September 26, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Western-Russian Tensions Boil in Syria

• During a September 25 emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the U.S. and UK accused Russia of abetting war crimes in Syria.

• The collapse of the Syrian ceasefire has resulted in the further slaughter of civilians in Aleppo, as well as deteriorating diplomatic relations at the highest levels.

• Counterterrorism efforts were once a rare source of agreement between Russia and the U.S.; recent events in Syria have challenged that cooperation.

• While there are many reasons for the declining relations between the West and Russia, Syria is now arguably the primary factor.


The war in Syria is a crucible upon which post-Cold War assumptions and aspirations are being challenged. Diplomatic tensions between Russia and Western powers have continued to flare, and now even the pretense of joint efforts to end the Syrian conflict are collapsing. There has never been an effective joint approach between Russia and the U.S. in terms of moving towards a negotiated resolution to the conflict. Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the displacement of many millions more, international outrage over the human suffering in Syria has consistently failed to translate into cooperation meaningful enough to result in any sustained positive impact. Yet, as bad as it has been up to this point, the last few days have seen both unprecedented violence in Aleppo and heated rhetoric between rival international players.

The U.S.-Russian cessation of hostilities (CoH) in Syria took almost a year to negotiate, and a week to fall apart. The collapse of the ceasefire not only led to a return to full scale fighting, but also shredded the operating fiction that had undergirded much of the international community’s approach to the conflict. The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has no intention of working towards a negotiated settlement. Rather, Assad and his backers intend to win the war militarily—however unlikely a military victory might seem from a Western perspective. The rebels—backed by regional and Western powers—lack both a unity of effort as well as desired end goals, significantly hindering their cohesion and effectiveness.

During an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on September 25, the UK accused Russia of helping the Assad regime perpetuate war crimes. The U.S. flatly stated that Russia’s actions in Syria were not counterterrorism, but rather ‘barbarism’. Yet the Western outrage is unlikely to change the course of the conflict. For its part, Russia again accused the West of supporting terrorism, and even praised the Assad regime for its ‘restraint’ in dealing with its opponents. In a war of endless low points, the current situation in Syria, as well as the diplomatic efforts to end the war, are as negative as they have been since the conflict began in March 2011.

Airstrikes in the rebel-held parts of Aleppo have killed hundreds of people in the last several days, striking hospitals and White Helmet aid stations with even more severity than usual. The accusation of war crimes such as those at the UN over the weekend has long ceased to have any deterrent value in Syria. The CoH—highly tenuous from the start—ended with the deliberate bombing of an aid convoy in Aleppo, which the West has accused Russia or the Assad regime of carrying out. Aleppo is now experiencing a full press by the regime to inflict as much damage and casualties as possible, as Assad attempts to break the will of the rebels and their supporters.

The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, accurately summed up the near-term prospects for positive developments in the war, stating peace in Syria was now ‘almost an impossible task.’ It is difficult to overstate how damaging prolonged fighting with no end in sight is to Syria, as well as to already fraught relations between the West and Russia. The consequences of a further collapsing Syria now include a further collapsing detente between Russia and the West, with ripple effects across a wide array of other international issues.


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