by Alexey Khlebnikov
There has been extensive diplomacy across the Middle East in recent months. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey and Iran. Saudi Arabian King Salman made a historic visit to Moscow. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan visited Russia and then returned on November 22 for the trilateral Russia-Turkey-Iran summit on Syria in Sochi. Additionally, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently toured Syria, Israel, and Qatar, an important move for Russia given that Syria was a major topic of discussion. What makes this topic even more important is that Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump held brief talks on the margins of the APEC summit in Vietnam and released a joint statement on Syria that already produced much noise and contradiction.
On the top of all this top-level diplomacy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Russia on November 20 where he held talks with Putin and the top military brass. The last time Assad visited Russia was just weeks after Moscow launched its Syria military campaign in 2015. This time his arrival was tied to the end of the military operation and the start of a new stage of political process.
During the talks with Assad, Putin wanted to demonstrate that Russia fulfilled the goals in Syria it proclaimed two years ago: to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, maintain the stability of the regime and its institutions, and defeat the terrorists. He also wanted to affirm Moscow’s commitment to the political process, a major priority for Russia.
Assad’s visit is very important for Russia at this stage. First of all, Moscow wants to be sure that Damascus will fully coordinate with the Kremlin and won’t sabotage its various plans. Second, it wants to ensure that Assad will be open for the dialog and compromises with other actors. Putin underscored this last point when he reiterated that Russia works not only with Iran and Turkey, but also with Iraq, the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Putin’s subtext was that Assad should understand that Russia won’t solely focus on his interests but will also take into account those of other players.
After talks with Assad, Putin talked by phone with the leaders of Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. He informed them of the results of his meeting with the Syrian president and briefed them about the objectives of the November 22 trilateral summit in Sochi. In this way, Putin engaged other major actors in its Syria dealings and solicited a sort of informal approval for its plans, demonstrated that Russia is a transparent actor that informs others about all its steps, and secured Russia’s role as a major powerbroker in Syria.
Trilateral Agreements on Syria
The new agreement on Syria that the three leaders reached in Sochi lays down the rules of the game for a new stage of the conflict focused on political settlement. Remarkably, Moscow managed to coordinate with all major actors involved in Syrian crisis even though they pursue different and often opposing interests. To do so, Russia had to build somehow on the November 8 memorandum signed with the US and Jordan (with Israeli consultations), which caused certain concerns in Iran and Turkey. The document is not open to public but the Putin-Trump joint statement on Syria gives a glimpse into its content.
In the November 8 memo, both Moscow and Washington acknowledge the necessity to continue joint work on Syria within the framework of existing agreements, and both agree that established mechanisms such as the southwest de-escalation zone and the joint monitoring center in Amman are effective. Russia and the US also agreed to reduce and ultimately eliminate foreign forces and fighters from southwest Syria. This last point was not, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted, about removing Iranian and pro-Iranian Shi’ite forces from Syria. Rather, Lavrov claimed that their presence in Syria—together with Russian forces—is legitimate as opposed to the US forces and its anti-Islamic State coalition that were not invited by the Syrian government.
“What we discussed with the Americans are mechanisms of functioning of de-escalation zones in south-west Syria. Representatives of Jordan took part in the discussion as well. We also had informal consultations with Israel as this area is close to the Golan Height,” said Lavrov. “We agreed to move towards full withdrawal of all non-Syrian formations from this complicated area.” The minister hastened to add, “But this is a two-way street.” He was referring to the “foreign terrorist fighters” who are likely allied with the rebel groups backed by the US in south Syria near at-Tanf (formerly known as the New Syrian Army).
In this way, Russia was suggesting that it supported the withdrawal of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces just from southwest Syria and only under the condition that Washington withdraws “its own-backed foreign militants” from that area.
Such a move heightens Israelis interest in the deal and its implementation. If the agreement succeeds, Israel gets what it wants—an Iran-free buffer zone on its border with Syria. If the agreement doesn’t hold, Tel Aviv might push back and escalate the situation.
