sábado, 13 de fevereiro de 2016
Russia’s grip on Syria tightens as brittle ceasefire deal leaves US out in the cold
Russia’s grip on Syria tightens as brittle ceasefire deal leaves US out in the cold
At the peace talks in Munich and on the ground in Aleppo, two things became clear last week: Moscow was running the show and Assad’s opponents felt abandoned by Washington
Alec Luhn in Moscow, Martin Chulov in Gaziantep and Emma Graham-Harrison
Sunday 14 February 2016 00.05 GMT
Russia’s economy may be stumbling as oil prices fall, but in a week of extraordinary military and diplomatic turmoil over the war in Syria, President Vladimir Putin has proved that his global influence and ambitions have only been sharpened by financial troubles.
For now he seems to be calling all the shots in Syria’s civil war. Russian jets allowed Syrian government troops to break out of a stalemate in Aleppo, cutting supply routes into a city that has been a rebel stronghold for years.
Analysis Isis has been thwarted militarily. But now it could seize chance to advance
In Syria, Islamic State has failed to reclaim Idlib and western Aleppo, but the military landscape is changing – probably to the benefit of the extremists
With hundreds of thousands of people facing siege in the ruins of Aleppo, and Europe fearful that thousands more fleeing to the border could trigger a new influx of refugees, top diplomats gathered to agree a flimsy ceasefire deal.
Russia wrung so many concessions out of others around the table that the deal seemed more an endorsement of its role in Syria than a challenge to it. Hostilities would not stop for about two weeks and, even when they did, bombing campaigns against “terrorists” could continue.
That effectively allows Russia to continue bombing as before, since it has always claimed only to target extremists, while focusing more of its bombs on President Bashar al-Assad’s opposition than on Isis or al-Qaida’s Syrian operation, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Opposition groups have already said they cannot accept the ceasefire if it does not halt Russian airstrikes. “No negotiation can take place while Russia is bombing our people,” said a senior member of one major Islamist opposition group.
“It is a certainty that Russia will continue to attack us while claiming to target al-Nusra. They claimed that their campaign in Syria was to fight Isis but, so far, 85% to 90% of their attacks were against the moderate revolutionary groups, with a high percentage of civilian targets.”
So when Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the world’s diplomats this weekend that the ceasefire was more likely to fail than succeed, even fellow diplomats saw it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Asked by the conference moderator to say how confident he was that weapons would be put down within a week, Lavrov estimated only a 49 out of 100 hope of success. British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, sitting alongside him, was quick to point out that Lavrov’s remarks made the chance of a temporary halt to fighting “somewhere close to zero”.
“Unless Russia over the next days is going to stop, or at least significantly scale back that bombing, the moderate armed opposition will not join in this process,” Hammond said. “They cannot be expected to join in this process.”
What unfolded in Munich looks set to have put the seal on something that has become increasingly apparent over the past months. Moscow is back as a big player in the Middle East, while Washington looks humbled, a shadow of the great power that once dominated events in the region. The cold war is back, as the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said on Saturday – and for now Russia seems to be in the ascendancy.
Critics warned from the day the ceasefire was announced that Moscow had outmanoeuvred Washington and was simply using the negotiations and the deal to consolidate gains, a tactic honed by Russian forces in Ukraine.
The US may have lost more than political capital. The ceasefire risks costing them the trust of the few moderate opposition groups left on the ground, who feel abandoned by a country that promised support.
“The people that the Americans had been trying to sponsor are now targets of an enemy that bombs without mercy or discretion, and the Americans don’t have a problem with that?” said one Free Syrian Army member in Aleppo, who declined to be named. “They never deserved our trust.”
Russia, by contrast, has doubled down on Assad. Around the time Lavrov was handing down his grim prognosis for the ceasefire, a missile cruiser left the naval base in Sevastopol in Crimea. It was heading towards the Mediterranean to join the Russian fleet there, a public shoring up of an already strong military presence. Refugees who had recently fled Isis rule said that the failure to challenge Assad and Russia could even put the west’s main goal in Syria – the routing of Isis – at risk. If other opposition groups are driven out, it will shore up the claim of Isis to be champions of the country’s Sunnis. “You will not find anyone in this camp, especially those who have arrived this month, who supports Isis,” said the man, who gave his name only as Jameel. “But most of them accept that at least they tried to protect us, Syrian Sunnis, who the world has abandoned. It is very dangerous to let them fill this role. And I think the world is blind to the immorality of it.”
