Syria: double deals and iconic moves

A sound indication of political convergence -rather than prevalence of a single stakeholder- lies beneath the announced partial withdrawal of Russia’s military forces in Syria. The move came right upon the warning by the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, that there would be no plan B in case the peace talks fail. The prolongation of the Syrian conflict becomes even more probable due to the complications accruing from the declaration of a federal Kurdish region by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) leaders.

While the world eagerly hopes for the implementation of the fragile ceasefire, jointly agreed by the United States and Russia, Syria’s territorial integrity is far from taken for granted. Ironically, it becomes more and more dependent on convergence that has been succeeded between the White House and Kremlin.

A tactical move

There are only a few apparent military motives behind the unanticipated decision by the Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull out the chunk of Russian forces from Syria. The official explanation suggests the Russian mission’s goals have been fulfilled. Nevertheless, as military and diplomatic experts have noted, such as the former US Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, the decision was a fine manoeuvre with multiple level impact. Moscow gives an indication it takes the diplomatic process seriously, without actually “leaving” Syria. The Russian ministry of defence has already noted that the naval base of Tartus and the Lattakia airbase remain intact. The same applies to the sophisticated anti-aircraft missile S400 systems, while the Russians will continue to operate against terrorist organisations, such ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

To understand the rationale beneath the Russian withdrawal, it’s necessary to remember that the Russian intervention was never intended to restore the pre-conflict status quo. Instead, its goals were more realistic and in accordance to Kremlin’s interests in the Mediterranean, seeking to:

  1. Prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad, guaranteeing at least that his fate would not be the same as Muammar Gaddafi’s, who was killed in 2011.
  2. Strengthen the position of Assad’s government in a potential negotiating process through striking a serious blow against both ISIS and the Syrian rebels, restoring strategic territories under the control of Damascus.
  3. Compel the United States to consider Moscow as an equal player in the region, diplomatically and militarily, so as the discussion about the future of Syria must include Russia.

These goals, albeit never explicitly broadcast by Russian officials, were fulfilled to a great extent. Former White House official Steven Simon put it clearly via Foreign Affairs: “Redeployment to bases at home does more than save money and give crews a break. It’s also the diplomatically adroit thing to do. The maneuver demonstrates Russian restraint and cooperation at a crucial stage in the Geneva negotiating process. It puts pressure on the opposition to reciprocate by advancing a position that is actually negotiable”.

The challenge of regime change

Several western media saw in Putin’s move the Russian desire to press Assad sit on the negotiating table, without expecting the unlimited aid of Russian firepower. Naturally, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, refuted the idea, stressing that the Russian withdrawal was the result of a joint decision with Damascus.

Indeed, even in the battlefield, Assad has emerged strengthened, having reclaimed -with Russian air cover of course- more than 10,000 sqm of territory from Syrian rebels and jihadists, while the Syrian army was one step (the moment you read these words) before the recapturing of Palmyra. With the rebel supply lines disrupted, the ceasefire “protecting” the regime from opposition operations and the Syrian army bolstered by Iranian reinforcements, the power balance has truly benefited Damascus.

Thus, Assad’s negotiating leverage has increased ahead of the “moment of truth”, as proclaimed by John Kerry, that shall come during the Geneva talks. But most notably, the Americans were adamant on insisting Assad had to go for any negotiation to commence. Last December however, John Kerry was assuring Moscow that Washington does not with regime change in Damascus; and today, the Syrian President has a seat on the table, no matter whether he decides to use it wisely or not.

Therefore, if there is something the Russians wish to coerce Assad into, this would pertain more to him showing flexibility rather than unconditionally resigning. Instead, rumours like those hinting to a Russian proposal for a new Constitution in Syria actually foment the prolongment of his tenure.

Washington’s Plan B on ice?

Seemingly, the United States’ current policy is to focus -at this stage- on the diplomatic channel, which happens to be the most viable way of securing a political success for Barack Obama and his cabinet, looking forward to the presidential elections. The need for a win-win development on the international stage brought Washington and Moscow to a new understanding, not least through their joint support to the emerging so called Astana and Cairo opposition groups, which demonstrate less intransigence towards Assad than the Saudi backed rebels.

“We have been very clear about our belief in the territorial integrity and unity of Syria”, State Department spokesman Mark Toner has said, referring to the Kurdish declaration of autonomy. However, he left “the door ajar” as Reuters put it: “Pressed on whether the United States could accept a federal structure for Syria if that were ultimately the choice of the Syrian people themselves, the spokesman replied: “Yes.”“

Following this path, Washington plays on two sides, both the Geneva process and the scenario of eventual partitioning of Syria, keeping the Kurds out but near the talks. Naturally, the second scenario would hardly help in terminating the Syrian conflict, since Kurdish activity may eventually force Turkey to engage further, on the ground, while the Russians will not hesitate to return in Syria -as Putin made clear- in a few hours, if not operate directly from Russian territory.

Ankara’s troubles

Turkey’s ruling duo, Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, is watching closely the developments in Syria. The seemingly Russian withdrawal can open a window for the Turkish military to expand its activity inside Syria, using the regular – day by day accumulating- incidents as security excuses, such as the 13 March attack, when a car laden with explosives exploded next to buses, killing 37 people, injuring 125 and damaging buildings and vehicles.

Prime Minister Davutoğlu rushed to claim there is strong evidence showing the PKK was behind the attack. Indeed, the Ministry of Interior identified the bomber as Seher Demir, considering her to be affiliated to the PKK since 2013.

Ankara has notoriously insisted the PKK is responsible for the bombing, which could not have been taken for granted. The organisation has always targeted security forces and staff and not civilians. Finally, responsibility for the attacked was claimed by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), a faction of Kurdish autonomists, which actually sees PKK as a rival, despite being considered its offshoot by Ankara..

TAK has also claimed responsibility for the 17 February attack in Ankara, that resulted in the death of 30 people.

The thorn in Turkey’s side

The Turkish government, once more, took advantage of the bombings using it as a pretext to ramp up strikes against PKK positions in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. In a few days, 36 people were arrested as terrorist suspects only in Adana, 9 more in the rest of the country.

As a matter of course, every single bombing in Turkey is tied in with the war against terrorism, by the duo Erdoğan-Davutoğlu, leading to a potential step-up of Turkish -and Saudi, as well- involvement on Syrian soil, in order to thwart any attempt to form a Kurdish state. Therefore, a Turkish invasion in Syria is still on the table, while the Turkish President spoke of an “iron fist” against terrorist. That was just a few days after the declaration by PYD officials (the sister party of PKK in Syria) of a Kurdish autonomous region, consisting of three cantons, Afrin, Kobani and Cizire.

Ankara is justifiably on high alert, even though neither the USA nor the Syrian opposition seem to endorse the federalisation scenario. The alignment of Turkey’s interests with Assad’s on the matter is at least noteworthy…

At the same time, under Turkish pressure, the PYD has not been invited to the Geneva negotiations, even though it’s considered by Washington as the most effective force against ISIS. Provided that Russia does not intend to truly leave Syria, Turkey is right to “watch with caution the Russian moves”, as the pro-government Turkish daily Hürriyet has noted.

Published originally in Greek (The Funnel), 20 Mar 2016

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