Endgame in Syria?

Russia prides itself on winning wars. Its record in diplomacy, however, is at best patchy.  The case in point - Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin has triumphed on the battlefield, but cashing in politically is proving much more tricky.

Following the news over the past 10 days or so, one could be forgiven thinking that the southern Russian city of Sochi had turned into a global diplomatic hub to rival Geneva or New York. 

Putin has emerged as the power broker in chief in the Syrian tragedy. First, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the pilgrimage to the Black Sea resort town on November 13.  Eight days later, a Russian military jet brought in Syrian President Bashar Assad - through Turkish airspace - for a one-on-one with Putin.

It all culminated into a three-way summit on Nov. 22 with Putin hosting Erdoğan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani – yes, in Sochi, once more. Add to that the phone call between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump on Nov. 20, as well as their brief encounter at the APEC get-together in China that led to a joint statement on Syria, and you could tell something is brewing.

Russia is indeed in the driver’s seat this time around. It entered Syria in September 2015 to keep Assad in power at a moment he seemed at risk. But now the Kremlin is pushing for a power sharing settlement to put an end to the devastating civil war - on its own terms, of course. According to pundits, Moscow is looking at the long term: a new constitution limiting the Syrian president’s power and perhaps Assad stepping down once his current term expires in 2021.

To this end, Russia is nurturing ties to all sides – the regime, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the various factions of the opposition (there is even a Moscow Platform, a grouping of figures beholden to the Kremlin), the Kurds, the Israelis (Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR, was in Israel to brief top officials on Syria). And lest we forget, the United States.

But talking to all parties is not the same thing as making them play along. Putin’s different interlocutors have radically divergent agendas. The United States is soliciting Russia’s help in checking Iran in eastern Syria, as do the Israelis with regard to the southwest. Putin’s talks with Rouhani and Erdoğan were reportedly about reassuring them that Moscow is not cutting a deal with the Americans at the expense of Turkish and Iranian interests.

The Syrian opposition engages with Russia in the hope it could pressure Assad. The regime and the Iranians, by contrast, expect Putin to help them crash the remnants of the armed resistance, despite the Astana talks’ mantras about de-escalation. Iran disputes the Russian narrative that the routing of Islamic State has ended the war and opened a new political phase. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) sees Russia as a co-guarantor of Kurdish autonomy along with the United States. Ankara and Tehran both want Moscow to drop ties with the Kurds.

The grand bargain Putin is seeking, therefore, seems to be as elusive as ever. The new round of talks in Geneva this week is shrouded in uncertainty. It was not clear, till the very end, whether the regime and the opposition would turn up. The Russian plan to hold a high-profile conference, again in Sochi, attended by multiple opposition groups and the Assad regime, appears to be on hold. In short, Russia’s ambitions have to reckon with realities.

What are the implications for Turkey? Caught in a vicious dispute with the United States, but also at loggerheads with the Saudis, Erdoğan has put all his bets on the Russians. But Putin’s double game on multiple chessboards, as Moscow-based foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov called it, may not deliver the goods.

A new chapter in the Syrian war where Iran and the United States clash, whether directly or by proxy, will generate new problems for Turkey. For starters, it will consolidate the PYD’s grip on territories in the north and northeast it currently controls. Ankara will surely cling to the piece of Syrian territory under its influence.  But whether and how it uses it as leverage in the never-ending negotiations on the future of Syria is open to question.