Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria in September was a bold move and, it seems now, a shrewd one. It has shored up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, boosted Russia’s own standing, given it leverage at the peace talks and made it a critical partner with the United States.
All of that may make coming up with a resolution to the Syrian civil war easier.
Putting President al-Assad on notice that he cannot expect Russia to help him indefinitely, President Vladimir Putin announced Monday that Russia would be withdrawing most of its forces from Syria. The drawdown puts pressure on Bashar al-Assad to negotiate seriously with Syrian rebels. News from Beirut that some Hezbollah forces may also be withdrawing from Syria is, if true, another auspicious occurrence.
Indirect peace talks to resolve the Syrian civil war resumed in Geneva on Monday just hours before Mr. Putin’s surprise announcement. With the United States and Russia now choosing to cooperate with each other, there are new grounds for hope that some progress can be achieved. A ceasefire negotiated in February seems to be holding, and U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has been able to convene in Geneva all of the international backers of the various forces in Syria.
Mr. de Mistura noted that unlike when Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, his predecessors as U.N. envoy to Syria, tried to negotiate peace, there is now agreement in the U.N. Security Council. That is a critical difference, as is the presence in Geneva of all parties to the conflict, including Iran.
Proposals for a federal, decentralized Syria are said to be gaining currency among some Western diplomats. Syria’s unity as a state would be maintained but different regions would be given broad autonomy. A chief sticking point seems to be the future of President al-Assad, with Saudi Arabia, the United States and other countries supporting rebel forces insisting he has to go and Russia and Iran, backers of the regime, maintaining that his role in the country should be left to the Syrian people themselves.
Syria is already effectively divided between territory held by the government, by ISIS, by other opposition forces and by Western-supported Kurds. The Kurds in Syria control about 400 kilometers along the Syrian border with Turkey, and Syria’s main Kurdish party, the P.Y.D., just recently declared the formation of a federal region called Rojava in northern Syria that will string together three Kurdish enclaves. (The unilateral decision has been denounced by both the government and a main opposition group.)
With millions of Syrians living as refugees outside their country and others continuing to leave as the war drags on with no end in sight, the refugee flow from the conflict is threatening to destabilize neighboring countries and is tearing apart the European Union. The crisis is so severe that outside actors fomenting war there may be under pressure to stop. Let a problem get enormous enough, and people may finally realize they need to address it. Too bad it wasn’t years ago.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has been a game changer. Before Russian forces began air strikes, Syrian government forces were severely weakened. But Russia was able to pound the proxy armies of the Gulf Arab states in Syria, including Saudi and Turkish forces. It has strengthened the position of the Syrian government, enabling it to cut off the resupply routes for those proxy forces in Jordan and Turkey, and it put in place air defense batteries near the northwest border of the country to prevent Turkish air incursions. “These batteries will not be removed. They are monuments to the new reality,” reports Vijay Prashad, professor of international relations at Trinity College in Hartford, Ct., in a helpful account of how that new reality came about.
Just as important, unable to counter Russia, the United States has been forced to accept Russia as essential to a solution in Syria. The two are no longer working at cross-purposes.
Formidable obstacles to a peace agreement lie ahead, not least the fractured nature of the opposition, which in December formed the High Negotiating Committee. But the only alternative, as Mr. de Mistura has warned, is further war. The cost of the Syrian conflict may have grown so high that peace does really have a chance.