By: Larry Harris, Jr.
On September 9 of last year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, took to the stage side-by-side in Geneva to announce a landmark agreement on a cessation of hostilities (CoH) in war-torn Syria. The agreement, taking effect September 12, would begin with a seven-day reduction of violence and unrestricted access to humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria, most notably Aleppo. The Syrian government was also prepared to cooperate with the provisions of the agreement as Lavrov confirmed.
The CoH was not based on trust, Kerry cautioned, but if all parties adhere to the deal’s provisions, this could be a significant first step in repairing the damaged U.S.-Russian relationship and ending the five and half-year Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, certain events overtook the CoH.
On September 17, five days after the CoH entered into force, the U.S. admitted to wrongly targeting Syrian government forces in airstrikes intended for ISIS in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. The strikes killed 62 Syrian troops and left 100 more wounded.
September 19, the government of Bashar al-Assad declared an end to the CoH. Minutes after the CoH’s collapse, airstrikes executed by either Syrian or Russian (the opposition does not have aircraft) airplanes attacked a UN aid convoy of 31 trucks, the first convoy to attempt to reach besieged areas as outlined in the CoH. The attack was marked by the deadly ‘double tap’ method employed by Syrian and Russian pilots, which strikes convoys and vehicles first, allows for rescue workers to come to the aid of the wounded, and circles back for another round of strikes meant to decimate those that survived and tending to the wounded.
Kerry quickly declared the CoH was not dead despite Assad’s claims to the contrary and said he would defer to Russia to hold Assad responsible for violating the CoH. Russia challenged Kerry’s position, arguing that it would be “senseless” for the Syrian government to respect a CoH that was being routinely violated by the opposition (despite the Syrian government having violated it themselves).
The diplomatic jousting ended with a collapse of the CoH and a resumption of daily bombings in Aleppo and other cities in Syria, including Idlib, where at least 35 children and teachers were killed when a series of airstrikes hit their school.
The CoHs (the first of which took effect in February) have primarily benefited Assad and Russia, top Pentagon officials have privately expressed. Syrian and Russian government forces used the February CoH to regroup and pummel opposition fighters in rebel strongholds, particularly in Aleppo where clashes between the regime and opposition have intensified in recent months. Civilians in Aleppo, the focal point of the near six-year conflict, are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as resources become increasingly scarce and airstrikes continue to destroy critical infrastructure.
When taking stock of the state of affairs in Syria, clearly diplomacy is failing. The United States’ failure to acquire any sort of consequential leverage has left Russia well-positioned to leverage terms of any future agreement, with few options for American enforcement of its potential provisions.
The U.S. has had to depend on two unconventional factors to guide it through the Syrian negotiations: 1). goodwill on the part of Russia; and 2). Kerry’s personal character and resolve. Speaking to the former point, Russia has had over a year to demonstrate good intentions in Syria—as it originally asserted before formally entering the conflict in a combat role—saying it was there to root out ISIS and “other terrorists.” Here, Russia falls short with alleged airstrikes against civilians hospitals and aid convoys, coupled with an October veto at the UN Security Council—the only veto from a Permanent Security Council member—on a French and Spanish draft resolution calling for an end of airstrikes and war crimes in Syria.
To the latter point, importantly, Kerry enjoys a close working relationship with Lavrov, reportedly speaking with him multiple times a week. Kerry can arguably be credited as the main reason U.S.-Russia relations have not completely soured in this period of heightened tensions between the former Cold War rivals. However, no matter how chummy the two Foreign Ministers may be, Lavrov still answers to Moscow, which has made its Syria policy abundantly clear.
Unfortunately, Kerry was sent into a diplomatic gunfight armed with a butter knife and expected to emerge victorious. Without leverage during these discussions, President Putin and Assad will do little more than pay lip service. This was the subject of the State Department dissent memo, signed by dozens of U.S. diplomats, arguing that the U.S. must execute military strikes against the Assad regime in order to force earnest negotiations from their side.
There is not a military solution to Syria: escalating the current colossal scale of violence will not produce the desired results and may expand the war beyond its current scope. It is, however, naïve to dismiss the merits of principled diplomacy backed by a credible threat of force.
For the Syrian people, time is rapidly running out. The World Health Organization recently declared (after another round of hospital attacks) that the hospitals in Aleppo are unable to provide care. If the international community continues to sit on its hands as it has done for nearly six years, there will not be anything or anyone left to save.
Larry Harris, Jr. is a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow at the U.S. Department of State. He is currently a second-year graduate student at American University School of International Service. He tweets at @LarryOrnez.