Fighting in Aleppo has intensified with a Russian-backed government offensive to capture the rebel-held sector of Syria’s largest city.
The United States and its allies accuse Russia of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow and Damascus say they only target terrorists.
Russia joined the war a year ago, backing up its ally Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and tipping the balance in his favor.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is Counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior Middle East Adviser to three U.S. Presidents. The Cipher Brief’s Leone Lakhani spoke to Ambassador Ross about the prospects for peace in Syria now.
The Cipher Brief: We saw a US-Russian negotiated ceasefire deal that, in effect, fell apart and the relationship between the US and Russia seems to grow frostier by the day. With so much distrust, is there any possibility of an agreement between them over Syria?
Dennis Ross: It’s pretty clear that the Russians won’t agree to anything until they’ve reached their objective. And their objective, I think, is probably to depopulate Aleppo. Depopulate it or in some way take over the eastern part of the city. At that point, they’ll be open to an agreement.
The Russian approach to Syria has always been – at least since their intervention of last fall – to change the balance of power on the ground. When the balance of power on the ground is at a point that satisfies them, then they’ll be willing to reach some kind of understanding. I think that’s where they are now. So they might be very happy with a ceasefire after they’ve taken Aleppo.
TCB: Do you think the U.S. has any tools in its power to influence Russia and ensure they hold their side of an agreement?
DR: We have tools but we’re not willing to use them.
TCB: What kind of tools?
DR: Well we’re not willing to raise the price. We could’ve used standoff systems to take out Syrian airfields, which would make it difficult for the Syrians to operate and signal to the Russians that the price to continue to try to affect things on the ground will increase.
We could provide more means to raise the costs of flying their aircraft. We don’t provide anti-aircraft means and there are good reasons why we don’t, but if the Russians thought that was going to be the case, that would again dramatically raise the cost to them.
Putin is not interested in creating an Afghanistan kind of situation, and in his eyes, he’s not. This a relatively inexpensive intervention. They’re using a relatively small number of airplanes, less than 50. And they’re targeting them indiscriminately, engaging in a scorched earth approach, following a logic of siege, starve, and bomb.
So the people who pay the price are primarily non-combatants, a disproportionate of them being children. It’s unconscionable, but that’s what the Russians are doing. And we’re making it clear, we won’t do anything to raise the price for them.
TCB: What about creating a no-fly zone in rebel-held areas as Secretary Kerry has suggested?
DR: That’s fine except what he’s saying is that there shouldn’t be any aircraft flying, and why would the Russians suddenly stop? The point is, many of Secretary Kerry’s suggestions are fine, but if there’s no consequences for the Russians doing what they’re doing, no price for them to be paid, then why would they change? They have a very clear objective, which is probably to produce a kind of partition once they have secured Aleppo for the regime.
TCB: Do you think it was a mistake for the Obama Administration not to have enforced the “red line”? Is it too late for some kind of a peace or agreement in Syria? Should they have done something earlier?
DR: I don’t see how you put Humpty Dumpty together again. I think you’re headed toward some kind of de facto partition even if it’s not a du jour partition. The prospect of a peace at this point is extremely low because what are you agreeing to? Assad is not going to leave. The Russians are not going to put any pressure on him to leave. The Iranians have no interest in putting pressure on him to leave and there’s been too much blood spilled for an opposition to accept an outcome with him in power.
So I think you could end up with, as I said, a de facto partition where from Aleppo in the north to Daraa in the south, you have basically an Assad regime which is about 35 percent of the territory in Syria. The Syrians don’t have the ability – the size of the military’s too small – to retake areas beyond that. The Russians don’t have an interest in it. They have an airbase now. They have naval facilities.
The Iranians would be happy with that because they have maintained their conduit with Hezbollah, so I think they’re working towards a partition that serves their respective interests.
Now does that feed a kind of long-term low level insurgency? Maybe. Does it create the basis for some kind of separation into a lot of localized Sunni areas in the 65 percent of Syria to the east? Maybe. Anything that would stop the suffering would be a good thing. I don’t think we can kid ourselves that we’re on the brink of that.
TCB: There are so many factions in Syria at the moment. You’ve said you believe it’s probably going to be a segregated country at some point. If there was some kind of peace. What would it look like?
DR: I don’t think you’re going to have a unified Syria.
The destruction in Syria really is catastrophic. And what it will take to rebuild it is beyond the means of the international community right now, and certainly beyond the inclination. But you’re going to need a major rebuilding effort within Syria. The more there can be a focus on internal reconstruction, the less focus there might be on continuing warfare.
But I’m not optimistic. I think the wounds are too deep. The impulse towards revenge is probably too great. And as long as Assad is there, he’s a reminder of the war crimes that have been committed.
TCB: How do you create alternatives in this kind of situation?
DR: You start by trying to get a genuine ceasefire. You can’t do anything without a genuine ceasefire, and the ceasefire has to be one that endures for a while. Only if it endures for a while does everybody then have a stake in having it continue and then you begin to look for political ways out.
TCB: What would you say to the next administration on day one? What do they need to do in Syria?
DR: First, don’t rush to judgment. There needs to be a serious assessment done internally, but also there needs to be strategic discussions with a number of our friends and partners, with whom this is also a big issue and they have high stakes.
We have frequently misunderstood the priorities of Arab leaders. You don’t have to accept the priorities, but you have to understand them. [When President Obama went to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit], he was going there to get them to focus on ISIS. He didn’t convey an appreciation of what they feel is the existential threat from Iran. They were much less responsive to him on the ISIS issue, even though ISIS is also a threat to them. If they are to play the role we’d like them to play, we need to find ways to demonstrate that we understand their priorities.
I think the next administration needs to make a serious assessment of what’s possible. But I think it also needs to communicate to the Russians something different. If the Russians are prepared for a real ceasefire, we’ll do everything we can to impose it. But if they’re going to continue letting it go unfulfilled or allow Assad never to fulfill it, they should understand that this administration will impose a price on them. If we don’t change the Russian calculus here, there’s very little prospect to do anything.
TCB: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on ISIS on the administration’s part in terms of Syria?
DR: It’s not that I don’t think ISIS is a threat. I do, but I also think that Assad is. Our problem all along was that most of the opposition was fighting Assad, not ISIS. And Assad wasn’t fighting ISIS. And the Russians, for the most part, weren’t fighting ISIS because they wanted to create a situation where it was Assad or ISIS. So yes, we couldn’t draw on those whose main purpose was to fight Assad.
TCB: Even though the administration says one of its big objectives is to also get rid of Assad?
DR: They’re not prepared to use a kind of coercive elements to make it clear there’s a price for certain kinds of behavior. The approach has been similar to the approach with the Russians. We have rhetoric that we use but it’s not backed by anything. And so it’s ignored.
TCB: What can you back it up with because at the end of the day the Russians are involved as well?
DR: You basically tell Assad “if you keep using helicopters and dropping barrel bombs, you’re going to lose the airfields that you fly them from.”
Every time a line is crossed, every time these kind of behaviors are carried out with no consequence, Assad has been able to get away with it. Why would he change?