The memorandum of understanding on Syria signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Sochi, on October 22, was seen as a triumph in Moscow (see EDM, October 24); but the jubilation evaporated in a matter of days. The Kremlin grew upset regarding how the United States and Turkey seemed to take on exclusive management of the new escalation of the Syrian crisis even as the widely reported-on six-hour bargaining session in Sochi cemented Russia’s role as a major owner of this violent debacle (Kommersant, October 23). Now, Russian experts and officials have begun to more soberly assess the costs and risks of the new commitment, and the surge of joy over yet again having demonstrated Russia’s “Great Power” status is turning into deepening worry. Putin seemingly has always wanted to achieve victory in Syria on the cheap, and he repeatedly announced intentions to withdraw the bulk of Russian forces engaged in the protracted intervention (see EDM, March 17, 21, 2016 and November 27, 2017). The apparent imperative to abandon this vision is, therefore, unlikely to be satisfactory to him.
The Putin-Erdoğan memorandum is certainly not a rock-solid agreement; it is full of holes and clearly exposes lightly armed Russian troops to being caught in the crossfire between determined Turkish forces and angry or desperate Kurdish militias (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 24). The Russian top brass has to prepare for worst-case options, and clashes between emboldened units of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian military forces and maverick gangs of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army are certain to occur; if Russian patrols find themselves trapped in the middle, Moscow will not be able to rescue them via air strikes (Rosbalt, October 23). The negotiations in Sochi left the fate of the rebel-controlled Idlib province undecided. But now, the Syrian army will be too busy moving into Kobani, Raqqa and other key northeastern opposition strongholds to attempt the offensive against Idlib, which was long-planned by Russian commanders as a way to reduce the threat of drone strikes (see EDM, January 16, 17, 2018) on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase (RBC, September 3).
The economic costs of the new Syrian deployment may not be that high, but they nonetheless add to Moscow’s mounting burden of supporting the al-Assad regime, which, after successfully regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, faces the colossal problem of post-war reconstruction (Carnegie.ru, October 23). Russia lacks the resources and cannot expect Western or Arab stakeholders to foot the bill, and some Russian mainstream experts warn that US policy could seek to further hamper Moscow’s ability to stabilize the Syrian situation (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 22). Washington’s unexpected decision to deny the al-Assad government access to oil fields in eastern Syria by deploying an armored unit near Deir ez-Zor caused much consternation in Moscow (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 25). Oil reserves in Syria are scarce, and this limited production is crucially important for keeping al-Assad’s military machine going, particularly as it cannot count on deliveries from Iran. It is worth noting, therefore, that the recent explosion of protests in Lebanon was triggered by a reduction in Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah, as Saudi Arabia concurrently cut support for Saad Hariri’s corrupt government in Beirut (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 24).
Pouring money into the mutating Syrian war is an unpopular proposition with the Russian public, regardless of whatever spin is added to this “victory” by the incessant propaganda (Svoboda.org, October 23). Putin has inadvertently added to this disapproval by announcing the cancelation of $20 billion of debt owed to Russia by the poorest African states—in fact, an old decision but recycled anew as a useful political gesture (Znak.com, October 25). Considering Russia’s protracted economic stagnation, however, such “generosity” invites bitter reaction from the growing majority of families suffering from shrinking incomes and deteriorating public services (Moscow Echo, October 24).
Another potential public irritant will be the near-inevitable news of combat casualties in the expanded high-risk deployment to northeastern Syria, hard as the Ministry of Defense will try to continue to suppress such information. Russian society is often indifferent to these types of tragedies at home—as witnessed recently by a Russian conscript soldier’s murder of eight fellow service members in a battalion charged with guarding a nuclear munitions storage site (Kommersant, October 26). Lives lost in Syria, however, are a different matter; and in order to minimize the possible negative resonance, Russian high command opted to deploy to the new patrol zone a battalion of military police from Chechnya—that is, personnel of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov’s de facto private army (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 25).
The plight of the Kurds expelled from their homeland is of little concern for Moscow, and the huge humanitarian problem of refugees from the Syrian war is seen primarily as leverage with which to pressure Europe or pursue other political manipulations. The Russian leadership cannot dissuade Erdoğan from his plan to resettle a million Syrian refugees on the captured portion of Syria’s northeastern border regions, and the Sochi memorandum elliptically mentions their “safe and voluntary” return (Lenta.ru, October 14). But the appearance of this massive base of anti-al-Assad forces will jeopardize the Syrian military’s newly gained control over Manbij, which is squeezed between this new “buffer zone” and Afrin, occupied by Turkey in March 2018. The Putin-Erdoğan deal, thus, effectively sets the stage for a new escalation of hostilities in northern Syria and a subsequent future Turkish offensive—which is hardly what Putin meant when he described the October 22 memorandum as a “fateful decision” (RIA Novosti, October 22).
The Kremlin is eager to condemn Washington for both withdrawing from and staying in Syria, but it has to acknowledge that the erratic policy zigzags are underpinned by a fundamental assessment that engaging in the Syrian calamity and managing the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds is not a vital or even a significant US national interest. This leaves Putin with the question of how and whether at all the increasingly costly intervention in Syria answers Russia’s own national interests. He savors the “victory” achieved by default, but the moment of joy from entering the vacuum left by the US has passed, replaced by second thoughts about the growing risks and diminishing benefits stemming from Moscow’s newly accepted responsibilities on the ground. Posturing has become both the style and substance of Putin’s leadership, and it has now delivered a dangerous additional entanglement, where one sign of weakness could shake the intricate construct of his previous pretenses and bluffs.