Why Russia Will Ultimately Need the UN to Wind Down the War in Syria

It is hard to feel excited about United Nations Security Council resolutions anymore.

On Saturday, after days of exhausting diplomacy, the council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a 30-day cease-fire across Syria. Most diplomatic observers reacted either cautiously or outright cynically.

Previous U.N.-backed cessations of hostilities in the country have evaporated quickly. A veteran of the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia in the 1990s once told me that he had kept a list of how long each cease-fire there had lasted before a shot was fired. The shortest was less than a minute. The record in Syria is no better.

The Syrian government has kept up military operations since Saturday, including air strikes on eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus where hundreds have died in the past week. Western diplomats believe that Moscow held up Saturday’s resolution to allow the Syrian government to strengthen its grip on the area. It also insisted that the text should recognize the need for continued military operations against Islamist terrorists and “all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities” associated with them.

Given the incredible complexity of the Syrian war, that is essentially a generalized license to kill.

Is there any reason to feel good about Saturday’s resolution? The simple answer is that it exists at all.

Over the past year, Russia has maneuvered to shut off U.N. diplomacy over Syria completely. It has used its veto with increasing frequency to limit the Security Council’s oversight of the war. Last fall, it killed off a U.N. monitoring mechanism on chemical weapons incidents, claiming it was biased against the Syrian government. In December, it also threatened to kill off a resolution on humanitarian access to the conflict. Moscow pulled back from vetoing that, but aid workers face more and more obstacles in Syria anyway.

Russia has also tried to smother the fragile series of U.N. talks on Syria held in Geneva and Vienna, attempting to establish an alternative diplomatic track that it controls. This has not gone well. Syrian rebels boycotted a recent peace conference in Sochi at the end of January. Despite their absence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was heckled by others who did attend.

Moscow faces a paradoxical diplomatic position over Syria. It is undeniably the decisive power in debates over the country’s future in the Security Council. But if it has this high-level diplomacy sewn up, it is struggling to impose itself as a peacemaker on the ground. Even its largely successful military campaign has run into trouble, following surprise attacks on its personnel and the loss of a warplane to a rebel-fired missile this month. Meanwhile, Iran appears to be pushing for a military solution in Syria, and Israel is reacting increasingly forcefully.

If Russia wants to focus European leaders’ minds on funding reconstruction in Syria, its best bet is still to sow more fear and chaos, not to hint at compromise.

Russia’s ability to shape U.N. diplomacy over Syria may ultimately be a chimerical source of strength, comparable to the American position over Iraq after the 2003 war. Washington largely set the terms of international diplomacy around Iraq in that period, concealing its growing weakness in the field.

After four or five years of bad news from Baghdad, the Bush administration turned to the U.N. for more substantive assistance in Iraq. The Obama administration doubled down on this engagement. It is possible, although very far from certain, that Russia could respond to a deepening quagmire in Syria in the same way. If Moscow cannot make Damascus and Tehran follow its diktats through raw power or direct suasion, it could find that it needs the Security Council—and the council’s Western members—for back-up.

Financial considerations could reinforce such a diplomatic turn. Moscow is very keen to persuade European countries in particular to help it fund Syria reconstruction. Fearing more refugee flows from the Middle East, a lot of European policymakers are inclined to assist. But some sort of grand bargain at the Security Council will be necessary to make this politically palatable. Britain and France recognize that they can use their power in the council to set the terms of aid, and can use this as a source of leverage over Moscow. After all, if Russia cannot establish a month-long cease-fire in Syria and permit better humanitarian deliveries, it’s hard to see why aid agencies would finance long-term—and costly—projects to revitalize the country as a whole in the foreseeable future.

In time, therefore, Moscow may need the U.N. to help it find an endgame in Syria. It is not clear that we are there yet. If Russia wants to focus European leaders’ minds on funding reconstruction in Syria, its best bet is still to sow more fear and chaos, not to hint at compromise. Moreover, as I have argued in these columns throughout the Syrian war, Russian diplomats are adept at exploiting their counterparts’ desire for compromise by staging false diplomatic gambits and tabling hollow concessions to buy time.

Most Security Council diplomats seem to think that Russia was playing a similarly opaque and misleading game over Syria last week. Many noted that the Russians dragged out talks on a council resolution text that actually changed very little in terms of substance. Few will be shocked if the results are minimal. To make matters even more confrontational, Russia seems to be limbering up to block a separate resolution calling out Iran for its role in the Yemeni war. The Security Council remains in a state of high dudgeon.

But even if the entire U.N. process last week was a charade, it at least implied that Moscow is willing to come back to the Security Council to save face over Syria. That is pretty thin comfort, but it may prove to be important if and when Russia really wants to find its way out of a war that could still cost it dearly.

Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.