Sochi talks fail to produce olive branch

Much depends on how temporary the Turkish military presence in Syria proves to be.
Sunday 04/02/2018
A soldier waves a Turkish flag as Turkish troops secure Bursayah hill, on Januaty 28. (AP)
New front. A soldier waves a Turkish flag as Turkish troops secure Bursayah hill, on Januaty 28. (AP)

The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, convened in the Russian resort of Sochi, was intended to show the superiority of Russian diplomacy. Moscow’s efforts to deliver peace in Syria were supposed to be more worthwhile than those of the United Nations. Sochi, however, failed to deliver.

The meeting ended after one day, though it was supposed to last two. The end came when members of the Syrian opposition heckled Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and walked out.

Russia seems to be putting a brave face on things. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by phone and, Putin’s press office said, the pair declared themselves satisfied with the results of the Sochi meeting. They also discussed bilateral cooperation in maintaining de-escalation zones in Syria. Notably, the release had no mention of the Kurds.

The transparent public relations gesture says a great deal. Russia needed to portray strength and calm competence. Turkey needed to maintain good relations with Russia as it pursues its military operation in the Kurdish-dominated Syrian city of Afrin. Erdogan’s willingness to neutralise Kurdish paramilitary forces in northern Syria starkly deviates from the broader efforts of the international community, including Russia, to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war.

Turkey’s incursion into Afrin, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), was ostensibly to fight Kurdish “terrorists.” The Turkish government has declared the YPG to be an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist group in Turkey.

The incursion brought the number of foreign countries intervening in the Syrian civil war to three. The Syrian government denounced the US and Turkish military presence in the country and declared that only Russia has been requested to provide military assistance.

It’s unclear whether Russia will transform its military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime into a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The Turkish incursion was not a great surprise to Russia. Two days before the operation began on January 20, Turkish Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar and Under-Secretary of the National Intelligence Organisation Hakan Fidan met with Russian General Staff Chief General Valery Gerasimov in Moscow. The Russian Ministry of Defence said the meeting involved discussions on the situation in Syria, focusing on issues concerning the implementation of agreements on de-escalation zones and on maintaining local ceasefires.

The day after the meeting, Russia redeployed its military observers in Afrin, moving them from areas where clashes with the Turkish military could occur.

Two days after the operation began, Putin spoke with Erdogan and both men agreed that Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty had to be respected. Kremlin presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was closely following the Turkish military operation. He added that Moscow maintained constant communication with both Ankara and Damascus.

The Russian government offered a stark contrast to Turkey’s wild-card military and diplomatic operations in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, said: “Russia holds a consistent stand on the search for solutions in Syria based on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, respect for its sovereignty and pursuing a long-term political settlement in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the agreements on de-escalation zones reached within the Astana process. In this connection, we urge the opposing sides to show mutual restraint.”

Moscow takes a long-term view of the situation in Syria and it seems it does not see the Turkish incursion as irreparably damaging to prospects for peace.

The day after Ankara’s Afrin incursion began, Lavrov announced that Kurdish representatives were among those invited to the Sochi conference. That didn’t go well and it is not clear what Moscow will do next.

Russian arms helped Assad regain control of much of his country from various Syrian resistance groups to the Islamic State (ISIS). The second phase of Russia’s Syria policy was to shift the focus from military operations to diplomatic efforts to achieve peace.

At the very least, the Turkish military operation greatly complicated Moscow’s efforts to present the Syrian conflict as a war that’s been won by the legitimate government. Turkey’s intervention threatens to open a new front in a war that Russia has been trying to end. Last year, Putin achieved a diplomatic coup when Erdogan greenlighted his plan to stabilise Syria.

Since then, however, the Kurdish factor has seemingly proved to be a deal-breaker. Russia sees the Syrian Kurds as a potential ally and key part of any settlement. Erdogan considers them a terrorist menace to Turkey.

Much depends on how temporary the Turkish military presence in Syria proves to be. If it begins to acquire a more permanent character, then Erdogan might become the reason for an improbable diplomatic alliance between the United States and Russia, both seeking to restrain his regional ambitions.