Latest Syria Ceasefire is Exactly What Putin Wanted
Moscow, the July 7 meeting between President Trump and Russian President
Vladimir Putin in Hamburg was another opportunity to score public relations
points. And Putin did just that. In the U.S. press, much ado was made about the
post-meeting spins about the exchange on Russian election meddling. But while
this issue is very important, Putin's real accomplishment was the announcement
upon the meeting's conclusion of a U.S., Russian, and Jordanian ceasefire
agreement in southwest Syria.
ceasefire was the only tangible result of the Trump-Putin meeting, and it was
exactly what Putin wanted: to showcase U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria. The
appearance of working with the U.S. helps Putin because it allows him to project
Russia's image as a great power, and thus distract the Russian public and help
secure his regime's survival.
at a press conference the day after the meeting, Putin characterized the
ceasefire agreement as a breakthrough. In his view, the U.S. position in Syria
became "more pragmatic," and while it seemingly didn't change,
"there is an understanding that by joining efforts we can achieve a lot.
And the result is yesterday's [Syria ceasefire] agreement."
for its part, welcomed the deal, according to Russian press reports. Iran's
Foreign Ministry spokesman said the ceasefire would be "more useful"
if it could apply to the rest of Syria and noted that Iranian diplomats
communicate regularly with Moscow.
track record during the previous four failed ceasefire agreements in Syria
provides little grounds for optimism. In the past, Moscow used them as an
opportunity to push its own Syria narrative. For instance, Moscow would
highlight the U.S. unwillingness to work together, that Russia wouldn't hesitate
to use force against groups "masking" as moderate opposition, or that
it was U.S.-backed groups that were violating the ceasefire. Moscow would also
indirectly highlight its support for Assad by noting that he reserves the right
to respond to violations. Once, Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that
"no one" could give a 100% guarantee of a ceasefire in Syria. And the
breakdown of each ceasefire went seemingly unnoticed in the Kremlin-controlled
Putin does have reason to ensure the latest ceasefire will hold, at least
temporarily. It would allow him to improve relations with Trump (something he
wants and needs) and reduce tensions on the Syrian-Israeli border. This would
also allow Putin to continue to balance good relations with both Israel and
Iran. Perhaps more importantly, closer cooperation with Washington might
dissuade the U.S. from its attacks on Assad regime and Iranian forces.
Putin could stop providing air cover to Iranian militias in Syria as they
increasingly push into southeast Syria—if he wanted to do so. That would be a
good start. Yet it is doubtful, even if he did, whether Putin could change
Iran's overall policy goals in Syria—nor does he have any incentive to do so.
In addition, it is simply hard to enforce a ceasefire from the air.
true resolution to the Syrian tragedy is not in Putin's interest because it
would no longer justify Russia's presence there. It is ironic that a senior
State Department official used the word "freeze" when he described the
hope the U.S. has for the current ceasefire agreement. "[I]t's essentially
an undertaking to use our influence, the Jordanians their influence, the
Russians to use their influence with all of the sides of the conflict to stop
the fighting, to essentially freeze the conflict," said the official.
Kremlin knows exactly how to freeze conflicts. As long as Putin continues to
control the narrative in Syria, even if the current ceasefire holds, it is
doubtful that it will lead to a real resolution in Syria. Which, sadly, appears
to be exactly what Putin wants.