Putin has every reason to be happy. With smart tactical improvisation and an intelligent strategy, he has put together a house of cards in Syria. However, it is by no means certain whether this will be profitable in the long run. With its current success, Russia also inherits many problems, says ex-diplomat and arabist Marcel Kurpershoek.

erdogan en poetin in sotsji okt 19
Erdogan and Putin in Sochi, on October 22, after Turkish troops invaded Syria. Photo Kremlin.ru

by Marcel Kurpershoek

A pass from playmaker Putin ended up with the right-winger of the opposing team: Trump, who sprinted through his own lines and positioned the ball on the head of Erdogan, the attacker of Putin's team. Erdogan did not hesitate for a second and resolutely smashed the ball into the goal of Trump’s team. In the VIP-stands, the supporters of the winning team, Assad and Khamenei, jumped to their feet cheering and dancing. Like beaten dogs, the defeated Kurdish defenders headed for the half-way line to congratulate the big winner, playmaker Putin, and to ask if he wanted to be their coach again.

Political reporting wants winners and losers, just like a well-organized sports match. For leaders, triumphs abroad can strengthen their domestic position. And as Ivanka Trump stated, 'perception is more important than reality'. These are the facts. But what about the other side of the coin? How will things develop in this division of the competition?

Trump gave Erdogan the green light to invade Syria, thereby feeding Rojava, the dreamed state of the Syrian Kurds, to the Turkish wolf. A storm of indignation rose from both houses of Congress, as well as think tanks and the liberal press. This was a betrayal of the allies who had done so much to fight the terrorists of the Islamic State. Trump carried out diversionary moves with regard to sanctions against Turkey, brought in a temporary cease-fire, and left some uncertainty as to whether he would withdraw from Syria completely. Now, the new reality in Syria is irreversible.

Rojava always unrealistic

The Rojava balloon - always an unrealistic and completely unattainable project - popped. Due to their previous experiences with allies abandoning them, the Kurds kept in close contact with the Russians and Assad, and are now taking advantage of this. Turkey has its own zones on the Syrian side of the border, with Russians and the Syrian regime patrolling other parts of the border. Trump stands for re-election and can add this feat to his promises of pulling America out of vastly expensive anti-terrorist missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. That might cause difficulties for the Democrats, all the more so because they also see China as the only real strategic threat to the US.

Trump’s main source of praise are the tweets in which he recommends himself. Erdogan, on the other hand, is hailed throughout Turkey, even by members of the opposition who find themselves in prison. His unrelenting attitude has strengthened his position after the election defeats in Istanbul and Ankara.

Putin harvests…

Putin, the third and most important protagonist, also has every reason to be happy. He has put together this house of cards, with smart tactical improvisation and an intelligent and coherent strategy. But in this game, Putin has to deal with considerably more factors than Trump and Erdogan. Correspondingly, his calculations are more complicated and the risks are bigger. Just like Trump and Erdogan, he mainly relies on his own brain and instincts.

For Putin, the domestic political gains of Syria seem to have reached their limits. The Russian intervention in 2015 saved the Assad regime, allowed Putin to secure the Russian military bases in the country, and brought a new dimension to his influence in the Middle East. Obama and others predicted that Russia would sink in the quicksand or end up with an Afghanistan-like military debacle. Those smug expectations were defied by Putin's successes. Where these successes will lead, however, is becoming a more and more pressing question. 

When will Putin harvest, and what will that harvest be? 'Let someone else fight over this perennial blood-stained sand', Trump said. It was repeated by Harvard professor Stephen Walt: 'If Russia and Iran stay in Syria, they will simply be pouring additional resources into a country of minimal strategic importance.' That’s a win-win situation for America.

but what...?

In Moscow, not everyone is convinced either. According to the liberal opposition politician Grigori Javlinski, Putin is deceiving Russians. Russia is becoming the patron saint of all oppressive, authoritarian regimes, and Assad is responsible for the utmost large-scale and horrifying crimes. Furthermore, Russia is mainly intervening in Syria on behalf of Iran. It is unclear how this will aid Moscow in really vital issues such as Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions. Putin has returned to Russia its status as a superpower that no one wants to mess around with. In the Middle East, Putin has positioned himself in such a way that all parties (who are often diametrically opposed to each other) consider good relations with Moscow as a matter of vital importance. But this situation is risky for Russia, which might be forced to take sides.

