Putin’s Dilemma in Syria Sharpens

Plunging into the bloody quagmire of Syria was certainly much easier than getting out, and although Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was leaving Syria to its own devices and was withdrawing its forces, declaratory policy and operational policy never matched up. This much is evident not just because Russia has reinforced its air and naval bases in Syria. If the purpose of going in was to save Assad from complete collapse, then Putin succeeded. But the signs are that anything further than that has not been achieved; nor has it any immediate prospect of being achieved.

The Russian press openly bewails the fact that the Syrian army is incapable of doing its job and that the Americans are beefing up the armed opposition to Assad, now that the common threat from Islamic fundamentalists has been suppressed. So although Putin prematurely celebrates the wedge opening up the cracks between neighbouring Turkey and the United States, there are no guarantees that this of itself will do Russia any favours.

The trouble is that the goal of a successfully reunified Syria under Assad is opposed not just by the United States and by the domestic opposition, including the Kurds, it is also not in the interests of Turkey. And although great play was made of the fact that Putin was personally reassured by Erdogan that Turkey had nothing to do with the attack on the Russian air base that occurred recently, and although Moscow likes to flourish the spectre of a new found consensus with NATO dissentient Turkey, the friction between Moscow and Ankara is as evident as is the friction between Washington and Ankara. This becomes ever more apparent as the Kremlin tries to hammer out a peace accord between the various warring factions within Syria.

An article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on 16 January highlights the dilemma: “Turkey, like the Russian Federation, has its own interests in the region. In Ankara these interests are dictated not merely by fighting the Kurdish ‘terrorists’, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has its own geopolitical and economic objectives that are a long way from sustaining the territorial integrity of Syria. They relate to holding onto territory in this country taken by the pro-Turkish opposition in Idlib, Aleppo, Lataki and other provinces now controlled by the USA. For the time being Moscow pays no special attention to these interests. But it is noteworthy that in recent days an array of pro-American and pro-Turkish Syrian oppositionist armed groups have stated that they will not attend the Congress of national dialogue in Sochi.”

And what does the chorus in this Greek tragedy say? An unknown reader, “Boris”, commented:

“Everything is just beginning even though some have already declared victory.”

(V. Mukhin, “Erdorgan b’et po kurdam, no popadaet po Rossii”, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 16 January 2018.)