If there was ever any hope of salvaging the latest cease-fire in Syria, there isn't anymore. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad continue to attack the rebel-held portions of Aleppo with the support of large and indiscriminate Russian airstrikes. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that Washington is preparing to "suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria," including on a proposed counterterrorism partnership, "unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault" and restore the cease-fire. Moscow, however, is unlikely to comply; the loyalists remain as determined as ever to retake the city, and the Russian military is equally determined to assist them in that effort. Negotiations to de-escalate the Syrian civil war are on the brink of collapse.
But the United States had a good reason to sue for peace in the first place. Its goal in Syria is, simply put, to defeat the Islamic State. To that end, Washington backed the Syrian Democratic Forces (a militia composed mostly of Syrian Kurds), trained rebels to fight the Islamic State on its behalf and conducted extensive airstrikes on Islamic State targets. The United States also pressured the Syrian government to negotiate a transition by arming the rebels who fought against it.
Russia, however, undermined the United States at every turn. With Moscow reinforcing loyalists on the battlefield, al Assad had no reason to capitulate to U.S. pressure. And with Moscow even going so far as to bomb areas close to U.S. positions, Washington was forced to turn its attention away from the Islamic State and toward the possibility of a clash with Russia — something the United States was eager to avoid. Russia, too, wanted to avoid outright conflict. Obstructing U.S. efforts was simply a means to begin negotiations in which it could serve its broader strategic interests.
The United States was therefore left with two choices: escalate the conflict by increasing support for rebels and decreasing coordination with Russia, or concede to Russia. It opted for the latter, keeping the scope narrowed tactically to Syria and making such important concessions as cooperating more closely on the battlefield and targeting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. For the United States, a cease-fire is still a step toward its goals in Syria. After all, ending the war denies the extremist group the haven in which it recruits, trains, procures weapons and ultimately thrives. And though an agreement was eventually reached to coordinate more closely on the battlefield and rein in their respective proxies, neither side was able to make it last.
Which brings us to today. The cease-fire has failed, and the United States won't work with Russia so long as it continues its offensive on Aleppo. U.S. allies, heretofore content to give the cease-fire a chance, may now start arming rebel groups in Syria with or without Washington's consent. In fact, some groups have already received shipments of rocket artillery, and it's possible that they will be sent man-portable air defense systems to counter Russian airstrikes.
And so the United States appears to be considering the only other option Russia gave it: escalation. That is not to say the United States will stop trying to avoid a clash with Russia; neither side is interested in all-out conflict. Washington would instead extend greater support to the rebels and cooperate less closely with the Russians. Still, Moscow may find that Washington is now less willing to de-escalate after acts of provocation than it once was. (Here, provocation includes airstrikes on rebels groups in which U.S. forces are embedded.)
And herein lies the irony of the cease-fire's failure. It was never meant to end the conflict. It was meant to prevent it from getting any worse. Now, as trust fades for all those involved, Russia is throwing more support behind the loyalists, and the United States is throwing more support behind the rebels. The stakes are even higher now that Turkish forces are operating in Syria and are pushing southward, approaching both loyalist and Syrian Democratic Forces fronts. Turkey is in the process of working out its own deconfliction agreements with Russia, but it is also heavily leaning on the United States to mitigate potential clashes on the battlefield. Friction in the U.S.-Russia relationship means less insulation for Turkey on the battlefield. Perhaps most dangerous of all is the now acrimonious relationship with Russia, which could lead to dangerous standoffs with wide-reaching consequences.