The working dinner in Ankara, last Thursday (September 27), between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was not a productive affair or a cordial meeting of minds. Erdoğan announced it immediately after speaking with United States President Donald Trump in New York, so there were expectations of a new step forward in Turkey and Russia harmonizing the de-escalation and de-conflicting processes in Syria. But the two leaders, accompanied by their respective ministers of foreign affairs and chiefs of general staffs, failed to deliver: Putin announced that necessary conditions were in place for “ending the fratricidal war in Syria,” while Erdoğan merely mentioned “efforts to make the Idlib de-escalation zone operational.” The Turkish president denounced the September 25 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan as “illegal” and a “big mistake,” whereas his Russian counterpart avoided this issue altogether (Kremlin.ru, September 28). Apparently, the “detailed and frank exchange of views” (in Putin’s words) reduced rather than expanded the common ground between the two men (RBC, September 28).
Predictably, the massive public desire for independence, expressed by northern Iraq’s Kurds in last week’s referendum, could potentially transform the entire geography of Middle Eastern conflicts—and it has left Moscow in a distinctly dubious position (Republic.ru, September 27). The only official reaction has been a commentary published by the foreign ministry, which simultaneously expressed support for Iraq’s territorial integrity and respect for Kurdish aspirations (Mid.ru, September 27). Media coverage has been generally positive and supportive of the Kurdish leadership’s expressed willingness to negotiate. Though the Russian press was also full of speculation of possible new wars in the region (Gazeta.ru, September 29; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 27). Moscow is clearly interested in turning its traditional contacts with various Kurdish factions into an asset for its policy vis-à-vis its difficult quasi-allies Turkey and Iran (Russiancouncil.ru, September 28). The main problem with such opportunism is that Masoud Barzani, the key figure behind the referendum, and in particular the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, are seen as key US military allies in the cross-border war against the Islamic State (Novaya Gazeta, September 18).
Putin’s words about the end of the civil war in Syria were not merely an exercise in wishful thinking; they betray the urge to find closure for the Russian intervention launched exactly two years ago (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, September 29). The continuing missile strikes are no longer applauded by Russian public opinion, and the death of Lieutenant General Valery Asapov inside Syria has spoiled the victorious reporting in official propaganda (Novaya Gazeta, September 26). The attempts to pin the blame for this setback on US collusion with the Islamic State were grossly false even by Kremlin standards, but Russian mistakes in planning the assault across the Euphrates River cannot be admitted (RBC, September 25). Moscow had to propose some new de-conflicting mechanisms in order to reduce the risks of direct clashes with US forces, but the Russian government then discovered that Iran was not interested at all in such moderation (Kommersant, September 28). It also learned that punishing strikes against rebels that ambushed Russian forces in the province of Idlib were disagreeable for Turkey, which insists on targeting the YPG (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 26).
Another party to the Syrian calamity with serious reservations about Russia’s plan for winning the war is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to cultivate warm relations with Putin, though that has not prevented the Israeli leader from ordering strikers on Hezbollah and Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Nonetheless, he was clearly irked by a recent low-profile visit of a Hamas delegation to Moscow (Newsru.com, September 28). Israel and the US are on the same page regarding the unacceptability of Iran’s influence and military presence in Syria. But Russia is fully aware that the survivability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime requires a sustained backing from Tehran and cannot be secured just by Russian airstrikes (Russiancouncil.ru, September 14). It is, indeed, one thing for Moscow to defend the implementation of the United Nations–approved nuclear agreement with Iran (see EDM, September 25), and a wholly different issue to engage in “brotherhood in arms” with Hezbollah and other Iran-sponsored Shia militias. The former might earn Moscow some international credibility, but the latter brings new US sanctions specifically targeting individuals and institutions involved in transactions supporting the al-Assad regime (RBC, September 30).
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is due to travel to Israel this month in order to smooth the disagreements, but his visit to Damascus in mid-September resulted in the risky operation with crossing the Euphrates near Deir al-Zour (RIA Novosti, September 24; RBC, September 12). Russia’s top brass was given an impossible political order to “liberate” eastern Syria without engaging in a direct clash with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They have not been granted sufficient resources and are probably unhappy that the death of General Asapov has received much less public attention than the series of domestic replacements of regional governors (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 27). Several accidents during the much-advertised Zapad 2017 military exercises, including the crash of a long-range Tu-22M3 bomber, suggest the Russia Air Force is struggling under the pressure of the protracted air campaign in Syria (Kommersant, September 20). Nevertheless, there are significant cuts for defense expenditures in the 2018–2020 state budget approved by the government, while allocations for internal security are being increased (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 19).
The intervention in Syria was supposed to give—and indeed delivered—a boost to Russia’s influence in the Middle East. But at the start of its third year, this effect is now mostly exhausted. Disagreements are deepening in the newly-formed Moscow-Ankara-Tehran “triangle”; for that matter, Iran and Turkey are firmly on Qatar’s side in the recent Gulf crisis, while Russian attempts at mediation have fallen flat. The only factor that plays into Moscow’s hands is the confusion in Washington’s policy, which leaves all players in the Middle Eastern game of inter-connected conflicts confounded and often inclined to experiment with military instruments of policy. Russia excels at such experimentation, but the Syria intervention has turned into a bridge too far. And stakeholders in this calamity are now looking for and finding, without too much difficulty, signs of Russian overstretch. Unlike the deadlocked problems of Crimea and Donbas, Syria is a disaster that Russia can walk away from, while Turkey, Iran, Israel and Kurdistan would have to deal with the consequences.