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.

Strategic calculations. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) visits the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, on June 18. (AP)


2017/07/09 Issue: 114 Page: 8


The Arab Weekly
Mark N. Katz



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 Post commentator 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, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, is currently a visiting senior fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


As Printed
MENA Now
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar

Correspondents

Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi

Designers

Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

www.alarab.co.uk

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved