Geopolitics and Syria Today

Helena Cobban Blog, Global Balance, Russia, Syria, Turkey

The last days of 2016 saw two notable developments in U.S.-Russian relations. In the first, the U.S. government expelled more than 30 Russian diplomats from the country and shuttered two Russian Embassy recreational compounds, on grounds that these people and compounds had been used to spy against the United States. In the second, Russian, Turkey, and Iran jointly announced the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement for their forces and all allied forces in Syria, and their agreement on a framework for talks about the shape of a political resolution to Syria’s complex internal conflicts.

The second of these developments did not directly affect U.S.-Russian relations. But this ceasefire supplanted all the efforts the Russians had previously made to work with U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry to reach a ceasefire (or a “cessation of hostilities”) in Syria, and it clearly showed that Turkey, a full member of NATO, was at least as ready to work with Russia in Syria as it was with the United States. Thus, the December 29 ceasefire agreement signaled a non-trivial shift in the balance of power between the United States and Russia in this part of Western Asia.

(It is meanwhile unclear how long the diplomatic crisis over the allegations of espionage will last after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President… )

In the context of the horrifying course and consequences of Syria’s 5.5-year civil war, the Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement for a ceasefire holds out the best hope yet that, over time, the destructive stew of conflicts among the warring parties in Syria might finally be de-escalated and hopefully also steered toward a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the many political conflicts that have roiled the country since the spring of 2011.

On December 31, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2336, in which it expressed its support of “the efforts by Russia and Turkey to end violence in Syria and jumpstart a political process.” Wisely, the United States supported the resolution.

Under the Russian-Turkish-Iranian plan, these three governments, the Syrian government, and other involved Syrian and non-Syrian parties will meet in Astana, Kazakhstan on January 23 to start a political process for bringing peace to as much of Syria as possible.

The ceasefire–and also, it might be guessed, the political talks–explicitly involves the Syrian Arab Army and its allied fighting units and all anti-government Syrian fighting units except for ISIS/Da’esh and Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), which is the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda.

In the ten days since the ceasefire went into effect, there have been some continuing clashes–along with, notably, a terrifying move by opposition forces in the Wadi Barada region to cut off or contaminate the central water supplies for the whole of Damascus. And there remain many questions over whether some of the anti-government fighting groups like “Ahrar al-Sham” are committed to (and also, covered by) the ceasefire, or whether they consider themselves–and should be considered by others–as firmly allied to Fateh al-Sham and therefore not part of the ceasefire-respecting group.

The fragmented and extremely politically and operationally “fluid” (or slippery) nature of the Syrian opposition has always been one of the main challenges for anyone seeking to structure a workable program to de-escalate the crisis and bring about a political resolution of its causes.

At the level of the governmental actors involved in Syria, it is slightly easier to see both what is happening and what might be done to engage them in the pursuit of continued de-escalation and a negotiated peace.

Russia and Iran are both allies of the legitimate government of Syria; and given the considerable amount of military help they have provided to the Syrian Arab Army, especially in the past 15 months, they are both able to exert non-trivial amounts of leverage over the Syrian government.

For its part, Turkey has been a vital ally since 2011 for nearly all of the very numerous anti-government militias and fighting formations in Syria, since these anti-government fighters have been almost totally reliant on Turkey allowing them to funnel men, arms, and money into Syria. The Turkish government’s active support for the whole range of “Contra” fighters in Syria has been essential for the Contras from Day One.

But now, with the latest agreement, Turkey has shown that it has shifted from its previous position as a leading proponent of the idea that “Regime Change” in Syria should be a precondition for any talks on political reform in the country. Now, it is a full party to a ceasefire/peacemaking process that will involve the present Syrian government for at least next four years. This shift is very significant– for Syria and also (because of Turkey’s membership in NATO), for NATO itself.

Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost certainly made this shift in response to the very serious “blowback” that his country suffered as a result of its long and deep engagement in the pro-regime-change effort in Syria. The empowering of the Syrian Kurds that occurred as part of the sharpening of the conflict in Syria also helped lead to a serious sharpening of Turkey’s long-festering conflict with its own very substantial ethnic-Kurdish population. (Another factor that sharpened the Turkish-Kurdish conflict within Turkey was a series of anti-Kurdish actions undertaken by pro-ISIS factions that since at least 2011 have operated with some degree of impunity in Turkey.)

Since July 2015, the Turkish military has been engaged in broad and very destructive anti-Kurdish campaigns in Eastern Turkey.