The Complexity of Russia’s Position
Russia is acknowledging the security concerns of the US, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel to stop the expansion of Iranian influence in south Syria. However, at the same time Moscow does not want to disappoint Tehran, given that relations between the two are not that smooth with regard to ongoing Russia-US agreements. Therefore, this development puts Russia in a rather tricky situation.
After all, Russia does not have very much influence on Iran. Even if to assume that a decision to pull out Iranian troops from south Syria is made, Moscow could hardly implement the plan. Tehran’s attempts to sabotage earlier agreements show quite vividly that it is reluctant to follow Russia’s lead. In this case, too, Iran could sabotage any agreement at any time if it feels sidelined or its interests compromised. As a result, it might easily provoke another cycle of escalation.
If Russia does manage to convince Iran to pull out its forces from south Syria, it will have to give it something in return. For example, Moscow might promise Tehran its own zone of influence near the Syrian border with Iraq, which will greatly contribute to Iranian plan to establish a land-bridge from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
But if Russia fails to win Iranian agreement, it will exacerbate tensions with Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv, all of which perceive Iranian presence in south Syria as a major security threat. In addition, Israel says that it would keep up military strikes across its frontier with Syria to prevent any encroachment by Iran and pro-Iranian forces, even as the US, Russia, and Jordan try to maintain a ceasefire in the area.
Moscow is playing a double game. On one hand, it wants to appease the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia by showing its readiness to cooperate on all major security issues in the region and to settle the Syrian crisis by political means. On the other hand, it does not want to alienate Iran as it is an important player. Sooner or later Moscow needs to make a choice. Considering that the main participants of the conflict hold different and often opposing views, it will be very challenging to find compromises among them.
Trilateral Summit on Syria
The November 8 memorandum on Syria that Russia struck with the US and Jordan and the joint Trump-Putin statement on Syria raised questions in both Iran and Turkey. Tehran is worried about the US-Israeli pressure on Moscow to push Iranian forces out of south Syria. Ankara has serious concerns with regard to the Syrian Kurds and might be worried about the overall rhetoric about foreign forces in Syria given that its own troops are deployed in the country’s north.
Also, both Iran and Turkey are dissatisfied that Moscow uses alternative platforms to negotiate behind their backs, thus undermining the Astana platform. This isn’t the first time. The July deal on Syria’s southwest de-escalation zone was struck in Amman, while the de-escalation zones in east Ghouta and Homs were negotiated in Cairo. Both Turkey and Iran see the Syrian crisis as a regional affair and do not want the US and Russia to negotiate deals in which they don’t participate.
The November 22 meeting in Sochi was aimed at bridging the gap between Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran on Syria. All three countries need to demonstrate their unity for this negotiating framework to be seen as effective. Otherwise there is a risk that the Russia-Turkey-Iran triangle may no longer be an effective way of dealing with the Syrian crisis.
In Sochi, the parties came up with a joint three-step plan. The first step is to form a Syrian national congress where all participating parties create working groups to discuss the new constitution. The second step is the elaboration and adoption of a new constitution that will pave the way for new parliamentary and presidential elections. The final step would be the elections, overseen by the UN. Moscow managed to convince Assad of the necessity of constitutional reform, an important concession to the opposition. The question of Assad’s future was not on the agenda, although at some point it will be one of the major stumbling blocks in the political process.
All three countries agreed that this meeting prepares the ground for a final settlement to be negotiated in Geneva, sending a signal to the US, Saudi Arabia, and others that the Geneva negotiations remain irreplaceable.
Thus, Moscow managed to establish parameters for the political process in Syria without a commitment to deeper involvement in the crisis. Russia does not want to get bogged down in Syria especially with its own presidential elections scheduled for March 2018. It does, however, need to show some early success. That’s why discussions over the most controversial and difficult-to-resolve issues—like Assad’s fate, the role of the Kurds and the presence of foreign forces—are left for Syrians themselves to settle further along in the political process.
Alexey Khlebnikov is a MENA expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He holds an MA in global public policy and Middle Eastern studies. He was a Muskie fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs (2012-2014) and a research fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS in 2013. @AleksKhlebnikov. Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.