Syria into the Hands of Russia and Iran
On December 11, Vladimir Putin declared the beginning of the end of Russia’s involvement in Syria, and proclaimed his “victory” from the Russian base of Hmeimim. In the same speech, he indicated that the conditions have been met for a political settlement of the Syrian war.
Of course, none of these declarations bode well for Bashar al-Assad. Were we to take them at face value, although no one will, they would imply the reduction, if not the end, of Russian military support to the Assad regime. They would lead to Moscow’s active lobbying to bring Damascus to negotiate a political solution.
Putin’s declaration, though, shows that he feels he is winning the Syrian game, but his next moves will tell whether or not he can out maneuver all the other players. Doing so would require balancing conflicting interests between Iran and Russia’s newer allies, Saudi and Turkey in particular. It would also require unraveling complex problems such as Turkey perceiving an existential threat in the growing Kurdish presence. The West still wields considerable influence in the region, despite taking a back seat and allowing Russia to lead on the military and diplomatic fronts.
Vladimir Putin, Apparent Master of the Syrian Game
For months now, commentators have agreed that the Russians are the master of the game in the Syrian conflict and its potential settlement. Indeed, their military intervention starting in September 2015 enabled them to sustain Bashar al-Assad’s regime and allowed him to regain control over almost two thirds of the country, thanks, in fact, to the critical support of Hezbollah and Shia militias. The man of Damascus is under Russia and Iran’s full supervision, his country is in ruins, Syria has become a playground for all sorts of foreign military units, Assad’s authority only extends to a maximum of around ten millions of Syrians (out of a population of 21 millions in 2011), but the perception is there: Bashar has won.
More importantly, the Russian intervention, far from alienating the opinions or leaders of the countries of the region, has considerably raised Russia’s status in the Middle East.
The Syrian war, despite fomenting some day-to-day disagreements, has allowed Russia to build a strategic relationship with Iran, one that is progressively starting to look like an alliance. President Putin has also managed his relationship with Turkey brilliantly, as the country has become a strong ally for Moscow. Thanks to this "Turkish connection", Russia was able to liquidate Aleppo last year and launch the Astana process. Putin has also become the "justice of the peace" between Turks and Kurds in the North of the country. The Russian intervention has also reinforced Moscow's influence with Israel. Today, President Putin is seen as the one “regulating” the Israeli strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian positions in Syria.
Even outside of Syria’s immediate periphery, Russia’s influence has grown. Despite their initially conflicting positions on the Syrian issue, Putin has improved his cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as illustrated by King Salman's historic visit to Moscow. In late November, the Riyadh II platform, which allowed the integration of relatively loyalist groups known as "Moscow" and "Cairo" into the opposition, was organized by Saudi diplomacy, following Russia’s suggestion.
President Trump’s benevolence and the availability of his administration to work with Russia on a case-by-case basis ("de-escalation” in the South, "deconfliction" in the East), as well as his influence over other states of the region, especially Egypt, are important assets to the Russian president.
Under these circumstances, it seems surprising that Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues, as it recently did in Geneva in mid-December, to radically refuse to negotiate with the opposition, and that Moscow is unable to twist his protégé’s arm. One way to understand this would be to consider Iran’s influence, since the regime's other sponsor encourages Assad to resist. Indeed, it aims to strengthen its own role in the process and is also probably motivated by more strategic factors, such as buying time to further entrench itself in the country. The question now arises about the extent to which the Iranian protests might weaken Tehran’s regional policy.
Will the Sochi Meeting Take Place?
Another explanation is that Russia’s deadline is not the Geneva meeting, but the Sochi meeting, which is a kind of "Syrian national congress," postponed several times but rescheduled for February, a few weeks before the Russian elections. The Russians may believe that they will be the deus ex-machina in Sochi, and control the regime’s delegation, define the agenda and the work methods, and lead the discussions towards conclusions which would benefit them. Their ideas have been known for a long time: the formation of a mixed government, the drafting of a new constitution, elections, etc. Western governments, as well as the opposition, do not really oppose these ideas, many of which have been taken (selectively) from UN resolutions. If there are some doubts, it is about implementation modalities: How does the transition work? Which procedure should be followed to develop a constitution? Which elections are we talking about? Can Assad run again? And so on.
A number of uncertainties remain regarding the Russian-held Sochi meeting: can the United Nations really abdicate their role to this extent and allow Russia to lead? Will the Syrian opposition, now credibly organized around a "national negotiating committee,” agree to participate in this inter-Syrian conference? How would the negotiations be impacted by the pursuit of a military operation from the regime and its sponsors, in East Ghouta and the Idlib province?
