November 28, 2017

Putin’s Syria Diplomacy Seeks to Minimize Risks for Russia

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani attend a news conference in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, Nov. 22. (Mikhail Klimentyev via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently been devoting considerable time and attention to diplomacy regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria. He not only met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on November 22 to discuss conflict resolution efforts, he also met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad there just prior. Additionally, he has spoken about Syria over the phone with U.S. President Donald J. Trump, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, described his boss’s actions as a “diplomatic marathon” that will continue.

Some analysts see Putin’s recent diplomatic initiatives regarding Syria as a sign of growing Russian influence in the Middle East. Putin, though, may be undertaking them more because he wants to avoid the costs of continued conflict and the larger risks for Russia that a wider regional conflict may pose.

As is so often the case after Putin’s discussions with world leaders, precisely what was agreed upon in this most recent lightning round of talks is unclear. The meeting with Assad in particular was portrayed in Western media accounts as Putin letting the Syrian president know that Moscow’s commitment to him is not unlimited and that the Kremlin expects him to accommodate his opponents to some extent. Moscow even suggested that its military mission in Syria is nearing its completion, and that it would be drawing down its forces. Once again, though, which Russian forces will depart and which will remain has not been specified. Indeed, Putin’s announcement in March 2014 that the majority of Russian forces would withdraw from Syria when few, if any, actually did calls into question whether something similar will occur again.

Still, Putin’s assiduously discussing Syria with the leaders of so many countries does provide some indication about what goals he is now pursuing. First and foremost, now that the Syrian regime is no longer in danger and its opponents have either been defeated or contained, Moscow would like to see a peace settlement on terms favorable to Assad. This would certainly reduce the costs of Moscow’s involvement in Syria.

Second, whether the fighting continues or ends, Putin seems to want to position Russia as every other external actor’s preferred partner in Syria. Since the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are all far more concerned about the prospect of growing Iranian influence in Syria, Russia’s continued presence there could serve to keep Tehran in check. Similarly, since Iran sees the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel as its opponents, Russia’s continued presence in Syria serves to keep them in check. Finally, with Turkey primarily concerned about Syrian Kurdish forces, continued Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria is vital to Ankara’s efforts to limit the extent to which Moscow cooperates with the Kurds.

Third, the degree of cooperation achieved with the July U.S.-Russian-Jordanian agreement on a cease-fire in southwestern Syria serves to undermine the efforts of the United States, in particular, to isolate Russia because of its actions in Ukraine. Finally, Putin’s active diplomacy in Syria serves to bolster his image domestically ahead of Russia’s 2018 presidential election. There is no doubt, of course, that Putin will win if he decides to run. Even so, he has always been genuinely concerned about his image, and may well see a successful diplomatic initiative that reassures the Russian public that Syria will not turn into another Afghanistan as a way to enhance his candidacy.

So far, Putin’s Syria diplomacy seems to be working. Russia is seen as the key actor in the ongoing Syrian peace negotiations. And every other actor does indeed seem to see Russia’s continued presence in Syria as serving to block what it fears are the ambitions of some other actor (Iran for the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel; the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel for Iran; and the Syrian Kurds for Turkey). Russian-U.S. cooperation on Syria, including fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as well as the aforementioned cease-fire agreement, may have also contributed to the Trump administration’s recent willingness to discuss Moscow’s peacekeeping proposals for eastern Ukraine. And Putin’s active diplomacy does serve to make him look statesman-like not just in Russia, but to a broader, global audience.

Still, Putin’s efforts face serious potential pitfalls, in particular the possibility of escalating conflict between various adversaries. While they all may value Russia now for keeping their adversaries at bay, they will not do so if Moscow cannot deliver. Mohammed bin Salman’s recent portrayal of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Hitler (something that Netanyahu and many in the Trump administration might not disagree with) suggests that the prospect of conflict between Iran and its adversaries cannot be discounted. If it does occur, Saudi Arabia and Israel may still seek Russian intercession, but they are also likely to seek, and obtain, military assistance from the Trump administration. Similarly, increased Turkish intervention in Syria against the Kurds will not serve to enhance Russia’s image as the predominant great power there.

The problem with Putin’s Syria diplomacy is that while he may genuinely seek an end to the conflict inside Syria, he likely understands the limits of his influence and is not seeking an overall rapprochement among all the various actors in the region. If any kind of crisis or conflict among them occurs, this will impede resolution of the conflict in Syria and Russia’s ability to reduce its military commitment there. Further, conflict between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other would push Moscow to either side with Iran (and thus worsen its relations with Tehran’s adversaries) or try to remain above the fray (and thus become less important to everyone). Similarly, if the Assad regime and Iran object to a Turkish intervention against Syria’s Kurds (not because they object to the Kurds being weakened, but to Turkish influence in Syria being strengthened), this may revive Erdogan’s desire to seek Assad’s ouster. Russian efforts to defend Assad would revive Turkish-Russian tensions.

Putin’s “diplomatic marathon” in Syria, then, is not necessarily a sign of Russia’s increasing role as a great power in the Middle East and the world at large, as so many are describing it. Moscow’s Syria diplomacy may instead be a sign of Putin’s fear that if the conflict in Syria continues or the regional situation deteriorates Russia’s ability to control the situation – and hence its image as a great power – will deteriorate. He needs a settlement in Syria, then, since not achieving one will confront him with problems he very much wishes to avoid, particularly a continued need for Russian military engagement, and all the risks that entails.

Mark N. Katz is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.