Munich deal on Syria favours Russian objectives

Analysis: US co-operation means humanitarian aid can be delivered, and ceasefires may hold

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry  in Munich. Photograph: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry in Munich. Photograph: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

 

The Munich agreement reached early on Friday by 17 countries belonging to the Syria support group specified that immediate humanitarian access is to be granted to besieged areas in urgent need and that a task force will by next Friday prepare for a nationwide cessation of hostilities, excluding by the jihadist groups Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Although this formula allows for the continuation by Russia and the US-coalition of the battle against these two groups, deemed “terrorist” by the United Nations, the formula favours Russia.

Aid convoys are to be conducted by the UN and international aid agencies that are to ensure vehicles do not carry weapons and munitions to western- and Arab-backed insurgents fighting the government supported by Moscow.

Furthermore, Russia can continue heavy bombing of sites occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, which has scattered fighters across Syria, while the US and its partners carry out token strikes against Islamic State – also known as Isis – which is concentrated in the Raqqa and Deir al-Zor regions.

Consequently, Russia can continue providing air cover for government advances against insurgents, including in the Aleppo, Deraa and Idlib regions, where Nusra operates with anti-government armed groups supported by the west and Arab allies. In practice, it remains to be seen if this will happen once the cessation of hostilities is declared.

Political transition

Russia seeks, above all, to end the war and the threat of chaotic regime change that could destroy Syria. US analyst Gareth Porter argues that the US has, in recent months, adopted this objective.

The coming together on the need to halt the war is a positive development and could mean aid will be delivered to Syrians in need, local ceasefires could take hold, and talks could resume in Geneva.

Both Moscow and Washington want to see Syria emerge as a unified secular, pluralistic state where all confessions and ethnicities are respected. While the US seeks the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia argues that his fate can be discussed when the war is over.

Once there are ceasefires between the government and local “rebels”, who form the majority of opposition fighters (and have been more amenable than foreigners to agreeing to truces), Russia and the US can focus their firepower on Islamic State in Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, and across the border in Iraq.

For months, Moscow has been calling for Washington to co-operate in the battle against Islamic State. Russia has a far more serious motive than the US for fighting the terrorist group: Moscow must contend with some 4,700 Islamic State and Nusra recruits from the Russian Federation’s restive Muslim republics.

Recruits and refugees

Europe

For Russia, Syria is a long-term ally and unique military asset. In 1971 Russia opened its maritime service base at the Syrian port of Tartus, a key facility for the Russian Mediterranean fleet. At the end of September 2015, Russia acquired an airfield near the northern port of Latakia. Moscow has deployed aircraft, troops, and missile defences, carried out several thousand air strikes against insurgent targets and provided air cover for Syrian army units seeking to regain towns, villages and countryside lost to insurgent forces.

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