Boosted by the victory in Aleppo that it enabled for its client, the Assad regime, Russia is trying to forge a diplomatic track for solving the Syrian civil war together with Turkey and Iran – and without the US.
The three countries issued on Tuesday what Russian officials called “the Moscow Declaration,” after talks in the Russian capital between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish and Iranian counterparts.
“Iran, Russia and Turkey are ready to facilitate the drafting of an agreement, which is already being negotiated between the Syrian government and the opposition, and to become its guarantors,” the declaration said. “They have invited all other countries with influence over the situation on the ground to do the same.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were working to set up negotiations – without the US or UN – that could take place in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The diplomatic push builds on the Russian- and Iranian-supported regime victory in Aleppo, a turning point in the six-year conflict that has taken more than 400,000 lives. It also builds on the agreement between Russia and Turkey that has enabled the evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo.
“Russia is trying to be the leading player in the design of Syria for the day after the war,” said Sarah Fainberg, a Russia specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It is trying to do it with the Iranians because they [the Russians] want to divide respective zones of influence [with Tehran] in western Syria, and with the Turks because they are an essential player in the game and they will be a very important player in eastern Syria.’’ In mapping out Syria’s future, Russia “wants to keep its military bases in Syria, be the leading peacemaker in Syria, to establish a lasting presence in the Middle East and reap political dividends in its confrontation with the West,” she said.
But success in moving toward a diplomatic solution is far from certain. All previous efforts to put a halt to the fighting have failed, and the bloodletting seems to have a momentum of its own. To date, no one has been able to untangle all the disparate foreign interests in Syria, with Turkey, the US and Gulf countries backing the rebels in some form, and Russia, Iran and Hezbollah directly backing the regime.
The reactions of actors outside the Russian-Turkish- Iranian triangle cannot yet be predicted, and the course of developments on the ground, as rebels shift to an insurgency style approach, also remains to be seen. The US in particular is a question mark, but Moscow is hoping that the Trump administration will accept the fait accompli of its primacy over Syria.
Especially given Washington’s abdication, to date, of the Syrian theater to Moscow, it can be argued that the trilateral approach has a certain logic to it: The Russians and Iranians can pressure Assad, while Turkey can pressure the rebels.
In Fainberg’s view, the Russians are interested in avoiding getting bogged down in Syria. “They are pushing for a political solution because it’s not in the interest of Russia to conduct a long-term, comprehensive military operation. They can do pinpointed aircraft attacks to support the Assad regime and military theater that shows the world how sophisticated and advanced they are in Syria, but it’s not in Russia’s interest to conduct an exhausting and humanly costly war in Syria.”
The announcement of the declaration came a day after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in Ankara by a Turkish policeman and pointed up that the murder would not derail Russian-Turkish relations.
“It emphasizes that even if there is some tragic event like this assassination, Turkey and Russia are capable of collaborating and can come to a common denominator and are capable of working together,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey specialist at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center.
What once seemed an unbridgeable point of divergence between the two countries, Turkey’s past insistence that Assad be removed as part of any Syria solution, now seems unlikely to get in the way of warming relations, as the Syrian leader’s future becomes less of a priority for Ankara.
“Turkey understands that once Iran and Russia intervened on behalf of Assad, it would be very hard to get rid of him, so it is not pushing in the short term for this aim,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkey specialist at INSS.
Moreover, Ankara views thwarting the Kurds from achieving territorial contiguity in northern Syria as a much higher priority than ousting Assad, and in September launched a military operation for that purpose. The Turkish fear is that if the Syrian Kurds have territorial contiguity along the border, they will use it as a base for operations against Turkey.
The Turkish military operation in northern Syria depends on the acquiescence of Russia, Lindenstrauss noted. “The Russians have control of most of the airspace in northern Syria. If the Russians wanted to block the Turks from advancing their ground operation in Syria, they could have bombed it. The fact that they allow it to happen – that Turkish troops are operating without too much hindrance from regime forces and the Russians – shows tacit understanding between Turkey and Russia on this issue,” Lindenstrauss said.
The Moscow Declaration points up the improvement in Russian- Turkish relations since a November 2015 incident when Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian fighter that Turkish officials said crossed into Turkish airspace.
The incident raised fears of a war, and Russia imposed painful economic sanctions, including halting tourist flights to Turkish resorts. In June, Erdogan apologized for the downing of the plane.
In the view of Yanarocak, Turkey’s warming to Russia was impelled partly by the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July, which Western leaders, including Obama, were slow to condemn. Later, when Erdogan embarked on a massive purge of elements he alleged were connected to the coup attempt, he came under criticism from European countries. He faced no such criticism from Russia.
“From the Turkish point of view, Russia is needed as leverage vis-àvis the West,” Yanarocak said.
The two countries also are undertaking joint projects essential for Turkey: construction of a nuclear reactor at Mersin and the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline from southern Russia to Kiyikoy in northwest Turkey.
All of these factors mean Russia has a lot of clout with Turkey. The assassination of the ambassador puts Ankara further on the defensive, since it failed in its responsibility to protect him.
Much will now depend on whether the Assad regime, Russia and Iran can keep the momentum on the battlefield. If they do, Lindenstrauss said, “then we are moving ahead to a solution, something that would be favorable to the regime and much less so for the rebels. Just as many of them have to evacuate Aleppo now, many of them also will have to not remain in Syria. Turkey will go along with this, as long as it feels the Kurdish threat is imminent, so that it’s the top priority and it is more willing to compromise on other issues.”
But Haifa University political scientist Gabriel Ben-Dor believes the Moscow Declaration will remain mere words on paper. Despite the Aleppo victory, the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies still are not close to ending the war, he noted.
“The diplomatic track is realistic only when the situation on the ground is amenable, and that is not the case at the moment. What you see is forces fighting each other, the country in effect partitioned into different ethnic groups ruling different regions, and no diplomatic solution satisfying the demands of all these forces on the ground. Something will have to give on the ground before a diplomatic solution becomes feasible,” said Ben- Dor.