Putin boldly pursues complex objectives in Syria

By showing up in Damascus in the midst of the crisis, Putin seemed to be saying: “Keep Syria out of this.”
Sunday 19/01/2020
Shielding Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu (R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad meet in Damascus, January 7.(Reuters)
Shielding Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu (R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad meet in Damascus, January 7.(Reuters)

BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin kicked off the year with two big moves on Syria. First was his inaugural visit to Damascus, just days after the US assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, which left everyone wondering where and how Iran would respond to the killing of a top general.

The battlefields for a US-Iranian confrontation by proxy were either Syria, Lebanon or Iraq. By showing up in Damascus in the midst of the crisis, Putin seemed to be saying: “Keep Syria out of this.” It was a multifaceted message, aimed at both Iran and the United States.

That’s exactly what the Iranians did, choosing to respond in Iraq, where the assassination had taken place. It would have been very easy for them to strike US troops in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor, where they stayed behind last year, ostensibly to protect the oil from the Islamic State (ISIS) but they didn’t, steering clear from Putin’s fiefdom.

Reviving Adana

Putin’s second move was arranging a high-profile meeting in Moscow between Syrian and Turkish intelligence chiefs. The first such public meeting in almost ten years, it had three objectives. One was to discuss the 1998 Adana agreement between Syria and Turkey, which, if revisited, could lead to normalisation of relations between the two countries.

Putin has been toying with the revival of Adana since February 2019 but with amendments that would lead to the deployment of Russian troops along the Syrian-Turkish border instead of only Syrian forces to keep the territory from the Kurds or ISIS.

That is what Putin offered the Israelis in 2018, when they complained that restoring Syrian troops to the border area meant a comeback for Hezbollah. To give them additional guarantees, he deployed Russian military police in southern Syria, where, along with the United Nations, they would make sure that neither Hezbollah nor ISIS got close to the Israeli-Syrian border.

Pressuring the Kurds

The two sides hope to hammer out a deal over Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, which Putin hopes Turkey will abandon now that it has got its safe zone, between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, in addition to the cities of Jarabulus, Azaz, al-Bab and Afrin.

Finally, the Russian sponsorship of Syrian-Turkish talks hopes to pressure the Kurds to reconsider their reluctance to re-engage with Damascus, after showing much enthusiasm for it last October.

That enthusiasm waned, however, after US President Donald Trump announced that he would be keeping troops in north-eastern Syria, prompting most Kurdish players to reconsider an agreement they had signed with Damascus, under Russian auspices, on October 13.

After promising to disband the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units and pledging to incorporate them into the Syrian Army, the Kurds backtracked and are trying to create a Kurdish unit within the Syrian Army, composed of these two US-armed militias.

They are also trying to maintain their flag and semi-autonomy, feeling protected once again by the Americans. That is a red line that neither Damascus nor Ankara will accept, prompting them to work together with the Russians to either pressure the Kurds to reconsider or coordinate against them, militarily if needed, to keep them away from the borders.

Driving out the Americans

That, however, is only a fraction of what Putin has in store for Syria in 2020.

Militarily, he has a two-way agenda. One is to retake Idlib and, once that is achieved, there would be only one nemesis left standing in the Syrian battlefield — the United States.

This is the only thing that the Russians, Syrians, Turks and Iranians all seem to agree on and they have a joint objective in driving the Americans out. The assassination of Soleimani adds to anti-Americanism across the region and after being ejected from Iraq — if it happens — it would become increasingly difficult for them to stay in Syria.

Political agenda

Politically, Putin hopes to jump-start the constitutional talks that collapsed shortly after they started last year and possibly to shift them from Geneva to Nur-Sultan (previously Astana).

The Astana process is the brainchild of the Russian president — a framework in which neither the Americans, the French, British nor the Saudis are present.

At the UN-mandated convention in Switzerland, Putin has very little authority over what happens because a multitude of countries are involved in the process. Putin only agreed to the Geneva process unwillingly, considering it the product of former US Secretary of State John Kerry.

It is highly unlikely that the constitutional talks will bear fruit this year but Putin wants them in motion to convince the international community that the political process has started in Syria, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and, thus, the country is eligible for the removal of some sanctions — at least by the European Union.

The softening of sanctions is essential to breathe some life into the cash-strapped Syrian economy, facing an uphill battle after the meltdown in neighbouring Lebanon and the passing of the Caesar Act by the US Congress. Putin needs money for Syria to finance reconstruction, help return refugees and curb Syria’s reliance on Iran.

If the Syrian economy collapses, so would everything else in the country, destroying all the Russian president has been working for since his troops entered the battlefield in September 2015.

For any of the above to see the light, Putin needs to work on Syria with his partners — Iran and Turkey — away from US meddling. That becomes more doable as the presidential elections approach in the United States, meaning little to no appetite or time for Syria in Washington.