No matter what, it might be useful to assess what the stakes of Sochi or a similar conference could be. There is, of course, the question of the exercise of power in Damascus. The opposition has greatly reduced its demands but remains committed to the idea of a transition. On the other hand, the Assad regime can only consider superficial measures and at most a "reconciliation," leaving the entire system in place. The United States and its allies should pay attention to the opposition's ability to hold its position: by putting an end to all support to armed groups, by surrendering to Russia a political process that should be led by the United Nations, or by allowing the siege of Eastern Ghouta to take place without reacting, Westerners have convinced the opposition that there is nothing to be expected from foreign stakeholders except the Russians.
Another type of issue relates to the interests of regional powers, in particular Turkey, Iran and Israel.
Turkey has been reluctant so far to attend Sochi because the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the PKK, the former which is an ally of the West against Daesh, will necessarily be invited. Yet, for Sochi to be a success, an agreement giving the Syrian Kurds a form of autonomy compatible with Turkish interests must be found. Should it be an autonomous but demilitarized Syrian Kurdistan? The Syrian regime undoubtedly dreams of taking the Kurdish cantons back. The PYD would thus be very foolish to surrender its defense capacity. Moreover, what would the perimeter of such a territory be?
Much has been said about the diverging Russian and Iranian views regarding the future of Syria. In fact, Iranians might need, more than the Russians, an institutional system guaranteeing their future presence, which could explain their idea of an institutional system inspired by the Lebanese model.
We should, however, suggest that the question arises less in terms of vision than in terms of strategic interests. Trump's America, and its Saudi and Israeli allies even more, want to put an end to Iran’s influence in the region. Saudis and Israelis perceive the current Iranian posture as a major threat. The Russians hint in confidential talks with Western officials that they are the only ones capable of really "containing" Iran. But how? If Russia really wants to reduce its involvement in Syria, it will leave an opening for Iran to take more space, which in turn will require an Israeli reaction. If the current balance between Iran and Russia stays as it is, Russia will remain accountable for Iran's behavior to the Israelis. All this, however, still depends on the Iranian internal situation not affecting its role on the regional stage.
A Possible Way Forward for the United States and Their Allies
What should we conclude from this analysis regarding the positioning of Europeans and Americans?
- First of all, if Sochi really occurs, President Putin takes risks, including regarding public opinion in Russia. Indeed, in the event of failure, Moscow could fall back on the "frozen conflict" option (such as in Transnistria, Abkhazia and Ossetia, Donbass etc.), which is its usual way out of a crisis in its close neighborhood. It is, however, not clear whether this "model" can be transposed into the volatile environment of today's Middle East.
- Given the stakeholders’ profiles and the complexity of the issues at stake, a complete success in Sochi seems compromised. Americans’ and Europeans’ attitude can make a big difference.
It is thus crucial that the capitals concerned become more proactive and play their cards right. The real leverage for the West is not, as it is repeated everywhere, the future “reconstruction” of Syria, about which the Russians are only marginally concerned. It rather lies in the geopolitical trump card the West still holds. First, it could indeed regain influence with the opposition. Second, by reaffirming its military presence alongside Syrian Kurds, Washington and its allies should appear as the real interlocutors capable of finding a solution to the Turkey-Syrian Kurds equation. Third, the West potentially wields influence on the delicate balance of powers between Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, influence that goes beyond Russia’s current operational role.
- In this context, the Western permanent members of the Security Council (as well as Germany) should reflect on a post-Sochi initiative, which would be complementary to the Syrian National Congress and focus on the agreement’s regional aspects.
At the end of the day, Turkish, Iranian and Israeli interests—but other countries’ interests (Saudi Arabia and Jordan first)—can only be dealt with by international guarantees. The Russians would be making a big mistake were they to think their current capacity, admittedly remarkable, to “speak with everyone” could alone guarantee a regional balance. A specific international conference will be needed to address the issue of regional balance. One can therefore imagine that after a Sochi meeting, whose relative success would have been partially ensured by them, Western countries could make Moscow a proposal to set up a “Dayton” type meeting (at which the peace agreement reached in 1995 lead to the end of the Bosnian war). It should gather the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, as well as Syria’s neighbors, in order to elaborate on the international guarantees needed for any peace agreement in Syria.
This article is published with the Atlantic Council which promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the Atlantic Community's central role in meeting global challenges.