And despite the terror inflicted by the group, which has prompted thousands to flee, many still say they would chose rule from Raqqa over rule from Damascus.
“No matter what [Isis] does, no matter how bad they are, they are not as bad as the regime. They [the government] are the first enemy. They are why Syria is ruined, and they are why I am in this camp,” said 20-year-old Khalil Efrati, who had left his Raqqa home around three weeks earlier. “Yes, Isis are merciless and they do horrific things, but the regime does worse.”
Putin’s long-term aims are hard to assess, analysts said, in part because the Kremlin itself may not have a clear vision for Syria, beyond protecting Russian prestige and influence. The president is known as a clever tactician, rather than a strategist with a grand vision, hard-nosed in negotiations and quick to react to the situation on the ground.
Russian airstrikes in Syria
“The task of Russia is to preserve the Assad regime, not necessarily with Assad at the helm, but an acceptable regime that would protect Russian interests,” said analyst Alexei Makarkin, deputy director at the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow. “If Russia doesn’t have an ally in the Middle East and influence there, then it’s not a great power, they think.”
Moscow is haunted by memories of the Nato bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia, which led to the ousting of ally Slobodan Milošević and brought an abrupt end to its influence in the Balkans. “We don’t want to help dismantle Assad and then be told to leave, like what happened in Serbia,” Makarkin said. Reviving Assad’s campaign after months of setbacks is a show of Moscow’s power as a patron, its willingness to spend money on friends, and ability to sow problems for enemies. In practical terms it also secures the military port in Tartus, which Russia has operated since Soviet times, and its new Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, vital to Russian ability to project power in the Middle East.
Now Russia is viewed with hatred by most Sunnis, Assad would be perhaps irreplaceable as a regional ally. “He is changing the place of pieces on the board, and he’s searching for weak spots,” said analyst Masha Lipman. “I think the goal was larger, to make the world acknowledge that Russia is a strong player in the international arena, and then Russia’s possibilities change.”
Support for Assad also fits the Kremlin’s policy of opposing regime change around the world. Putin described the revolutions in post-Soviet states as western attempts to expand their influence, and argues that the Arab spring only led to bloody chaos. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Russia of planning to create a mini-state around Latakia, the Assad family’s ancestral homeland on the coast, and attacking Turkmen there.
But Russia, which is battling separatist movements at home, insists it does not want to split Syria; Assad himself in a rare recent interview also said he planned to recapture all the country, and recent advances in Aleppo make that seem more likely.
Moscow might support a restructuring that gives regions more autonomy, however, because once Assad is confirmed in power they are likely to seek some kind of long-term settlement. A “frozen war”, like the one that is destabilising Ukraine, would be expensive to maintain from a distance, and Russia sees Syria not as part of a traditional sphere of influence to be controlled at all costs, but as a site to confront the west, Lipman said.
Even if the west continues to shy away from direct confrontations, however, Russia’s dominance may not continue unchallenged.
Saudi and Emirati special forces troops are being sent to join opposition fighters on the ground, US defence secretary Ash Carter said on Friday, and Saudi Arabia is sending bombers to a Turkish airbase near the border.
Officially, the ground troops would be helping opposition groups trying to retake Raqqa from Isis, but those groups are also enemies of Assad and could be expected to turn their guns and expertise on Damascus if they are able to storm the Isis capital.
Turkey last year shot down a Russian jet that strayed into its airspace, and Medvedev called for Russia and the west to step up cooperation. “We have fallen into a new cold war,” he told the Munich conference. That may be underestimating the dangers, one Nato member and staunch US ally warned.
“We are probably facing a hot war,” Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė told the conference. “Russia is demonstrating open military aggression in Ukraine, open military aggression in Syria. There is nothing cold about this; it is very hot.”