Russia’s Syria Quandary

The Astana process may represent a moment of new Russian seriousness.

This week’s Russian-sponsored Syria peace talks in Astana were meant to demonstrate Moscow’s centrality to resolving the Syria crisis. Gathering together the key regional actors – Turkey and Iran, as well as the Syrian government and a delegation of armed rebels – Moscow hoped to finally break the log-jam.

Yet, in the end, the talks proved unable to deliver any meaningful breakthrough. There are no concrete details on how a current Russian-Turkey brokered ceasefire will be solidified, no steps to end the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian assistance, nor any meaningful political progress. In many ways Astana mirrored previous US-Russian summits – promising future cooperation, namely the establishment of a joint ceasefire monitoring mechanism, rather than delivering immediate action. It is no surprise that new UN-sponsored intra-Syrian talks scheduled for February have now been delayed.

But the failure of the Astana talks to deliver immediate results may not entirely be due to the Russian intransigence that has hung over repeated rounds of international negotiations. While scepticism that this may just be another ruse to buy the regime more time to finish the job has some value, there’s no getting away from the sense that the Astana process represents a moment of new Russian seriousness.

Moscow has invested considerable energy in this process in an apparent bid to consolidate the regime’s military gains. In so doing Moscow has reached an unprecedented accord with Turkey, the opposition’s key external backer. This agreement has already delivered important results, including a ceasefire that has held fast across significant areas of the country. Ankara has considerably softened its stance that Assad must go, reflecting both the post-Aleppo reality and its prioritisation of preventing further Syrian-Kurdish advances. Russia has, in turn, sent signals that it is willing to support a Turkish zone of influence in northern Syria as part of an approach that accepts a degree of decentralisation across non-regime areas. Moscow and Ankara even went as far as conducting joint anti-ISIS air strikes around the northern city of al-Bab this week.

Meanwhile, Russia has opened the door to a wider array of key rebel armed groups, a development that points to a new Russian pragmatism that  recognises  the necessity of a more inclusive approach. 

Meanwhile, Russia has opened the door to a wider array of key rebel armed groups, including the Turkish backed Ahrar al-Sham and the Damascus-based Jaish al-Islam, both of which it formerly labeled as extremist. It is a development that points to a new Russian pragmatism that recognises the necessity of a more inclusive approach.

Taken together these represent notable shifts. But they remain insufficient for locking in the ceasefire yet alone moving forward a meaningful political process.

In the end, Moscow appears to fallen short of securing full Iranian buy-in, without which it remains unable to deliver a recalcitrant Assad set on total victory. Tehran continues to believe that control must, at minimum, be re-established over rebel-held districts in Damascus, the strategic importance of which is self-evident. Ongoing fighting around Wadi Barada and East Ghouta has been a key obstacle to cementing the ceasefire and broader peace process. The continued military operations of Russia’s allies in these regions drew unprecedented criticism from Moscow, laying bear some of the divisions at play.

Until the regime re-establishes control over these areas, which appears increasingly inevitable – there is little reason to believe that Russia will do much to shift Iran’s calculations. The delay in the creation of a ceasefire monitoring mechanism and the postponement of new intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, likely reflects this reality.

But if Moscow has any hope of this process meaningfully moving forward, Iran’s support will be paramount. In many ways Tehran faces a coming moment of truth – a choice between the more minimalist interpretation of victory, apparently now pursued by Moscow, and the maximalist ambitions of the regime that would involve taking the fight to Idlib, Daraa, and beyond. The choice it makes will have a significant bearing on the next phase of the conflict.

On the one hand it is clear why Iran might – and is perhaps likely – to continue the fight. Not only has the regime long been clear that it wants to regain control over every inch of Syrian territory, but recent dynamics have put the wind in its sails. With armed opposition increasingly neutralised due to a lack of external support, the strategic logic in trying to confront the last meaningful stronghold of significant opposition capability in Idlib is clear. The recent outbreak of intra-rebel fighting across the province as the rebranded al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham advances against other groups, some of whom were represented in Astana, will make the task both easier and more palatable internationally.

Meanwhile, Iran is also acutely aware of the tide of anti-Iran sentiment sweeping through Washington DC following the election of President Donald Trump. Rather than fold, as some might hope, Tehran may choose to double down on its regional position, employing the forward defence approach that has long defined its regional strategy. Trump’s recent messaging on the need for safe zones in Syria could push Iran to take action now before these can materialise, even if Trump’s aversion to putting US troops on the ground or arming the opposition make the likelihood of US-led safe zones somewhat questionable.

But this strategy could prove risky for Iran, and there are reasons it might choose to hold fire. Tehran could have a more minimalist view of victory, one that nonetheless assures the Assad regime’s strategic dominance and which in time could also come to include ISIS-held and energy rich territories in the east of country, as a means of extricating itself from a longer term fight. Iranian manpower and resources are, in the end, likely to bear the greater burden of any ongoing conflict given the Assad regime’s clear capacity constraints. Iran’s response may, in part, depend on the extent of alignment with Ankara and its belief that a Turkish northern zone of influence could actually serve to contain ongoing rebel ambitions, thereby limiting the possible impact of an ongoing insurgency.

The possibility of a shift in international acceptance of Assad’s hold over core Syria (UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson suggested this week that Assad could stand in future elections, demonstrating a potential shift in position) might persuade Tehran of the wisdom of consolidating its position through the ceasefire and a carefully managed political process.

The truth is that no one knows the precise nature of current Iranian calculations, or how far Moscow is willing to go to try and deliver a result. Having initiated and in some sense tied its credibility to the process, Moscow will be intent on delivering some progress, and it is Moscow’s track that today probably holds out the best hope of securing a more meaningful ceasefire and wider de-escalation. It may well deploy some leverage by refraining from providing ongoing air cover to new regime advances. But it remains more uncertain whether it would ever be willing to try and force compliance from Iran, perhaps as part of a wider agreement with Trump that some are now betting on.

The optimistic view is that this is the moment Russia begins to shift position. The realistic view is probably that in the end Russia will have no choice but to bend to Iran’s will or risk losing the entirety of its Syria investment.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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