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Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts as he attends a news conference after a meeting with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow, 23 March 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia’s Choice in Syria

Many questions surround Moscow’s surprise announcement of a force reduction in Syria. Yet it clearly enhanced Russia’s leverage over the regime and provided a much-needed dose of credibility to the nascent political process. Avoiding further regional unravelling and spiralling radicalisation, however, and pushing the conflict toward an initial settlement will require further adjustments in Russia's strategy, including addressing the Assad conundrum.

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I. Overview

In announcing Moscow’s intent to withdraw the “main part“ of the military assets that it deployed to Syria since last September, President Vladimir Putin again caught much of the world off-guard, this time allies and adversaries alike. Having decla­red victory while maintaining its war-fighting capacity in Syria, Russia has left key questions unanswered: will it actually reduce its military role and, if so, to what extent, where and against whom. But if it implements the announcement in a meaningful way, this could create the best opportunity in years to push the conflict toward an initial settlement, especially on the heels of Moscow’s decision to help implement a “cessation of hostilities”.

This much is clear: Putin’s announcement underlined crucial points distinguishing Russian aims from those of the Assad regime and enhanced Moscow’s leverage over Damascus. It also, for the moment at least, increased Russia’s investment in the fledgling, fragile political process it is co-sponsoring with the U.S.

This much is unclear: having battered Syria’s non-jihadist rebels nearly to the brink of defeat but not over it, what sort of political and military arrangements will Moscow seek? Will it aim to cement battlefield gains, while maintaining a less aggressive posture in the hope that reduced violence will encourage the U.S. to drop any active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and to increase coordination with Moscow against jihadist groups? This option is consistent with Russia’s general approach to the conflict, but would entail an open-ended military commitment, offer little prospect of improved stability and possibly play to the jihadists’ advantage.

Alternatively, will Moscow push for a more robust settlement that has a chance of stabilising the country – at least those parts the regime and non-jihadist rebels control? That would require an additional, political outlay: most importantly, delinking its own interests in Syria from the person of Assad – and, ultimately, convincing Iran to do the same. If Moscow wishes to avoid further regional unravelling and spiraling radicalisation, this is an investment worth making.

Istanbul/New York/Brussels, 29 March 2016

A United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivering aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in Eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years, on 30 July 2017. AFP/Amer Almohibany

Russia Should Go Beyond Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

Russia’s proposal for humanitarian corridors for Eastern Ghouta and Rukban camp have little chance of mitigating suffering there. Instead, Moscow should push for a negotiated resolution of Eastern Ghouta through UN Security Council Resolution 2401 and secure normal aid agency access to Rukban, thereby enhancing its credibility as a mediator.

Syria’s civilians have suffered tremendously through the country’s seven years of conflict. Now, as the Syrian government and its allies prepare to retake Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburbs, hundreds of thousands will be caught in the crossfire once more. The humanitarian corridors announced by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for Eastern Ghouta, and proposed for the Rukban camp on the border with Jordan further east, are unlikely to substantially mitigate that suffering.

To be sure, any means for civilians to safely and voluntarily escape the violence in besieged Eastern Ghouta is positive and welcome. But the corridor announced unilaterally by Russia and the Syrian government through the Wafideen camp lacks the sort of guarantees that would allow Ghouta’s nearly 400,000 residents to use it or other concerned parties, including UN Security Council members, to endorse it.

First of all, residents would have to be able to reach the corridor without fear of being targeted en route. Daily ceasefires of five hours, still punctured by intermittent shelling, are too narrow a window. Prior experience with Syrian ceasefires has generated a deep sense of distrust. It would take quite some time without any violations for people to trust that this one is different. These five-hour windows also fall short of the cessation of hostilities and durable humanitarian pause demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which Russia supported.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation.

People in Eastern Ghouta also harbour a deep-seated fear of what would happen to them once they reach government-controlled territory. Compulsory military service for male family members is a concern regardless of political orientation. Retaliation by the security state is a threat for anyone who has – or whose loved ones have – a record of opposition to the regime. In Eastern Ghouta, that may include nearly everyone.

Thus, for most, an unconditional return to areas of government control is not a safe or realistic option, as evidenced by the miniscule numbers who left thus far. State media have claimed that the armed groups prevent people from leaving, holding them as human shields for all practical purposes. Such accounts are impossible to verify, but without credible guarantees, little if any coercion would be required to prevent departures.

Rather than saving lives, the corridor may even serve as a cover for further military escalation. As time elapses, the argument will gain ground that those still inside are either in cahoots with, or held back by, insurgents – with the implication that neither government forces nor their Russian allies are to blame for casualties from shelling and bombing the densely populated area indiscriminately.

Eastern Ghouta requires a negotiated resolution, not a military victory that would be disastrous – for Ghouta’s residents first and foremost, but also for Syria’s future. Hundreds of thousands of people cannot be crushed militarily and then successfully reintegrated into Syria’s state and society. A non-violent alternative is possible: Russia has negotiated with Eastern Ghouta’s non-jihadist rebel factions in the past. For Moscow, these are known interlocutors, with whom it is possible to reach an agreement.

Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community ... rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Rukban’s situation is different. With no fighting ongoing in the area, residents there can leave the U.S.-policed zone around the Tanaf military base and return to their homes, no corridor needed. It is just that these homes are not safe. Last year, hundreds of Rukban residents returned to the town of Qaryatein near Homs, only to have the Islamic State (ISIS) overrun the town and massacre its civilians. Most of Rukban’s current residents are from Syria’s central Badiya desert and the country’s east, areas where ISIS has been defeated but which are not yet sufficiently secured. They would also need clarifications regarding their legal status when they return to areas of state control.

In the meantime, more should be done to deliver humanitarian assistance. Delivering aid across military lines from Damascus presents special challenges, including coordination with the U.S.-led coalition through de-confliction channels and with U.S.-backed militias inside the Tanaf zone. Still, Russia should work to secure Damascus’s approval for what would be a critical humanitarian lifeline to this community – a community the U.S. and Jordan have mostly failed to aid via the Jordanian border – rather than declaring an evacuation corridor that is unnecessary.

Humanitarian corridors as proposed by Russia do not offer solutions for either Eastern Ghouta or Rukban. Yet both areas present opportunities for Russia to work toward something genuinely stabilising and life-saving, if Russia is willing to sway its ally in Damascus. Pushing for a full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which could provide an opening for a negotiated resolution in Eastern Ghouta, and securing humanitarian access to Rukban would greatly enhance Russia’s credibility as a mediator in Syria and, critically, spare more bloodshed.

This article was also published by the Valdai Discussion Club.