In Syria, Russia is keeping an eye on the big picture

Observers of the Syrian saga might have noted that Russia has toned down its discourse.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) chairs a meeting with members of the National Security Council at the Kremlin in Moscow, on January 26.

LONDON - While practically all local and regional parties involved in the Syrian crisis say they believe conditions are not ripe for a political settlement, all world capitals interested in Syrian affairs are committed to the talks in Switzerland and Russia. Any laxity in dealing with the Syrian issue, they say, could jeopardise plans of helping redraw the political and economic maps of the entire region. 

Observers of the Syrian saga might have noted that Russia has toned down its discourse. The Russians’ ardour, it seems, has been reined in, at least formally, by the new policy in Syria as outlined by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is selling the US plans to Europe before discussing them with Moscow. 

Still, Russia seems to have switched into a pragmatic mood, almost affected and unbelievable, as if it is expecting a change in the general environment and waiting for more favourable conditions. 

It was reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was extremely friendly with the Syrian opposition delegation, the High Negotiations Committee, when he recently met with its members. The Russian minister calmly listened to the opposition’s views and arguments for five hours and made sure to state Russia’s understanding and appreciation of the opposition’s important role in securing the success of the coming settlement in Syria.

Such meetings with the opposition might turn out to be a mere formality, intended to present Russia as an effective mediator acceptable to all parties. After all, it is hard to square Lavrov’s friendly and eager disposition with his previous threats to that same opposition that they would be annihilated if they continued to refuse changes to the balance of power in Syria and take Russia’s lead.

Russia has been keen on consolidating its gains in Syria. Its alliance with Turkey and Iran was just a manoeuvre to ensure that it remains the party with the lion’s share of the Syrian cake. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision and strategy go beyond Syria in that they concern Russia’s position on the global scene.

The fate of the Syrian regime, however, is more dependent on that of the regime in Iran than it is on those of Putin and Russia. Tehran, in turn, may be able to withstand some civil unrest here and there at home but will never accept developments 
that undermine its influence in Syria.

Putin has kept a patient eye on Iran’s game in Syria and now must do the same with Turkey’s adventure in northern Syria. Russia has provided political and logistical cover for Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. The Kurds understood the game and accused Russia of “stabbing them in the back.” They were less incensed by the cold and flat position taken by the United States, their traditional ally, however. The United States was at best “worried” and “reserved” about Turkey’s move but everybody knows that Ankara wouldn’t have dared to go ahead with its campaign without Uncle Sam’s blessing. 

Tillerson spoke of the United States understanding Turkey’s concerns and of the latter’s right to defend its borders. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson chimed in with a similar tune. These coordinated positions belie the military and diplomatic negotiations that must have preceded Turkey’s military campaign. 

Moscow has simply given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leeway to play within a limited area, which would not affect Russia’s influence in Syria. As for Washington, it stated that the region of Afrin is not included in its Syrian operations map. To all parties in the Syrian war, including Turkey and Russia, such a statement is proof of the existence of US operational plans, which must be the foundation for a permanent US presence in Syria already announced by Tillerson. 

Many changes are taking place on the ground in Idlib, Afrin, east of the Euphrates and in Ghouta near Damascus but the wider picture is that Syria’s fate is tied to agendas much more complex than minor changes on the ground. 

Russia seems ready for the storm coming from the West. It will maintain its course with the Sochi talks because it is confident that the Vienna talks will fail. There are those in the Kremlin who say that, regardless of the number of plans for Syria, Russia stands to reap its share, even if it ends up being smaller than originally envisioned by Putin.