The game in Syria: Advantage Putin?
While he has not yet won the war in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be winning the diplomatic battle. Previous Western insistence that Moscow’s Syrian protégé, President Bashar Assad, must relinquish power has crumbled. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that Washington now expects Assad to remain in power, as has France’s recently elected President Emmanuel Macron.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are no longer supporting Syrian opposition forces as effectively as they were prior to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015 in response to the opposition forces’ successes. The Saudis have become distracted by their inconclusive military intervention in Yemen, while the Saudi-Qatari dispute has ended cooperation between those two oil monarchies in Syria and elsewhere.
Instead of opposing Russia on Assad as it did initially, Turkey is cooperating with Moscow both on the ground in Syria and diplomatically in the Astana peace talks.
Further, the Russian plan for four “de-escalation zones” (involving ceasefires between pro- and anti-Assad forces) in western Syria appears to be gaining traction. The prospect of Turkish forces entering the largest of these zones in north-western Syria will offer a degree of assurance to rebel forces there of protection against the Assad regime. In addition, Israel and Jordan are said to be supporting US-Russian cooperation in calming tensions in south-western Syria.
On a larger scale, there seems to be at least a tacit understanding between Moscow and Washington that the United States does not oppose Russian military action to defend the Assad regime in western Syria while the Kremlin does not oppose American military action against the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria.
In addition, the Russian plan for resolving the conflict in Syria is gaining legitimacy. Washington Post commentator David Ignatius observed: “Working with Russia may be the only way to reduce the level of violence in Syria and to create a foundation for a calmer, more decentralised nation that can eventually recover from its tragic war.”
Yet even if the United States, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more willing to concede to — or at least not strenuously oppose — Russia playing a leading role in Syria or Assad staying in power, Putin faces important obstacles in his efforts to pacify Syria and reduce the drain on Russian resources that the war is causing.
Excluded from the Russian ceasefire are jihadist groups such as ISIS and former al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
While this is understandable on one level, Russian forces have a record of both identifying and treating all opposition to the Assad regime as terrorists and jihadists. Non-jihadist Syrian opposition forces have made clear that they will not honour any ceasefire that Russia and its allies proclaim but do not adhere to.
Even if Russian forces do make a concerted effort to honour ceasefires with the non-jihadist Syrian opposition and persuade them to work with the Assad regime against the jihadists, Moscow’s allies in Syria may not be willing to go along. Damascus is undoubtedly aware that Russians frequently tell Westerners and others about how they actually view Assad quite negatively and want to see him step down once a coalition can be built between his supporters and “cooperative elements” from the non-jihadist opposition.
Whether they mean it or not, the fact that Russians make such statements repeatedly has given the Assad regime strong incentive to make sure that ceasefires break down, fighting continues and Moscow keeps supporting Damascus against the “terrorists.”
The Iranians may similarly fear that if a Russian-sponsored peace takes root, Moscow will no longer have need of Tehran in Syria and will work to marginalise Iranian influence there. Indeed, Tehran may see Russian willingness to allow a strong Turkish role in Syria as the beginning of such an effort. Like Assad, Tehran may see continued conflict as more in its interest than conflict resolution.
Increased US, European, Turkish and Sunni Arab acquiescence to Russian diplomacy in Syria may not be enough to allow Putin to bring about conflict resolution. Continued animosity between the Syrian opposition on the one hand and Assad and his Iranian allies on the other — as well as distrust of Russia on both sides — mean that the conflict and the burden it places on Russia are likely to continue.