Syria enters 2017 in a state of diplomatic confusion. On December 30, a truce agreement brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran came into effect. It was endorsed by the UN Security Council on the following day and has been blessed by the United States, but war still rages in many areas of the country.
Meanwhile, the gaze of the international community has turned to an unlikely location: Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where Russia is trying to organize Syrian political negotiations backed by Turkey and Iran. The Astana meeting has been scheduled for January 23, before the resumption of the UN-led Geneva III peace talks on February 8, but despite a frenzied diplomatic activity between Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara, there is so far little clarity on what the talks are going to be about. No one expects a solution to the crisis to magically pop out of Kazakhstan, but surely one might assume there is some plan beyond talking for the sake of talking.
No one expects a solution to the crisis to magically pop out of Kazakhstan, but surely one might assume there is some plan beyond talking for the sake of talking.
In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan both seem to be improvising, trading concessions and seeking limited common ground before Donald Trump is sworn in as president of the United States on January 20. How far they will get remains to be seen.
What Turkey Wants
Though Turkey continues to insist on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan has clearly shifted gears in Syria since summer 2016. Having soured on President Barack Obama’s refusal to send the U.S. Air Force into war, he now deemphasizes questions related to Assad in order to improve relations with Russia and secure Ankara’s interests in the border region by other means.
Most especially, Erdogan has sought Russian support for the Turkish military intervention in northern Syria that began in August 2016. A somewhat underpowered Turkish force is currently battling alongside Syrian rebel allies to seize the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab, near Aleppo, but their slow progress has forced Erdogan deeper into Putin’s embrace. As part of the new agreement, Russia began to provide the Turks with air support on December 30. However, although the intervention has mainly targeted the Islamic State, Erdogan’s underlying ambition is to block advances by Syrian Kurdish factions friendly to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to guarantee Ankara a continued stake in Syrian affairs.
To the extent that Russia can help him, Erdogan appears willing to acquiesce to Russian dominance in Syria, seeing no other realistic options.
To the extent that Russia can help him, Erdogan appears willing to acquiesce to Russian dominance in Syria, seeing no other realistic options. He is now testing the waters to see what a Putin-led process can offer, presumably recognizing that it may well be a disappointment but that there is also little promise in any other course of action.
What Russia Wants
Putin’s goal in Syria is, for the moment, very simple. Along with Iran, he wants to prop up Assad militarily while exhausting and dividing pro-opposition nations. With Aleppo now back under Assad’s control, Turkey turning inwards, Donald Trump preparing to take charge in Washington, and the Moscow-friendly rightwinger François Fillon as a top contender for the French presidency, the moment is ripe for a hard Russian push.
Putin will, of course, want to maximize Moscow’s role and reorganize the diplomatic playing-field in Assad’s favor, doing his utmost to knock the talk of a political transition off the table. But if he accomplishes nothing more than to shake things up in anticipation of Trump’s arrival, that could be good enough. The Russian president may not have a great endgame in mind, but his rivals do not even have a plan for the present—and he wants to keep it that way.
Drawing Turkey deeper into the game of tradeoffs that began with its August 2016 intervention is an excellent way of achieving these goals, not just because it helps distance Ankara from the struggle against Assad, but also because of how it changes the calculus among other anti-Assad states and sows distrust in the Syrian opposition. And let’s not forget that pulling Turkey further from the United States, the European Union, and NATO holds a strategic value to Russia for reasons that have nothing to do with Syria.
However, there are a lot of hard problems and sharp elbows to bump into in northern Syria, and Putin will have to play his game carefully. A first test will be the truce, the basic structure of which seem to have been copied from previous truce arrangements between Russia and the United States. It has not ended violence since December 30 and it is not obvious that it can. Indeed, all previous Syrian truces ultimately petered out into a mess of resurgent violence. This one looks no different—it just has less international backing. Violence continues to rage in several areas, with allegations of truce violations in the Eastern Ghouta, the Wadi Barada region, and elsewhere. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently warned that if this doesn’t change, there might never be any talks in Astana.
Who Gets to Go to Astana?
While the truce suffers from practical problems, the Astana talks are threatened by the fact that there is no disagreement on their format or purpose. Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian adviser to the UN special envoy to Syria, has suggested that the Kazakh capital could host a two-track process, with one set of meetings between interested governments and another between Syrian delegations. As far as governments go, the table has already been set for Iran, Turkey, and Russia, but disagreements abound on who else should be invited. That is, if anyone else wants to come.
Iranian officials are adamant that, for the time being, no other nations except these three should be invited to Astana. (Particularly not the Saudis.) Iran’s intransigence appears to have irritated Turkey, which is uncomfortable with the optics of being seated alone between two stalwart Assad allies. Turkish officials therefore insist on trying to bring the United States, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia into the talks, which has lead to a war of words with Tehran.
