First Published: 2017-07-12

The Game in Syria: Advantage Putin?
Putin faces important obstacles in his efforts to pacify Syria and reduce the drain on Russian resources that the war is causing, says Mark N. Katz.
Middle East Online

While he has not yet won the war in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be winning the diplomatic battle. Previous Western insistence that Moscow’s Syrian protégé, President Bashar Assad, must relinquish power has crumbled. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that Washington now expects Assad to remain in power, as has France’s recently elected President Emmanuel Macron.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are no longer supporting Syrian opposition forces as effectively as they were prior to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015 in response to the opposition forces’ successes. The Saudis have become distracted by their inconclusive military intervention in Yemen, while the Saudi-Qatari dispute has ended cooperation between those two oil monarchies in Syria and elsewhere.

Instead of opposing Russia on Assad as it did initially, Turkey is cooperating with Moscow both on the ground in Syria and diplomatically in the Astana peace talks.

Further, the Russian plan for four “de-escalation zones” (involving ceasefires between pro- and anti-Assad forces) in western Syria appears to be gaining traction. The prospect of Turkish forces entering the largest of these zones in north-western Syria will offer a degree of assurance to rebel forces there of protection against the Assad regime. In addition, Israel and Jordan are said to be supporting US-Russian cooperation in calming tensions in south-western Syria.

On a larger scale, there seems to be at least a tacit understanding between Moscow and Washington that the United States does not oppose Russian military action to defend the Assad regime in western Syria while the Kremlin does not oppose American military action against the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria.

In addition, the Russian plan for resolving the conflict in Syria is gaining legitimacy. Washington Postcommentator David Ignatius observed: “Working with Russia may be the only way to reduce the level of violence in Syria and to create a foundation for a calmer, more decentralised nation that can eventually recover from its tragic war.”

Yet even if the United States, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are more willing to concede to — or at least not strenuously oppose — Russia playing a leading role in Syria or Assad staying in power, Putin faces important obstacles in his efforts to pacify Syria and reduce the drain on Russian resources that the war is causing.

Excluded from the Russian ceasefire are jihadist groups such as ISIS and former al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

While this is understandable on one level, Russian forces have a record of both identifying and treating all opposition to the Assad regime as terrorists and jihadists. Non-jihadist Syrian opposition forces have made clear that they will not honour any ceasefire that Russia and its allies proclaim but do not adhere to.

Even if Russian forces do make a concerted effort to honour ceasefires with the non-jihadist Syrian opposition and persuade them to work with the Assad regime against the jihadists, Moscow’s allies in Syria may not be willing to go along. Damascus is undoubtedly aware that Russians frequently tell Westerners and others about how they actually view Assad quite negatively and want to see him step down once a coalition can be built between his supporters and “cooperative elements” from the non-jihadist opposition.

Whether they mean it or not, the fact that Russians make such statements repeatedly has given the Assad regime strong incentive to make sure that ceasefires break down, fighting continues and Moscow keeps supporting Damascus against the “terrorists.”

The Iranians may similarly fear that if a Russian-sponsored peace takes root, Moscow will no longer have need of Tehran in Syria and will work to marginalise Iranian influence there. Indeed, Tehran may see Russian willingness to allow a strong Turkish role in Syria as the beginning of such an effort. Like Assad, Tehran may see continued conflict as more in its interest than conflict resolution.

Increased US, European, Turkish and Sunni Arab acquiescence to Russian diplomacy in Syria may not be enough to allow Putin to bring about conflict resolution. Continued animosity between the Syrian opposition on the one hand and Assad and his Iranian allies on the other — as well as distrust of Russia on both sides — mean that the conflict and the burden it places on Russia are likely to continue.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University the United States. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz. com.

Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly

 

Saudi King sets up new state security agency

Hezbollah launches Syria border operation

Intensifying Jihadist-rebel clashes in Syria's Idlib

Police fire tear gas to disperse Morocco protest

Foreign food chains hoping for taste of Iran market

Three Palestinians shot dead in Jerusalem

Nearly 360 injured in Turkey by magnitude 6.7 quake

UN says Saudi to blame for deadly Yemen strike on civilians

Germany reviews arms sales to Turkey

China calls for Gulf crisis talks

Israel bars men under 50 from Jerusalem Old City prayers

Rebel ambush kills 28 regime fighters near Damascus

Turkey slams 'dangerous' Cyprus energy plans

Saudi prince 'arrested over leaked abuse videos'

Israel boosts 'security measures' as Al-Aqsa tensions simmer

Kuwait expels Iranian diplomats over 'terror' cell

Germany vows to overhaul Turkey ties as row escalates

Home cooked meals a relief for fighters in Syria's Raqa

US maintains designation of Iran as top 'state sponsor'

US halting support for Syria rebels

30 civilians dead in anti-IS strikes in Syria

Palestinian civilians urge ICC to speed up probe

Turkey PM opts for stability in light cabinet reshuffle

UN aid flight carrying journalists barred from Yemen

Former IS slaves fight for revenge in Raqa

US, Iran trade tit-for-tat sanctions

20 Yemeni civilians killed in air strike

14 killed in opposition infighting in Syria's Idlib

Morocco sentences 25 to prison over W. Sahara killings

Egypt police kill top militants

Heavy rainfall hits Istanbul causing transport chaos

Palestinians protest Israeli security measures at Al-Aqsa compound

Saudi police question woman who wore miniskirt

Rebels, US-backed Kurds clash in northern Syria

Netanyahu says Hungary is 'standing up for' Israel

Lebanon army to launch operation near Syria border

Morocco delays currency reform amid speculation

Iran parliament vows to fight US 'adventurism'

4 killed in suicide car bomb at Kurdish checkpoint in Syria

Israel opposes Syria truce deal over Iran presence

Egypt to end visas on arrival for Qatari citizens

Erdogan to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Turkey court refuses to free six rights activists

Trump keeps Iran deal, but sanctions will stay in place

UAE FM warns Qatar is 'undermining' GCC allies