Russia's role in Syria exacerbates refugee crisis

Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington and Moscow had concluded a “provisional agreement in principle” for a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria’s brutal, ongoing civil war.

WASHINGTON DC, United States (K24) – While visiting Jordan this past weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Washington and Moscow had concluded a “provisional agreement in principle” for a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria’s brutal, ongoing civil war.

The agreement marks the second time in as many weeks that Mr. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have reached an understanding to end, or at least reduce, the fighting in Syria.

The previous agreement between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov on Feb. 12 concluded on the sidelines of the annual Munich international security conference. However, the day before Mr. Kerry announced the second agreement, The Economist concluded that the fighting in Syria continued undiminished. If anything, the conflict had “widened and intensified” since the agreement at Munich. The high-brow British journal noted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces were on the verge of encircling rebel-held areas in the key northern city of Aleppo, and asked, “So why should he stop now?”

That remains a relevant question. Many parties—on both ends of the political spectrum in the US, Europe, and the Middle East—have criticized the weak US position on Syria. Laurent Fabius, France’s Foreign Minister complained, “We don’t have the feeling that there is a very strong commitment” in Washington.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary vented similar frustration when initial talks in Geneva between the Syrian regime and its opponents collapsed after just two days, as Moscow and Damascus exploited the failed negotiations to launch a renewed offensive. “Everything we are doing is being undermined by the Russians,” the Foreign Secretary complained. “The Russians say 'Let's talk', and then they talk and they talk and they talk…[and] while they are talking, they are bombing.”

The New York Times concluded, “From the start, Putin has played a duplicitous hand,” explaining, “Just as negotiations were set to convene,” Putin escalated Russia’s bombing campaign, “infuriating the opposition and scuttling those talks.” As Turkey’s Foreign Minister put it, "Russia used the Geneva talks as a smoke screen in order to intensify their airstrikes in Syria.”

Europeans are particularly keen to see the Syrian conflict ease. Over one million Syrians are starving and living in besieged areas. Last week, the pro-Syrian coalition attacked a Médecins Sans Frontiers clinic in rebel-held territory four times. The French charity charged that these assaults were deliberate.

Europeans also have another reason for wanting to see the carnage end. Every fresh Russo-Syrian offensive produces a new wave of refugees, most of whom will head for Europe.

The flood of refugees threatens Europe's cohesion. As Germany’s ambassador to Washington explained, “The United States has been slow to recognize this is a much bigger thing than anything else we’ve experienced since the beginning of the European Union.”

Even well-known liberal financier, George Soros, argued that Russia was deliberately creating refugees “to foster the EU’s disintegration.” Mr. Soros’ charge was echoed by Sen. John McCain, who complained that Putin wanted “to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the trans-atlantic alliance.”

Observers—including Ukraine’s Foreign Minister—say that Mr. Putin is using tactics in Syria similar to those he has used in Ukraine; the Foreign Minister agrees to cease-fires, negotiations, and “slow-progressing political accords.” But the Russian-backed forces keep on fighting. 

Thus, prospects for the latest agreement in Syria appear dim.

Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., taught at Harvard University and the US Naval War College. Most recently, she served as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan.


Editing by Karzan Sulaivany and Benjamin Kweskin