For once, Russia seems to be on the Turkish side in a Syria-related dispute. Putin wants to expand the number of participants in order to anchor the Astana talks in an international consensus, increase their potential impact, and shine a light on Russia’s centrality. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already pointed to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Jordan as suitable participants, while hinting at the big prize: “I also hope that once Donald Trump’s administration takes office, they too will join these efforts so that we can all work in this area in a friendly spirit and as a team.”
Astana and the Opposition Groups
All three organizers agree that Syrians should have at least some role in discussing the future of Syria. The Damascus government has already said it will go to Astana, and efforts are underway to get the major non-jihadi rebel groups to come, too.
To boost these efforts, and as a further concession to Turkey, Russia has abruptly changed its view of two Ankara-friendly Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army. Less than two months ago, the Kremlin loudly condemned both groups as inveterate jihadi extremists and demanded their terrorist-listing at the United Nations, accusing Western diplomats of double standards when they disagreed. But on December 29, the Russian Ministry of Defense suddenly announced that Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army are members of the “moderate opposition.”
However, Russia’s re-categorization of Syrian Islamists might not be enough to recruit a credible opposition delegation. Splinter-prone Ahrar al-Sham is hedging its bets on the truce and has signaled that it won’t go to Astana, while the Islam Army and more mainstream Turkey-backed groups are threatening to “freeze” their participation unless additional pressure is put on Assad. On the other end of the table, Iran is also making angry noises, saying no “terrorists” should be allowed in Astana.
As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Turkey is urging the exclusion of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, whose most important member—a Kurdish militia known as the YPG—functions as a Syrian wing of the PKK. “We have told Russia from the beginning that terrorist organizations like the YPG must not participate in the Astana negotiations,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week. The Turkish president also threatened military operations against the city of Manbij, a Syrian Democratic Forces stronghold. “In Syria, we hope to finish the operation of al-Bab in a short time. After it is complete, we are committed to clearing other areas where the terror organizations are nesting, especially Manbij,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. But Russia and Iran both have excellent working relations with the YPG, and, to further muddy the picture, it is primary ally of the United States in northern Syria.
Turkey’s flirtations with Russia are already causing rifts within the Syrian opposition. Anti-Erdogan sentiment is on the rise among hardline Islamist factions such as Fateh al-Sham, which has links to al-Qaeda. Much of the intra-rebel debate currently revolves around rival plans to unify the opposition, with Fateh al-Sham trying to suck Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamists into an alliance that would once and for all render the northern rebellion untouchable to Western nations. More pragmatic and typically Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham members have resisted this as best they can, but their hand is now weakened by the impression that Erdogan has cast his lot with Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei.
What Happens Next?
The Syrian diplomatic game has become fluid and unpredictable, as an unprecedented number of actors prepare to adjust their policies, their fingers in the wind. But much about the Astana track suggests that it is in fact an improvised gamble to exploit sudden opportunities and address pressing necessities within clear constraints, rather than a part of some ambitious secret plan. Putin’s and Erdogan’s views may remain irreconcilable on core issues such as the fate of Assad, but they can still gain from seeking common ground.
Russia and Iran may also be hoping that the Syrian rebels splinter and radicalize even further over the Astana issue, alienating Western and Arab nations.
On the most basic level, any conclusions reached in the Kazakh capital will feed into the Geneva III peace talks, increasing the relative weight of the Astana organizers in future negotiations and creating new diplomatic options for the pro-Assad camp as well as for Turkey. Russia and Iran may also be hoping that the Syrian rebels splinter and radicalize even further over the Astana issue, alienating Western and Arab nations. And, by working with Russia and Iran, Erdogan can try to deepen the isolation of the Syrian PKK proxies, perhaps preparing the way for a Turkish attack on their forces in Manbij or Efrin. More generally, continued contact between Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara—and perhaps other actors—could facilitate a harmonization of their long-term roles in Syria, helping them to consensually define their spheres of interest in a nation that is likely to remain fragmented and unstable even if fighting should one day subside.
But let’s not speculate too much. For all we know, the truce arrangements in Syria could collapse tomorrow and there may never be an Astana meeting. The diplomatic fog remains impenetrable, with too many unpredictable actors, moving parts, and unanswered questions to draw clear conclusions. And whatever happens to the truce, to Astana, to the opposition, or to Turkish, Russian, and Iranian foreign policy, one great riddle remains: what will Donald do?
Cover Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pictured at a meeting in 2015, are trying to steer a new round of Syria peace talks. Source: The Kremlin