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US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

  • Heather Murdock

Men try to put out a fire at a market hit by air strikes in Idlib city, Syria June 12, 2016.

Men try to put out a fire at a market hit by air strikes in Idlib city, Syria June 12, 2016.

A month after Russian-backed Syrian forces re-took the ancient city of Palmyra last spring, a renowned Russian orchestra came to town.

In the heart of arguably the world’s most gruesome warzone, the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra played Prokofiev and Bach in the same Roman theatre that Islamic State had made a killing ground.

It was a moment that shed light on the complexity of the war. Both Russia and the U.S.-led coalition are fighting Islamic State. But Russia supports the Syrian government, while the U.S. supports rebel groups fighting both the government and Islamic State.

For the U.S., the concert in Palmyra celebrated the defeat of an enemy - IS. It also celebrated the victory of an enemy of U.S. allies - the Syrian government. In Syria, the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend.

Russia's Mariinsky Theatre performs at the amphitheatre of the Syrian city of Palmyra, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA, May 5, 2016.

Russia's Mariinsky Theatre performs at the amphitheatre of the Syrian city of Palmyra, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA, May 5, 2016.

To add to the complexity, Washington is allied with Saudi Arabia, and Russia with Saudi foe Iran.

Having a mutual enemy and mutually exclusive allies, Russia and United States are sharing operational space and airspace. Pundits on both sides are calling for aggression.

Last week, Russia dropped cluster bombs on rebel soldiers allied with the U.S., prompting an outcry from Washington. Moscow then complained that the U.S. had not provided enough information about the locations of American-allied militant groups versus those groups considered terrorist organizations.

As the tussle continues, some analysts say that both the U.S. and Russia may be vying for power, but neither would actually benefit from a fight. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has declined direct battle with Assad partially due to the danger of escalation, according to Gulf State Analytics founder Giorgio Cafiero.

“A host of factors have contributed to the White House’s reluctance to wage direct military action against the Syrian Arab Army. These include the dangerous risks of a Russian response,” he said.

Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London who also works with the Qatar Armed Forces, said the Russians are a more aggressive actor in Syria in general, but their actions are calculated to create the image of a power-position, not an actual battle.

“They would never take the risk of having a direct confrontation with the U.S. and the West,” he said.

Friends with your enemies

In modern days, the term "Third World" is generally used to describe poor countries.

But in its Cold War origin, Third World countries were those not allied with the First World under the U.S.’s sphere of influence or the Second World influenced by the Soviet Union.

Khalifa Gaballah, the foreign affairs editor at Almasry Alyoum, a prominent Egyptian newspaper, said in the Middle East, where some U.S. allies are angry and some U.S. enemies are slowly looking more like friends, this paradigm - where a country is either with Russia or with the U.S. - appears to be re-emerging.

Russia, allied with Iran, is becoming more involved in the region, and the U.S., allied with rival Saudi Arabia, is trying to avoid greater engagement in Middle East conflicts.

“You feel like an international change is happening,” he said.

Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18, 2016.

Russian military jets are seen at Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18, 2016.

Gaballah added the U.S.’s new relationship with Iran is complicating its alliance with Saudi Arabia. The Iran nuclear deal is fragile and the Obama administration risks losing a hard-won diplomatic victory if it comes into conflict with Iran in Syria by attacking Assad's army.

As a result, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, while on the same side in Syria, do not see eye to eye. Saudi Arabia has taken a firm stance against the Syrian government, saying they will under no circumstances accept an Assad-led Syria because, they say, it would threaten their sovereignty.

The U.S. has suggested a compromise, like keeping the Assad government, but with a different figurehead.

“The Obama Administration and the Al Saud rulers have had major disagreements about the Syrian crisis,” said Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics.

The Leak

The document that revived the posturing in both the U.S. and Russia was a State Department memo last week, signed by 51 employees, many of who worked closely on Syria policy.

The letter called on the Obama administration to fight Assad directly, and not limit force to fighting Islamic State. “Assad’s systematic violations against the Syrian people are the root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region,” reads the leaked note.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and United Nations special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) attend the ministerial meeting on Syria in Vienna, Austria, May 17, 2016.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and United Nations special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) attend the ministerial meeting on Syria in Vienna, Austria, May 17, 2016.

However, Yan St-Pierre of Berlin-based security firm MOSECON suggested that note, along with the Russian outrage that ensued, may be more of a diplomatic ploy than an actual call to battle . He said if the Syrian War is to end with peace talks, one side will have to back down on the question of the Assad regime.

“Leaks are never released out of the goodness of their hearts. For proper negotiations, especially of that kind, you need a bit of saber-rattling,” he said.

“Saber rattling,” he explained, demonstrates to competing negotiators that the player is capable and willing to use force to back its position.

However, Krieg from King’s College London said even as the United Nations looks towards reviving peace talks next month, the Syria War is not expected to end soon.

“We are far away from any national dialogue, from any state building or nation-building in Syria. It’s mostly about finding a military solution to these problems,” he said.

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