On 5 March, after six hours of talks, Presidents Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey announced an agreement that would “serve as a good basis for ending the hostilities in the Idlib de-escalation zone,” according to the Kremlin. The agreements included a ceasefire that came in to force at midnight on 5 March, as well as joint patrols by Russian and Turkish troops along the seven-mile road that bisects Idlib.
The New York Times offered the opinion that the two countries had come to the brink of war and that the fighting had delivered a “severe blow” to Putin’s plans to lure Erdogan away from NATO. In essence, this analysis misses the primary goal of Russia’s operations in Syria.
Moving Turkey away from NATO’s orbit can best be regarded as a separate gambit. Erdogan’s repressive domestic policies will arguably do much to alienate the country from the alliance; the Kremlin needs only to nurse its relations with Turkey carefully. Its incursion into Syria has already caused friction.
Furthermore, a Turkish intervention in Syria has always posed a risk to Russia’s operations in the country. In fact, Turkey represents one of two risks over which the Kremlin has had little control: the conflict involving Hezbollah and Iran with Israel being the other. All three actors are notoriously unpredictable and are likely to cause disruption in the Kremlin’s plans at the slightest provocation.
Yet the response to any of these actors is rarely notable; even the most recent attack by Israel brought only condemnation. It is likely that these forces actually keep each other in check; Israel’s attacks on Iranian militias and proxies, as well as Hezbollah, serve to limit their power. In return, they distract Israel from intervening too heavily against Syria’s operations. This balance ensures that no actor becomes too powerful, and eases the burden that Russia must balance.
Turkey and its war against the Kurds represents a slightly different problem, with a different set of responses from Russia. The key to understanding the relation between the two lies in understanding the Kremlin’s goals in the region. Dmitry Adamsky, in Moscow’s Syria Campaign, Russian Lessons for the Art of Strategy, states that the campaign is to meet several goals; preserving the Assad regime as Russia’s ally, enhancing its regional position and affirming its position as a powerful, indispensable country on the international stage.
In essence, Russia aims to be part of both the problem and the solution in Syria. Its somewhat confusing position means that it can sit back and allow its Syrian allies to be hammered by Erdogan’s forces without compromising its position in Syria. The two countries have a long history of exchanging blows; the most recent escalation – while serious to external observers – is business as usual for these fractious neighbours.
To further its Syria strategy, Russia has now positioned itself as a negotiator, demonstrating once more that it can broker peace between two warring factions. While there is no immediately obvious solution to the stand-off in Idlib, it is unlikely that Russia will intervene against Turkey’s forces. The strategic return for doing so is extremely low and brings little to the image the Kremlin strives to project on the international stage.
Overall, the situation in Idlib is inconvenient for Russia but, with hindsight, it could be argued that a disagreement between Russia and Turkey was bound to occur from the start of the former’s intervention.
The final actor, the Assad regime, can expect to occupy no more than a backseat as the two powers negotiate the best way to de-escalate, avoiding further disruption to their wider strategies. The short term is unlikely to bring much safety for Syrian troops, but it stands to reason that Russia may seek to establish a safe zone while it works to arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement with Turkey.
With all of this in mind, the war in Syria is far from over. But it is certain that the Kremlin will be a prominent actor in deciding how the conflict is ultimately resolved.
Miles Quartermain in London for MON