Russia Won’t Negotiate before Aleppo Falls to the Regime

Before US Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to travel to Switzerland and London last weekend for discussions on the Syrian crisis, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner was crystal clear that people should not expect anything much from the meetings. In hindsight, he was right: the discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Lausanne and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London did not amount to much of anything other than more condemnation of bad Russian behavior and a vagueness by Kerry that some new ideas were broached. What those new ideas were, however, have not been disclosed.

The civil war in Syria is complicated and multifaceted not only because of the various pro and anti-government militias on the ground and the foreign interests involved, but because the diplomacy is immensely difficult. Washington and Moscow both seem to acknowledge that the conflict cannot be resolved through the use of force alone and that only a diplomatic settlement will quell the killing. Yet, US and Russian officials have not discovered a modality to accomplish an objective that every outside party immersed in the conflict claims to want: a durable ceasefire between the Assad regime and moderate opposition fighters, leading to the re-establishment of UN-facilitated peace talks among the warring parties.

Secretary Kerry’s energy and determination aside—both of which he has shown in abundance in dealing with his Russian counterpart—the simple reality of the situation is that Moscow at the present time is not interested in a long-term ceasefire.

The Russian veto of a French and Spanish-drafted Security Council resolution, which demanded a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo and the grounding of all aerial missions (kinetic and non-kinetic alike) over the city for an indeterminate amount of time, should have provided US officials with all of the evidence that they needed of Russia’s sincerity. Indeed, the visions of the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo between the west and Russia do not correlate. What the US, the European Union, and the Arab states see as one of the most disgusting and savage humanitarian catastrophes of this century, the Russians have consistently framed as a counterterrorism mission that would be its most significant tactical victory since its intervention.

Public statements from Russian officials about the need to get back to the negotiating table and the unilateral announcements of temporary ceasefires are consistently made null and void by the Kremlin’s own actions. As Syria observers on this blog and elsewhere have long assessed, Bashar al-Assad would not have been able to surround East Aleppo or make advances in the suburbs of Damascus if it were not for the overwhelming air power that Russian pilots have provided to a Syrian army that is overstretched and depleted. At this point in the war, the Assad regime is completely reliant on foreign forces to buttress its position on the ground and maintain control along the Damascus-Homs corridor.

If Russia was truly serious about halting the bloodshed in Aleppo or at least significantly decreasing the pace of operations, they have the power to do it. The fact that they have chosen to continue the bombing rather than heed US and European calls to show some humanity and decency is all the evidence that officials in Washington, London, and Paris need to come to an obvious conclusion: on Aleppo, Moscow is all-in.

It is for this reason why any new diplomatic initiative that Secretary Kerry and his European partners attempt to establish with the Russians before the Aleppo operation concludes will meet the same, unproductive and gridlocked conclusion. It also explains why last weekend’s talks in Switzerland ended without any agreement other than a willingness to talk about the situation yet again. Expecting or anticipating that Russia would negotiate seriously before the fall of Aleppo—an event that would grant Moscow additional leverage at the table to frame a possible political settlement more to its liking—seems to be a complete misunderstanding of how international diplomacy works.

After months of fruitless talks, the United States and United Kingdom may finally be coming around to the idea that Russia has no intention of cooperating on a prospective halt to the bloodshed. Both Western countries rejected the Russia’s recent offer of an eight-hour “pause” in air strikes in Aleppo as sufficient for starting a new round of talks. The UN added that more than eight hours would be needed to get aid workers into the city, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, “The reality is that no such proposal can conceivably be made to work in the absence of a cessation of hostilities by the Russians and the Assad regime. That is the precondition. A durable and convincing ceasefire must be delivered by the Assad regime before any such proposal can conceivably be made to work.”

The US and UK challenging Russia’s intentions is too little and too late. Russia has no incentive to restrain themselves at a time when the battle is going in its direction and when they can expect a relatively lackluster Western response. Perhaps after regime forces take Aleppo, or what is left of it after the heavy bombardment, it will offer a more serious ceasefire. However, at that point it will hold all the cards, and there will be little to negotiate over.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French President Francois Hollande and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault attend a meeting on the situation in Syria at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, October 20, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev via REUTERS