For the Turkish authorities to see the U.S. Special Forces working almost openly over the past two years with Kurdish YPG forces in north-east Syria that are closely allied with the Turkish Kurds’ main fighting force, the PKK, must have been hard indeed. (Update, Jan. 9: In this article posted on the WaPo website on Jan. 7, Liz Sly provides many details about the ideological training of new recruits to the U.S.-trained, YPG-led militia in north-east Syria. The ideology is 100% the PKK line.)

Pres. Erdogan has faced other serious blowback from his involvement in Syria, too. Most notably, pro-ISIS or pro-Qaeda formation or individuals  in Turkey have undertaken a number of fairly “spectacular” terror operations there in recent years– including the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, in Ankara, on December 19.

Then, in addition to all that fairly visible blowback from Syria, there was the apparently serious coup attempt that was launched against Erdogan’s government last July– and then, the extremely broad campaign of imprisonments, firings, and other punishments that his government launched in response to the coup attempt.

Without a doubt, this whole series of events inside Turkey have stretched its once-feared military and security forces to their limits–as they have, too, the networks of political compacts among different Turkish interest groups and factions that underlay what, until 2011, looked like a robust and successful exercise in mildly Islamist democracy in Erdogan’s Turkey.

So it is fairly easy to understand that Erdogan has no more stamina to pursue the whole of his earlier pro-regime-change agenda in Syria. And if he is unable to bring about regime change, then clearly, he needed to find a way to cut his losses there. The smart, involved diplomacy pursued by Russia and Iran offered him a way to do this… one that crucially was not being offered to him by the United States, whose adherence to the mantra of “Asad must go” has in recent months been revealed as being stronger than his own.

To a significant degree, the crucial political/geopolitical battle being fought out at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean is now no longer “just” a battle over Syria (which once-proud country has now been reduced to a tragic sideshow), but a battle for the soul of Turkey itself.

Is Turkey about to leave NATO? I very much doubt it. But will its membership of NATO prevent it from having its forces do open battle with the US Special Forces now working with the YPG? I doubt that, too.

For Russian officials, seeing these two NATO members now openly duking it out between themselves in northern Syria may provide a lot more glee and entertainment than could ever have been provided in those two diplo-rec compounds that were recently closed by Obama’s orders.

* * *

So is Russia now “back” in the Middle East in a way that it hasn’t been for the past 42 years? That is an interesting question.

1974 was, we might recall, the year in which the wily diplomacy of Henry Kissinger succeeded in wresting control of Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy away from the United Nations and away from the U.S.-Soviet duopoly that made a brief appearance on the world stage at a conference in Geneva in December 1973. 1974 was the year in which Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy achieved not only a solely U.S.-brokered disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt, but also between Israel and Syria. The United States has dominated and effectively controlled all peace negotiations related to that portion of the Middle East/ Western Asia, ever since; and its ability to play that role added non-trivially to the prestige it enjoyed in world affairs, in general.

And now Russia is stepping in. Not into the whole imbroglio of Middle East peace diplomacy; but into a leading role in the brokering of some form of a peace inside Syria, anyway.

Russia tried a duopoly there with the Obama administration, at two successive “Geneva” conferences in recent years. But the Obama administration was unable or unwilling to hold up its side of the bargain reached at those conferences. Crucially, Washington had undertaken at those Geneva conferences that it would work to separate the “good” rebels among the Syrian Contra forces that it supported from the “bad”, Qaeda-linked rebels, so that the “good” ones could be part of (and be covered by) the ceasefire, while the Qaeda-linked ones would not be. It was never able to achieve that– though it remained unwilling ever to admit openly to the U.S. and world publics that most of the “rebels” that it supported in Syria were completely dominated operationally, on the ground, by the serried ranks of Saudi- and Qatar-supported Wahhabis allied with Al-Qaeda.

Turkey is a lot closer to the scene of battle in Syria than is either Saudi Arabia or Qatar; and Turkey has felt a lot more blowback from its past years of support for the Wahhabis in Syria than have those Gulf countries. So Turkey is now, I hope, pulling seriously back from its support for the Wahhabists in Syria. Russia and Iran are both quite understandably extremely eager to help it do so. The United States? Who knows?

Anyway, the hosts of the process that is slated to open in Astana on January 23 are reportedly hoping to organize two parallel confabs there– one for the intra-Syrian discussions, and one of the inter-state discussions. It should be an interesting conference. Then, just a few days later, the international parties involved are supposed to return to Geneva, for a new, “Geneva-3” negotiation. Stay tuned.