Russia, US agree ‘no military solution’ in Syria. So what’s next?
After meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, the presidents of the United States and Russia issued a statement that noted there was “no military solution” in Syria.
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed their determination to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and expressed satisfaction with enhanced de-confliction efforts between their military professionals. That collaboration has “dramatically accelerated ISIS’s losses on the battlefield in recent months,” their statement, issued November 11, said.
However, the most significant part of the statement was their agreement on pursuing a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The “ultimate” solution, they said, “must be forged through the Geneva process.”
It is a measure of the statement’s importance that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately posted the text of the joint declaration on its website in both Russian and English. The US State Department also posted the statement online.
Russia and the United States have wildly divergent views on Syria and these remain significant. Those positions were in evidence five days after the declaration from Vietnam, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressing surprise over US Defence Secretary James Mattis’s remarks about US armed forces in Syria. He said they were there “with the permission of the United Nations,” she complained, but the UN Security Council had not authorised their presence.
“The US forces are there contrary to the wishes of Syria’s legitimate government and are in fact acting as occupiers,” Zakharova stressed.
The divergence in views goes much further.
While Trump waxes enthusiastically about collaborating with Putin on a political solution to the long-running conflict, his administration has done little to advance peace or to assist preparations for a post-war Syria. Far from it. Along with Sudan and Iran, Syria remains on the US State Department’s state sponsor of terrorism list. This leaves Syria liable for punishing international sanctions.
Russian policy could not be more divergent, incorporating a deep element of regional pragmatism and realpolitik that is conspicuously absent from US Middle East initiatives. On November 20, a surprise meeting took place between Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Sochi, Russia. Two days later, Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Sochi as well. Speaking at a news conference alongside his guests, Putin said a “new stage” had been reached in the Syrian crisis but that achieving a political solution would require compromise on all sides, including from the Syrian government.
If further proof was needed that Russia was pursuing an independent foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, the day of the Sochi tripartite summit saw Sudan’s president head to Moscow. Omar al-Bashir, whose country is under sanctions while he is subject to an Interpol warrant, had set off on a four-day official visit to Russia.
It is worth remembering that September 30 was the second anniversary of Moscow’s intervention in Syria at Assad’s request. The Russian action came at a time Washington was insisting Assad must go. The campaign changed the course of the war, helping Syrian forces liberate more than 90% of the country’s territory from ISIS.
Even now, though Moscow says it agrees with Washington on the futility of a military solution, Russian forces continue operations in support of the Assad regime. The Russian Ministry of Defence has reported that six Tu-22M3 strategic bombers struck ISIS targets on the western bank of the Euphrates in Deir ez-Zor province.
The eighth round of UN-backed Syria peace talks began November 29 in Geneva. As Washington falters in the region, Putin increasingly seems to be in the driver’s seat. “Mission nearly accomplished,” was Putin’s message following his meeting with Assad in Sochi.
Given Putin’s consistent diplomatic and military efforts on behalf of the Assad regime, one can only wonder what Washington does next.