The massive and indiscriminate air strikes and the limited land offensive into Kurdish-controlled northern Syria launched by Turkey last Wednesday (October 9) have attracted prime international attention and caused much dismay in Washington, DC; but Moscow has remained uncharacteristically silent about the explosion of armed hostilities in such close vicinity to the Russian area of operations. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received a phone call from his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Tuesday but refrained from expressing any reservations about the Turkish intervention (Mid.ru, October 8). The following day, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey called President Vladimir Putin who advised the Turkish leader to assess carefully the consequences of the military operation (Kremlin.ru, October 9). Moscow’s official expression of “serious concerns” followed only on Friday, but the Russian call to all parties to show “maximum restraint” was manifestly irrelevant (Mid.ru, October 11). The commentary in Russian mainstream media emphasized Moscow’s readiness to facilitate dialogue between Ankara and the Kurds, which was clearly not accepted (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 10). The long-planned Turkish offensive—not to mention Erdoğan’s intentions vis-à-vis the Kurdish-held territories in Syria—could not have been a surprise to the Kremlin. Thus, the Russian side’s deliberate show of indifference following the beginning of the Turkish campaign may signify a careful search for the best way to exploit this opportunity.
The escalation of fighting is not necessarily beneficial to Russia’s interests in Syria, which have centered on strengthening the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, the Kremlin perceives the establishment of a Turkish “buffer zone” as a better option than the consolidation inside Syria of a Kurdish quasi-state supported by the United States (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 10). Moscow appears entirely unconcerned about the plight of the Kurds and the humanitarian disaster caused by the Turkish offensive, and it has good reasons to expect that the US departure will compel the Kurdish leaders to seek reconciliation with the “benevolent” President al-Assad (Rosbalt, October 8). The Turkish offensive also creates a perfect opportunity for the long-postponed Syrian offensive against the rebel-held Idlib province; and the recent minor terrorist attack on a Russian patrol can be used as a pretext for renewed Russian bombing (RIA Novosti, October 11). The main obstacle for this brutal campaign in northwestern Syria has been Erdoğan’s stubborn objections, but he might be persuaded to lift them in reciprocity to Russian consent to his own “Peace Spring” operation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 9).
The Syrian military cannot launch any operation without Iran’s permission, and Tehran is not altogether happy about the Turkish offensive (TASS, October 9). Iran stands to benefit from the confusion in the US engagement in Syria and Iraq but has limited resources to magnify its own position (RBC, October 10). It can hope the distraction of attention from the conflict in the Gulf might lead to a de-escalation of regional tensions—despite the hit on an Iranian tanker in the Red Sea (Izvestia, October 11). Putin is set to perform a diplomatic dance around this conflict by visiting Saudi Arabia on October 14 and the United Arab Emirates the day after (Russiancouncil.ru, October 11). Russia does not want to be caught on the Iranian side of the confrontation; it needs close combat cooperation with Iran in Syria, but it also must minimize the risk of another bad accident in the course of Israeli air strikes on Iranian assets in Syria. Moscow counts the damage to US influence in the region as its net gain, but Israel is upset with this development (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 10).
Playing directly into Russia’s advantage is the deepening rift between Turkey and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as the European Union. President Erdoğan cannot now back off from his announced invasion under pressure of new US sanctions, and Moscow can pretend to be a “friend in need” and upgrade its NATO-divisive strategic partnership with Ankara (Newsru.com, October 12). Erdoğan’s declaratory threat to unleash millions of Syrian refugees into Europe has pushed European leaders into an impossible corner: they are compelled to continue criticizing the Turkish intervention but cannot deal with the looming consequences (Izvestia, October 11). Russia counts on the translation of this mutual castigation into sanctions and penalties, and it encourages Turkey’s reluctance and refusal to partake in the North Atlantic Alliance’s activities in the Black Sea theater, which is now dominated by “fortress Crimea” (see EDM, July 9). Vulnerabilities in this Russian “position of power” can be eliminated if Erdoğan decides that mobilization of domestic support for his war can only be sustained by breaking ranks with NATO (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 7).
Perhaps the most ominous shadow falls over Ukraine: Much the same way as Erdoğan exploited the muddle in US policymaking, Putin may attempt to grasp the initiative and break the deadlock in the Donbas war zone. In the ongoing reinterpretation of the Minsk agreements (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26, October 3, 10), he can score some tactical points, as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has to make fraught compromises (New Times, October 8). These gains bring little satisfaction, however, because the stipulated Russian withdrawal from the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is still a strategic retreat for the domination-driven Kremlin, and the problem of illegally annexed Crimea remains unaddressed (Kommersant, October 10). The dynamic and open-minded Zelenskyy, who seeks to respond to strong public demand for change, is a major irritant for Putin, who, in contrast, personifies stagnation and corruption (Novaya Gazeta, October 12). The defiant Ukraine needs to be demonstratively defeated, and since the name of this country has become a scandal-loaded word in Washington, the power-wielders in Putin’s court may conclude that the moment is right to pursue a decisive victory.
Syria is a sideshow in the grand geopolitical game imagined in Moscow, but it supplies ample evidence of the true intentions and priorities of major players. Presently, it contributes to serious domestic discord in the US and to a deep division within NATO’s southern flank—thus opening interesting opportunities for Russia. Putin may seek to stick to his balanced and coherent policy, but the role of a “wise statesman” is not entirely satisfactory for him, and Idlib is not a prize likely to exult his discontented domestic audience. The capacity for projecting power to some exotic locations is limited because the Syrian intervention takes a lot of resources to sustain. Ukraine, on the other hand, is a short march away for heavy Russian battalions, though this presents a political challenge for Putin’s regime.