Russia uses diplomacy in Geneva, peace-making in the Syrian countryside, and bombing of jihadi terrorists and the Islamic State, to stabilise the country
A series of television reports by the BBC (summarised by the BBC here) give an insight into the Russian strategy in Syria.
Under the cover of the truce Russian mediators are flooding across Syria, negotiating local ceasefires between the government and various armed militia groups.
It seems that Syria has been divided up by the Russians into different sectors, with the Russians appointing a senior mediator (always a high ranking army officer) in each one. Under his supervision teams of negotiators visit the villages where they broker local ceasefire deals.
In order to understand this process it is first necessary to explain the situation in the Syrian countryside.
Throughout the Syrian conflict the Syrian government has managed to maintain a presence in Syria’s cities. Even in cities like eastern Aleppo or Raqqa that are under rebel control, the Syrian government continues to pay the salaries of public servants. The result is that some of the institutions of the Syrian state continue to function even in cities that are under rebel control.
In the countryside the situation is different.
The Syrian government retains a strong presence in parts of the countryside, especially along the coast. However as the Syrian army was forced withdraw from much of Syrian territory during the war, government authority in many parts of the countryside collapsed, leading to power falling into the hands of local notables ("sheikhs"), many of whom then proceeded to form their own militias for their own and their area's protection.
The result is a mosaic patchwork of militias spreading across Syria, many of them consisting of no more a few dozen men armed with an assortment of weapons and lacking even the most basic training in how to use them.
Western governments and Western media call these people “rebels” and lump them together as if they were a coherent force.
Many have in fact paraded at various times under the banner of the Free Syrian Army - the main Western backed Syrian rebel group - primarily in order to get hold of the Western supplies that have been flooding into Syria since the war began.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke grandly of “70,000 moderate fighters” supposedly willing to take up arms against both the Syrian government and the Islamic State, it was to these people he was referring to.
In reality most of these militias have no very strong commitment to any side in the war, and are reluctant to move and fight outside their own areas.
In the last year they have been coming under increasing pressure from the real enemies of the Syrian government - the Islamic State and the other jihadi militias - who have been steadily encroaching on their territories.
These militias tend to see these jihadis as rivals and since the Western powers are unable to protect them it is not surprising that they are starting to turn to the Syrian government and the Russians for protection, especially now when it seems the Syrian government and the Russians are winning the war.
Having forced the US to agree to the truce, the Russians are now busy contacting as many of these people as they can, brokering ceasefire agreements between them and the Syrian authorities, which in reality are not so much ceasefires but rather local peace agreements, delineating territory, agreeing terms for the provision of supplies, and setting up dispute resolution procedures, whilst preparing the ground for an overall peace settlement, which the Russians are busy putting together in Geneva.
The whole operation is being coordinated from Khmeimim air base, where the Russians have set up a contact centre for groups that want to participate in the truce to which complaints can be sent if problems arise.
The US in the meantime is being kept informed of these local peace agreements.
Since the US is a co-sponsor of the truce process, it cannot undermine it by seeking to nullify these agreements - for example by sending arms to these militias or by inciting them to take up arms again - without going back on its own commitments, which are now part of international law since they have been enshrined in a Resolution of the UN Security Council.
Admittedly this is not a very solid basis upon which to carry out a process of this sort. The US after all is hardly known to support a process if it no longer sees an advantage in doing so, regardless of what the legal position might be.
However for the moment the US has no realistic alternative but to abide by its commitments and support the process (see here and here), which is why for the moment the truce is just about holding together.
In other words what the Russians are doing is using the probably short time window the truce is giving them to negotiate peace agreements with local militias in order to consolidate the situation in Syria to their advantage.
Their objective is to pacify as much of the countryside as possible - "village by village" as the BBC says they told the BBC's reporter - so as to free the Syrian army to fight Syria’s real enemies - the Islamic State and the various other jihadi terrorist groups.
This is a very different strategy to the one followed by the US during the so-called “Anbar Awakening” in Iraq in 2006.
In that case the US manipulated tribal grievances and bribed tribal leaders to get Iraq’s northern Sunni tribes to fight and defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq - the militant jihadi organisation that eventually morphed into the Islamic State.
Though briefly successful this strategy ultimately undermined state authority in Iraq’s northern Sunni regions by substituting tribal militias often at odds with the government in Baghdad for the Iraqi army. The result was a power vacuum which the Islamic State eventually filled.
By contrast the Russians are not looking to the local militias to defeat the Islamic State and the jihadis. That is the role they have assigned to the Syrian army, which they are steadily reinforcing with more training, and with fresh weapons and supplies. Since the Syrian army is an institution of the Syrian state, the effect should be to rebuild the state’s authority, not undermine it.
All these moves on the ground go hand in hand with the political process the Russians are pursuing in Geneva, and with the elections which Assad - undoubtedly after consulting with the Russians - has called for April.
As to the war against the Islamic State and the jihadis, the daily situation reports of Iran’s Fars news agency - the most detailed and accurate reporter of the Syrian conflict - show that the Syrian army’s offensives against them continue unabated, as - following a one day pause - does the Russian bombing campaign.
It is the show of force which the Russian bombing campaign amounts to which underpins the whole peace-making process.
The reason the Russians are able to broker peace agreements where everyone else has failed is because the militias know that if they do not agree to them they risk being branded "terrorists" by the Russians and bombed by the Russian air force, whose deadly efficiency even NATO is now grudgingly admitting.
Russian strategy in Syria combines the velvet glove with the mailed fist. The peace process in Geneva and and the peace agreements brokered in the villages are the velvet glove. The bombing campaign is the mailed fist.
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