POLICY ALERT: Rising Powers React to Collapse of Ceasefire in Syria
On September 19, the Syrian army declared the end of a weeklong ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia. The Syrian regime accused rebels of violating the truce, Russia blamed a U.S. airstrike that killed dozens of Syrian troops, and the United States condemned an attack on a UN aid convoy as being conducted by Russian forces. Many observers hoped the ceasefire might lead to a longer break in fighting with a goal of finally ending the civil war that has been raging since 2011. However, airstrikes by the Syrian government and Russia against rebel targets in Aleppo have resumed at a steady pace.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry argued “the ceasefire is not dead” yet, rising powers reacted to the deal’s apparent collapse. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Russia, China, India, and Brazil on the current situation in Syria and the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement.
According to some reports, Russian military leaders in Syria and within the Defense Ministry held an “unusually skeptical attitude toward the deal” and predicted the deal would collapse because of Syrian rebels and U.S. violations. In seeking blame for the ceasefire’s breakdown, the Russian Ministry of Defense accused the United States of being “‘preferred to fully distance itself‘ from keeping in touch with the Russian Armed Forces, ignoring their inquiries and not answering the phone.” Once the deal collapsed, the Kremlin said the chances of restoring the ceasefire were “weak.”
For the breakdown of the ceasefire itself, some directly and indirectly blamed the U.S.
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov scolded Washington for not doing enough to control Syrian rebels under its guidance, adding that “Syrian government troop withdrawals had not been matched with rebel retreats.”
- One senior lawmaker in the upper house of Russian parliament, Franz Klintsevich, claimed “Washington is trying to shift the blame for an attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria on Russia.” He added, “if the [United States] does indeed seek peaceful settlement in Syria, it needs to really cooperate with Russia rather than make unfounded accusations.”
- Pravda published an op-ed titled “U.S. Massacre of Syrian Anti-ISIS Soldiers,” which made note of the U.S. “stubborn refusal to cooperate against terrorists.”
- John Wight, a political commentator for Sputnik, stated “if the Americans genuinely and sincerely held the wellbeing of the Syrian people as a priority in this conflict, they would have already joined with Russia, the Syrian government, and its allies in defeating Daesh, Nusra, and the various other groups of religious and sectarian fanatics.”
- Sputnik reported the United States further strained the U.S.-Russia relationship “as both countries, distrustful of each other and their local allies, try to salvage the fragile peace process in Syria and breathe life into the” ceasefire agreement.
Russian officials and journalists all expressed some level of skepticism over the original ceasefire deal:
- Vanessa Beeley, analyst and journalist, said “there is no guarantee the radical groups backed by the United States, the Gulf states and Turkey will respect the upcoming ceasefire.”
- Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov agreed with the pessimistic outlook of the deal and explained that “a gaping lack of trust between Moscow and Washington, unruly and suspicious local proxies, unhappy outside players in Iran and in the Gulf states, a hodgepodge of legal loopholes and lack of viable enforcement mechanisms” make “a successful implementation” quite “hard to fathom.”
- Looking ahead, Russia announced it would send its aircraft carrier to Syria’s coast for use against ISIS and other groups fighting in the country. Kerry has asked Russia to ground its warplanes in order to save the ceasefire.
China supported the ceasefire deal when it was announced with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang appealing to “all parties involved to enhance coordination and cooperation to continue to carry out the ceasefire in Syria, as well as make joint efforts to help restart Syria Peace Talks and provide humanitarian aid smoothly and effectively.” At the United Nations, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered $100 million in humanitarian aid to address the refugee crisis stemming from Syria and other war zones.
Chinese media and experts debated the country’s efforts in Syria and why the ceasefire failed, largely blaming the United States.
- Last month, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the PLA Navy visited with Syrian and Russian senior military officials and pledged medical training for Assad’s forces. This marked an increased level of Beijing’s engagement in Syria from its usual stance of non-interference.
- China’s newfound interest in the Syrian civil war and general support for Assad may be related to “the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party,” an insurgent group with ties to one Beijing linked to violence in Xinjiang after 9/11. Chaos in Syria spilling over to the broader Middle East also puts China’s “One Belt, One Road” investments in the region at risk.
