This week, Russia again used its veto to protect Syria from UN Security Council chemical weapons sanctions. While Russia’s involvement in Aleppo has emboldened Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s agreement with Turkey over a border buffer zone calls into question the viability of the Syrian regime.
Last December the men, women and children of the Syrian resistance in Aleppo trudged out of the ashes of a crushing defeat to the Bashar al-Assad regime. For many of us, observers and activists alike, it was a sad chapter in the continuing saga of the Syrian conflict. So many images, so many families destroyed—and for what?
In the first instance, there was the overwhelming air advantage brought to bear by the Russian Air Force against the rebels. Bashar put all he had into Aleppo even having to leave Palmyra again to Islamic State (IS) fighters. Coalition special forces were too little, too late and focused on destroying IS assets and reclaiming IS territory instead of confronting Syrian regime forces. Once again, the West failed the Syrian opposition and the Syrian people.
In 2016, Russia asserted its status as the major foreign player in the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile the Turks took note of this important development. The image of a smiling and confident Bashar al-Assad, having retaken Aleppo, was everywhere. Yet, while the battle for Aleppo was over for now, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the various units of the Syrian armed opposition had not said their last word.
Operation Euphrates Shield
By December 2016, the Turks were already several months into Operation Euphrates Shield, a strategic geopolitical and military initiative designed to create a buffer zone along the Syrian and Turkish border.
The Turkish authorities attempted to convince their Western allies very early in the conflict to create a buffer zone. Such a zone would serve as a place where humanitarian aid could be delivered in Syria to Syrians rather than perpetuating the problem of refugees crossing borders and swelling the numbers in the Turkish camps. Now, Turkey has decided to clear out the border zone without Western help. In early autumn 2016, Jarabulus was secured from IS by Syrian rebels with Turkish heavy artillery and other support. So, in the first instance, the buffer zone is intended to keep Syrians in Syria and act as a secure zone where they can organise themselves and receive humanitarian aid.
The Euphrates Shield Operation would have been impossible to organise without some quid pro quo from the Russian side. The growing Russian military strength in Syria in 2016 also reflects the growing influence of Russia at the negotiating table, along with Iran.
In contrast, the Obama strategy of ‘leading from behind’ has resulted in a net deficit of American influence even if he appeared to be changing his assistance policy in Syria toward the end of his administration. No one really knows where President Trump will wind up on the Syrian conflict but the Turks have correctly gauged the situation and decided to crawl into bed with the Russians and Iranians. In any event, the other international players have chosen to be absent. So, the Euphrates Shield Operation benefits in some form from a Russian bye.
What was gained (or lost) by levelling Aleppo?
Although the fall of Aleppo seemed to demonstrate superior Russian power in Syria, it also has a down side. In doing so, the Russians have downgraded its strategic importance in the conflict. Aleppo is surrounded by Kurds, IS militants, FSA and now the Turkish army to the north busily creating some form of buffer zone. As for negotiations, Bashar’s regime has precious little credibility inside Syria, its international moral profile is in tatters and it is militarily weaker than ever. The regime now depends on a continued strong foreign presence (Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Russia). Despite the military victory in Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad’s political legitimacy is at an all-time low making any Russian claim to be kingmaker at the peace table an empty promise.
Any quick solution to the Syrian conflict, with subsequent withdrawal of Russia from the battlefield, is not immediately obvious. Doubtless the Russians would like to leave with their strategic interests intact and this is the reason why Russia is willing to counsel the creation of a buffer zone to the north along with an increased Turkish military presence. After all, if you are Russian and had to choose where to put the military emphasis, Crimea is far more pertinent than propping up a fatally weak Syrian tyrant on the other side of the Black Sea.
What the Russians do not appear to grasp is 1) the Turkish influence over the Syrian opposition is tenuous at best; 2) the Syrian opposition is as resilient as it is scattered; 3) attempting to keep al-Assad as part of any diplomatic solution is sheer folly; 4) the real Turkish objectives are not yet known to the Russians, purposely allowing Turkey to prevail in the north under the pretext of humanitarian goals and wiping out IS; and 5) like so many guerrilla wars, the Russians do not control the borders and only vaguely understand the nature and thinking of the array of enemies fighting against them. In short, the Russians may have allowed al-Assad to imagine for a moment that a military victory is possible for the regime but the cold reality of their deal with the Turks will put a brake on such foolish optimism.
The capture of Jarablus is only the beginning of the Euphrates Shield Operation. In addition to striking a blow against ISIL there and at al-Bab, the Turks are also retaking border areas that could have been claimed by the Kurdish forces of Syria (PYD and its composites). This is the second objective of the operation—to ensure that the Turkish border is free from Kurdish militants like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the PYD. By taking al-Bab, the Turks have forged a corridor between the two Kurdish territories nestled against the Turkish border. Next, the Turks are planning to move both south and east towards the IS capital of al-Raqqa, which will put them in direct contact with the Syrian PYD and its allies.
The Russians must ask the question—how far south will the Turks drive Operation Euphrates Shield once they completely clear al-Bab of IS and mines? Will the Turks and their Syrian opposition be content to retake al-Bab? Several trends are beginning to emerge after the Aleppo defeat, the Turkish military is on the move to create a buffer zone of indeterminate size and push PYD forces back from the Turkish border. IS is under pressure in both Iraq and Syria and this realignment will have consequences for the Syrian conflict going forward.
In the opinion of this author, there will be a military victory but it will not be the one either al-Assad or the Russians envisaged after the destruction of Aleppo. While preferable, a diplomatic solution is simply not on the cards given the parties’ mutual enmity. Strategic interests have much less sway in this part of the world—a place where family, tribe, history, religion and non-Western forms of honour hold sway.
Dr Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group think tank based in Montreal devoted to analysis of international politics. He is also a former Canadian diplomat and academic who has written a number of analytical and academic texts.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.