Australian Outlook

Russia's Plan for Syria

21 Dec 2016
By Dr Bruce Mabley
Sit_Room_Russia. Photo Credit: The Kremlin, Creative Commons

The assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara this week came as the foreign ministers from Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow to discuss peace in Syria. Despite the murder’s apparent link to revenge for Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, Russia may see the death simply as collateral damage in the wake of Aleppo’s fall.  

The fall of Aleppo concludes another chapter in the never-ending saga of the Syrian conflict. The Russian bear has spoken and the noose around Bashar al-Assad’s neck is today considerably looser. Will it signify the end of the conflict and the definitive death knell of the Syrian opposition? Or will the conflict continue to morph into another form of violence involving Islamic State militants and leading to a new stalemate? A cynical Nietzsche might conclude that the Syrian conflict is an example of the theory of eternal recurrence.

Of course, the calculating Russians do not share in the Nietzschean worldview and have pursued a deliberate political strategy aimed at extending their power abroad and regaining the stature of a great power. It is this nostalgia of empire, not unknown to their newfound Turkish colleagues, that will ensure their ultimate downfall in the region that they claim to know so well.

In the meantime, several elements have lined up in an extremely beneficial way for the Russians to attain their objectives in Syria. There was the surprising lack of leadership from the West right from the very start of the conflict. President Obama’s ‘leading-from-behind’ isolationist policy might well have gotten him re-elected president in 2012 but it also ensured that the Russians would have a clear path in front of them—whether in Eastern Europe or in Syria.

During the first years of the conflict only the Turks seemed bent on making Bashar al-Assad pay. However, in the last year, after the downing of a Russian jet in Turkish airspace, a curious period of detente has intervened in Turkish-Russian affairs. Up until then, Russia could count on its veto power in the UN Security Council to deflect any international action on Syria, be it a no-fly zone, humanitarian efforts to assist the victims of Russian air strikes or censure motions against its Syrian ally.

Turkish intentions

The main priority of Turkish foreign policy is and has always been about the Kurds. Suspicion and even hatred of the Kurds is the historical cement upon which Turkish nationalism is built; it includes all main Turkish political parties and a broad consensus within the population.

Since it is now apparent that the rebels are not going to defeat Bashar al-Assad any time soon, Turkish authorities prefer to have the Russians and their Syrian ally on their southern border rather than the armed Kurds (PYD or PKK). Already the Western powers have been organising the Kurdish opposition against Islamic State in Iraq. When that adventure is over, Syria may be next and feature an emboldened Kurdish military presence with more modern Western arms.

The Russian play

Now that Aleppo has fallen and Bashar al-Assad is temporarily back in the saddle, the Russians are resolutely moving to sue for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Such a resolution would confirm Russia’s regional hegemony and crown its military glory with success.

For this, it was necessary to get the Turks on side. In this regard, the coup d’état was a godsend not only for Turkish President Erdogan but for the Russians. The coup helped to weaken the already deteriorating Turkish relationship with the West just enough to allow for flexibility on Syria. Not that the Russians believe the delusions about Gulen and his hand in everything from the downing of the Russian jet to the coup d’état—and now the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey. The Russians are also delusional if they think that the Syria-Turkey border can be sealed or even if President Erdogan can muster enough political support to attempt it.

Ambassador Karlov’s assassination

For the Russians, the death of Ambassador Karlov is collateral damage relative to their campaign of destruction in Syria. For now, the Russians are confident that they can organise a lasting peace in Syria now that the ‘terrorist’ rebels have been defeated. Such is the hope of the meetings in Moscow of Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers. However, Ambassador Karlov’s death may signify something quite different. On the face of it, the assassination was payback for the Aleppo carnage. It may be just the beginning.

Most Syrian rebels are not terrorists. By making them leave Aleppo, the rebels can either lay down their arms or continue the struggle from the countryside. If they choose to do the latter, which I believe they will, the struggle will morph into a classic guerilla warfare with the countryside in the hands of the rebels, and the cities controlled by the regime. The borders will remain porous.

Even as Aleppo was falling, Bashar al-Assad’s exhausted troops were unable to stop Islamic State from retaking Palmyra. In such a situation, Russian air power will be less effective as targets become fewer and less concentrated. It will become a multi-front war in which Iranian and Russian support will be essential to keep Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite minority in power.

In such a scenario, the Russian peace initiative will dissolve even with tacit Turkish support. The Russian Cinderella story on Syria might well end up looking more like regional quicksand. Despite all of the Russian brutality, Syria will not go the way of Chechnya. The Russians will not be able to leave as victors.

Dr Bruce Mabley is the director of the Montreal-based Mackenzie-Papineau Group, a think tank devoted to analysis of international politics. He is a former Canadian diplomat. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.