- Analysis published in Xinhua declared the errant U.S. airstrike on the Syrian military as “one of the main reasons behind the faltering efforts to resume a recently-established ceasefire.”
- Xinhua writer Chen Shilei said China’s investment in developing countries have improved economic conditions to reduce “people’s pressures to leave home” and called on the “international community” to “act urgently and strongly in unity to more effective respond to the issue.” This view was echoed by Chinese Ambassador La Yifan.
- The Global Times singled out the United States and Europe for having “hastily pushed for Western-style democracy in the Middle East, contributing to the inflow of refugees” and the ongoing crisis. Chen echoed this view as well.
The Indian government has largely refrained from taking a strong position on the Syrian civil war as New Delhi seeks closer ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states as well as Israel. In August, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar met with Assad to restart several business deals – including a $320 million power plant project and investments in the Syrian oil industry – suspended at the start of the civil war due to safety risks for Indian workers. The two countries discussed their “common problem of cross-border terrorism” with support for India’s position on Kashmir and plans for further cooperation on counterterrorism.
When the ceasefire was announced, several India media outlets expressed hope the deal would lead to a lasting peace in the war torn country.
- Left leaning The Hindu said it was “the best opportunity for a solution to the five-and-a-half-year old civil war” due to its support by the “rebels and the regime” as well as Moscow and Washington.
- The Pioneer – a newspaper favorable to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – called the ceasefire “Syria’s chance for peace” though “obstacles remain” such getting Russia to push Assad toward an “honorable exit” or “devises a comprehensive framework under which the major opposition parties are brought under one head.”
- The ceasefire should evoke “cautious optimism” wrote The Times of India, though the paper did not think the agreement would “solve Syria’s long-term problems” such as who will lead the country.
The Brazilian media covered the cease-fire in Syria, its collapse, and recent negotiations between Russia and the United States to reestablish a truce. While Valor Econômico covered the Brazilian government support for the initial cease-fire, there has been few follow-up reports on President Temer’s position and associated efforts regarding the United Nation’s sponsored efforts to broker a temporary peace. Brazilian Foreign Minister José Serra remarked that Syria is a “sister” nation and Brazil supports efforts to reach a final peace. However, the Brazilian government has not played any demonstrable role in the conflict aside from calling for dialogue.
Much of the Brazilian media covered accusations that blamed Russia and the United States for the collapse of the cease-fire. Several media outlets drew from Sputnik, the Russian news agency, to report on Russian allegations that the U.S. Department of Defense was to blame.
- Valor Econômico, the prominent Brazilian economic and financial media outlet, reported Foreign Minister José Serra’s remarks that “the cease-fire serve as a positive step forward toward a resolution of the Syrian conflict through dialogue.” Serra also insisted that all parties comply with the UN Security Council’s resolutions aimed at impeding the flow of weapons to those forces associated with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
- Veja.com, the popular Brazilian news magazine, reported on Russian allegations that the United States did not comply with the terms of the cease-fire, quoting Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson Igor Konachenkov saying “it seems that the objective of Washington’s nebulous rhetoric is to hide the fact that the U.S. government is not complying with the conditions of the cease-fire.”
- Sputnik Brasil, the Russian government media outlet for the Brazilian audience, claims than an unnamed Turkish diplomat suggested that the recent bombings of Aleppo were carried out by the United States Department of Defense, the Pentagon, and that there as a split between the White House and the U.S. armed forces
- Globo reported on efforts to reestablish the Syrian cease-fire and the recent meeting of the International Syria Support Group. The Rio de Janeiro paper summarized the meeting as long, painful, and very disappointing in the words of the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.
- The weekly magazine Istoé recounted the failure to restart the cease-fire and Kerry’s call for a suspension of all aerial bombardments while efforts continue to reach a renewed cease-fire agreement.
- Portal Vermelho, a popular media outlet of the Brazilian left, drew from the Russian outlet Sputnik to summarize an Associated Press story quoting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the United States intentionally bombed Syrian government forces as the cease-fire collapsed.