The international dimension is not the main one in the Syrian civil war. But if you’re curious why the agreement reached between Russia and the US is not working, the main reason is that the Syrian crisis is low on the list of priorities for both countries.
Syria is a secondary issue for the US not because President Barack Obama's term is almost up. The current US elite is the product of the abundance and prosperity of the 1990s, and mentally they still inhabit a world of progress and technological innovation. Therefore, they see everything related to conflicts and wars, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, through the lens of the twentieth century. The US sees itself as leading the historical progress toward a globalized world and a brighter future where democracy will flourish along with liberalism and free trade, where there will be no place for a relic of the past like war.
Washington elites have not absorbed the classical European lessons of diplomacy and confrontation, and are poorly versed in the subtleties of grand strategy. They are capable of unnecessarily making enemies and of breaking what is delicate and fragile, which why US policies regularly lead to conflicts and crises. Ukraine and the Middle East, which the United States sought to lead to progress, are the most telling failures: true, they nominally have democracy, but it sure has been bloody. These examples discredit the belief that the West is leading humanity towards progress and prosperity.
That orientation toward the future means that neither Syria nor Ukraine is a vital priority for President Barack Obama. He refers to them as important, but still minor issues. In the US President’s view, new trade pacts with Europe and the Pacific countries, environmental regulations, the development of the internet and alternative sources of energy, minorities’ rights and the Global Zero campaign are what truly matter. Ukraine and Syria are secondary. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain why Obama allows the current clash of opinions within his own administration: the White House’s public statements contradict those of the Department of State, and the Pentagon disagrees with both. This is governance Obama-style – soliciting different opinions from his Cabinet, but making no final decisions, just looking to see which position plays better politically, and what the American population is more likely to support.
Obama acts situationally and relies on his instincts, which are usually good: he is refraining from significantly intervening in international conflicts and using force as sparingly as possible. What his instincts cannot provide is strategic vision – what Syria should eventually look like. He lacks the deep and fundamental strategy Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proposed for relations with the Soviet Union or China, or National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on Iraq; he lacks their dedication and their concentrated authority. As a result, his foreign policy is based on improvisation, on darting back and forth in the Syria operation. His policy is certainly shaped by his country’s painful experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Washington had invested a lot more time and effort and still never attained its goals.
In the current global configuration, full-scale cooperation between Russia and the United States is impossible, as is the case with the entire pro-American coalition, because Europeans are incapable of conducting a major independent operation with greater involvement of forces, higher costs, long-term planning and post-conflict follow-through. This league is limited to several countries, where European countries do not seem to belong: each one on its own does not qualify due to its limited resources, while all of them together cannot reach agreement.
Just like the United States, Europeans seem to be having problems with taking a realist approach to their own interests and priorities in conflicts: they were misled by the period of peace and prosperity that followed WWII, when they thought they would never face problems like today's, and certainly would never be forced to deal with them on their own.
That America’s regional allies have interfered in the Syrian crisis is further complicating the picture. Turkey continues to be a difficult partner for the West. While being a NATO country it operates independently of Brussels and Washington and makes its own decisions. Ankara regularly conducts large-scale operations in northern Iraq using tanks and aircraft without the consent of the United States. These are ostensibly anti-terrorist operations, but in reality they are directed against the Kurds. The Turks believe a potential independent Kurdish state in the border area would constitute a threat. It seems that the Turks have not coordinated the current operation in Syria with the US either. Judging by the reaction of the White House and the Pentagon, the Americans are dissatisfied with how that operation is unfolding. The US is actually urging Turkey to put an end to it.
Russia is also experiencing tensions with its allies. The Syrian government and Iran do not share Moscow's hopes for a diplomatic solution. Between them there are signs of controversy with regard to the military operation’s progress, which became especially clear in September when the Iranian Defense Minister protested the disclosure of Russia’s use of a military base in Iran to attack ISIS in Syria. According to Iranian law, no foreign country can have a military base in the country. Therefore, that part of Russian-Iranian cooperation had been carried out behind the scenes. Russian jets were refueled or serviced and flew on; Russian missiles flew over Iran. But this time the silence was broken, so the Iranian authorities said there was no such thing as unconditional cooperation between Iran and Russia, that there were rules. Domestic politics also played a role, as critical MPs had to be assuaged.
But Iran has other complaints against Russia, such as the failure to deliver S-300s and Russia’s inconsistent policy with regard to anti-Iranian sanctions. In Syria, Russia’s and Iran's interests do not fully coincide either: the Iranians believe that Moscow is too susceptible to the influence of the West. Iran, like Turkey, is certain it would be able to pursue an independent policy, and is not going to cozy up to Russia.
There is yet another reason for the failure of diplomacy, and it is rooted in Russia itself. In fact, apart from its realistic goals, Moscow has no other levers to control the situation in Syria. Russia’s immediate vital interests in Syria are limited and include disrupting the extremists’ infrastructure and preventing the export of terrorism to the CIS. Russia's military presence in the Syrian crisis is minimal, while its differences with its allies on the future of the region are serious enough, not to mention its differences with its partners/rivals – the US and its coalition.
In these circumstances, a full-scale diplomatic solution in Syria appears difficult to achieve. Russia and the United States are not the leading players in the Syrian crisis. They do not seem to want the role and they are also constrained in their actions by their allies’ interests. At this stage, the warring parties in Syria want to fight, and that desire outweighs the ability of outside powers to reconcile them.
Andrey Sushentsov is programme director at the Valdai Discussion Club and a chair of “Security and War Studies Program”.