It is the law of diminishing returns. In opinion polls, support for both Putin and the intervention in Syria is declining, dissatisfaction with the economy and corruption is increasing. Four years ago, Putin promised that military intervention would last no more than a year. Pressure is therefore mounting on Putin to stabilize the situation in Syria while maintaining Russia’s achievements. Putin's agreement with Erdogan could be interpreted as being a part of that stabilization. It could also be interpreted as part of the dance with which Putin is taking a not unwilling Erdogan ever further away from NATO, with the help of Eurasian nationalists in Turkey.

Putin supporters see 'the deal of the century' up for grabs. The chauvinist Alexander Artamonov writes: 'The biggest winner of this conflict is Russia, which achieved its objectives at a minimal cost.' But the worries for the Russian defense minister are growing. In order to retreat under favorable circumstances, America undertook a 'surge' in Afghanistan and Iraq: sending in more troops and equipment at first, and then retreating with a white flag. That strategy predictably failed. Russian military analysts already see the same potential for disaster, writes Maxim Suchkov. Another unpleasant legacy are the thousands of IS prisoners who remain in the former American zone.

How will Putin get out of this situation? Will this accumulation of successes in the end add up to defeat?

Tehran’s position weakened

Putin's scenario may look like this: first, the new facts must be processed on the ground. How that will be accomplished will determine Russia’s subsequent diplomatic maneuvers.

It is striking that Iran has hardly played a role in the Russian-Turkish agreement. Another sign of Tehran's weakening position are the massive public protests in Iraq and Lebanon. They are motivated by economic discontent, but are also directed against Iran, that is using corrupt sectarian rulers to pull the strings in those countries. Syria cannot possibly remain insensitive to what is happening in Lebanon and Iraq.

poetin met rouhani en erdogan 14 febr 2019 in sotsjiPutin with Iranian President Rouhani and Turkish President Erdogan in Sochi in February this year. Photo Kremlin.ru

Putin and Erdogan over the years have spoken for hours on end. They know each other like no other world leaders. With Iran Putin has no comparable relationship: Khamenei is as elusive as he is predictable, whereas President Rouhani has no real power, and his influence has been weakened. Both Erdogan and Putin have repeatedly shown that they can do business with Trump personally, but not with the United States’ political establishment. Trump knows this and will in turn play that card when it suits him.

The official stage for Putin's plan is the Astana process, named after the capital of Kazakhstan. The Syrian regime and opposition formally participate in the process, but in fact, the consultations are mainly between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. 'Astana' emerged after the UN’s mediation in Syria failed. After all, it is clear that the Turkish invasion was fully prepared in cooperation with Moscow. The military movements of the Turks and Russians were well-coordinated, and a confrontation with Syrian troops did not take place. Moscow’s initial critical noises were perhaps intended for consumption by Tehran and Damascus, as well as by the Kurds.

New Syrian constitution

Moscow wants to bring the accomplishments of its Astana format into the UN – under Russian conditions, of course. A first step is the UN discussion on the creation of a new Syrian constitution, which should include the groundwork for a political 'solution'. Russia has already indicated that the word 'Arabic' should not be included in the name of the republic, which is primarily a gesture to the Kurds. A second element is a less centralized structure of the national government. Both go completely against the instincts of the regime in Damascus, as Assad's ideology is that of the authoritarian, hyper-centralized, Arab nationalist Ba’ath party. However, Moscow sees them as necessary steps for an agreement between the Kurds and Damascus. Moscow also understands that a simple return to the situation of ten years ago, which Assad keeps insisting on, will not guarantee the stability that Putin needs.

Assad is reluctant to go along with Putin’s wishes. This is visible in the body language of the Syrian minister in his conversation with the UN envoy on this subject, under the threatening gaze of his all-seeing and all-hearing chief Assad.

vn gezant en syrische minister

To persuade Assad and his regime, the unresolved problems of the Syrian regime can serve as a big stick: in the first place the large pieces of northern Syria controlled by Turkey (Idlib, Afrin, and now an eastern 'safe' zone'). For Assad it is a matter of taking the offer or leave it.

The question remains what Turkey’s role will be. Erdogan's most faithful newspaper, Yeni Şafak, has designated everything above the line from Aleppo to Mosul (the northern capital of Iraq) as a Turkish 'strategic priority'.

The current situation in the Middle East cab become quite a burden for the Pax Russica. As Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow put it: 'Moscow is learning that the reward for success is a whole new set of problems.'