday—at least officially. That may be good news from a humanitarian standpoint. But for one thing, as an anonymous State Department official told the New York Times, the agreement represents "at best, a modest advance in ending the conflict." For another, according to Buzzfeed News, the Pentagon hasn’t been told much of anything about keeping tabs on the three provinces of the new "de-escalation zone" in Southwest Syria, Daraa, Sweida and Quneitra, to make sure the ceasefire is actually being honored.
To find out what reasonable expectations are for this deal, and whether it might last any longer than the various ceasefires that preceded it, I got on the phone with Omar Lamrani, an analyst at the military forecasting firm Stratfor. He refreshed my memory on how we got here, and explained what to watch for in the weeks to come. If you’re feeling optimistic, this ceasefire could be a real step toward peace in post-ISIS Syria.
Or, Lamrani cautioned, it may not achieve anything at all.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: Can we rewind to what happened after the previous ceasefire in 2016? Why didn’t that work out?
Omar Lamrani: The Russians, alongside the Iranians, continued to strengthen loyalist forces. And we saw a heavy US focus on the Islamic State. Now we have—over the last few months—a greater danger of Russian collisions with the United States, just because the battlefield is moving towards the East. Therefore, [there’s] a greater need to re-look at ceasefire or collaboration attempts, or just attempts to stabilize the situation in Syria before it’s too late in terms of Russian- and Iranian-backed loyalist forces getting too close to the US and interfering in battlefield operations in the East. [There’s also] the desire to come up with an end stage for the conflict, as the conventional phase of the battle against ISIS reaches its endgame.
Alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign was hanging over the G20 meeting. Did Putin con or somehow manipulate Trump into agreeing to this thing?
This deal is not about Trump walking into that room, and Putin ambushing him with this deal, and him taking it. It’s more complicated than that, because, remember, the United States was negotiating about this specific area for months before the G20. Jordan was talking very closely with Israel about this issue, and so the United States—and not only Trump—was moving towards this deal, and they even had a plan, and were waiting for the G20 to announce it together, essentially. The Syrian government even announced a bunch of ceasefires as trial runs in this region leading up to this announcement.
Why was this in the US interest? Or was it?
The United States is looking to elevate the discussion with Russia to something more meaningful, something that involves stabilization efforts, attempting to curtail the Syrian Civil War, and thinking about what happens post-IS. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy at all because the United States does need to move beyond just thinking about IS. Honestly, if you defeat IS, but you don’t have a meaningful solution to the Syrian crisis, or at least a stabilizing effort, then there’s always going to be the space for all sorts of extremists to pop up again, as we’ve seen in Iraq.
OK, and why did Russia want this?
This specific region was part of the four areas designated by the Astana [peace] process [which excluded the US] as one of the four Syrian de-escalation zones between Iran, Turkey, and Russia. And what happened was, the Israelis, the Americans, and the Jordanians have a lot of interest in this specific zone, just because it lies next to Israel and Jordan. So this area was divorced from the Astana process and taken from the Astana process and put in a special category of negotiation between Russia, the United States, Jordan, and Israel. So it’s not part of the Astana process anymore. It’s a separate process that brings the United States into the negotiation.
Is there anything Trump maybe wasn’t considering? He has a reputation for just agreeing with whoever he’s in the room with.
There’s a reality to the criticism that the US and perhaps Trump himself are being naive when they approach the Russians to do this. Multiple efforts in the past with the Russians [have failed] because the Russians have proved untrustworthy, and there’s a serious argument to be made that Russia lacks the influence that it claims to have over Iranian and Syrian forces. There’s also the question of whether supporting the Russians who want [President Bashar Al-] Assad to be recognized is a good strategy, given that Assad remaining in power will cement dissent and conflict in the country for the foreseeable future. So yes, there’s plenty to criticize, but the idea of trying to find ways to stabilize the conflict is not necessarily a bad one.
So how’s this ceasefire working out so far?
It’s not looking too great to begin with. The ceasefire began on Sunday, and the first 24 hours were relatively peaceful. There weren’t that many major infractions. But in the last 24 hours, the [regime] loyalists launched a major offensive, and managed to take over approximately 3,000 square kilometers of terrain—which is a very significant amount by Syrian standards—in part of the ceasefire area.
This is pretty undeveloped terrain in the east of the province, right?
More of the undeveloped terrain—that’s correct. More villages and stuff, but mostly sparsely populated terrain.
So wait, is Assad in clear violation of the ceasefire already?
I think the loyalists, and Damascus—the Assad regime—I think they’re trying to pay lip service to the ceasefire agreement, because when they launched this offensive, they essentially stated that this was an offensive against the Islamic State. Well, the problem is there are no Islamic State fighters in this specific area they attacked. So there’s an effort to act as if they are observing the ceasefire, which we’ve seen in all previous cases of ceasefires: both sides sort of say they’re abiding by the ceasefire. But in practice they’re really not. This is one of those cases. That’s one of the big constraints with working with Russia: unlike Iran and the Syrian government, Russia appears to want an exit strategy from the conflict.
Wait. Russia wants to leave Syria?
Not an exit from the country itself. Russia is very keen on maintaining a presence in Syria—air bases, ports—essentially just to remain in the country. But they do want to move away from a conflict that seems to have no end in sight. It’s just not an area of existential interest to the Russians, while, for the Syrian government and the Iranians, it’s a different case. They’re very much going for total victory. They understand it’s going to take a long time. They understand that it’s going to involve a lot of casualties and a heavy price. But they are willing to go for that maximum victory because, obviously, for the Syrian government it’s absolutely of existential importance. And for the Iranians, where they perceive themselves to be stuck in a regional power conflict with the Saudis, the Syrian battlefield is absolutely of critical importance.
It sounds like one benefit of better US-Russian relations, if we have them, is that the US could try and get Russia to influence Iran and Syria in ways that benefits American interests. Would that be a good strategy for Trump?
The difficulty is that Russia has influence over the Syrian government, and has influence over Iran to a certain extent, but that influence is not exhaustive. [The Russians] aren’t able to just tell the Iranians and the Syrian government to abide by the ceasefire and expect that they will. It doesn’t really work that way. They can pressure them to. They can coerce them to. But there are going to be cases where ceasefires are going to be violated, and the question becomes: how do you deal with that?
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