2016-09-23

Is Russia using its relationship with Turkey to build closer ties with US in Syria?

Russia deploys a rich set of tools for achieving its foreign policy goals in Syria. They include not only military actions but diplomatic maneuvering as well. While having forged rather robust working ties with Tehran, Moscow is trying to reach regional powers that have been long opposing Damascus.

Recent months witnessed rapid rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Despite the positive dynamics of their relations it seems questionable that both countries will reach something greater than that. However, under close examination one can see that Russia's evolving dialogue with Turkey pursues a much more important strategic goal – to force the US into more cooperation with Russia and make it accept Moscow as an indispensable partner in Syria.

On September 9, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and US State Secretary John Kerry announced that the sides had finally reached an agreement on a ceasefire in Syria, marking a breakthrough after months of futile attempts to stop the violence in the country. Both Russia and the US agreed to cease all hostilities beginning on September 12 and allow humanitarian aid convoys to enter besieged territories as part of relief efforts.

A cornerstone of the agreement was Damascus' pledge to suspend airstrikes against moderate opposition forces deeply embedded in the al-Qaeda Syrian branch Nusra Front in Aleppo province. The step was to serve as a start to the final demarcation of moderates and jihadists by Moscow and Washington in their common, but so far uncoordinated, fight against terrorist organizations on Syrian soil. 

The September 9th agreement, if it holds, could be seen as a big diplomatic achievement for Moscow, considering staunch opposition from the US administration against entering into any accords with Russia or the Syrian government.

By answering Moscow’s calls for more military cooperation and action against terrorists in Aleppo, Washington tries to extract certain concessions which would help to alleviate the suffering of civilians by allowing UN aid convoys into areas that are currently under sieges imposed by the Syrian government.

A decision to accede to a deal with Russia despite considerable mistrust of Moscow's true intentions and its ability to control Assad was dictated by a simple lack of viable alternatives.

"What's the alternative? The alternative is to allow us to go from 450,000 people who've been slaughtered to how many thousands more," John Kerry said when explaining the driving motive behind the deal in a recent interview with NPR.

The precarious humanitarian situation frames the US’ Syrian policy. The main political objective now is to address humanitarian problems rather than focus on the political and military details of the conflict. US President Barack Obama also seems to be trying to minimize risks before the end of his presidency by avoiding considerable military involvement in the conflict, thus making dealings with Russia more indispensable.

But Obama's line has so far been challenged on many occasions by the Pentagon who shares a considerable mistrust towards Russia. The US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, a fierce critic of Moscow, has reasons to be suspicious. Last February’s ceasefire agreement was breached mainly because the Syrian government refused to honor it. The short-lived cessation of hostilities allowed the Syrian army to regroup and advance around Aleppo.

This also makes Carter doubt the ability of Moscow to influence Assad, who in one of his recent public speeches, promised to "retake every inch of Syria from the terrorist".

The head of the Pentagon also raised concerns over the technical details of the September agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, if the ceasefire holds, it will be followed by establishment of the Joint Implementation Center, a body that would coordinate efforts of the US and Russian militaries in their fight against Nusra Front and other acknowledged terrorist elements in Syria.

For the Department of Defence, that could mean sharing sensitive intelligence information with Russia, America's strategic competitor. If not regulated, such a mechanism would not only violate US legal norms, but would eventually put pro-American assets on the ground under the risk of complete destruction by either Russian or Syrian air forces if something goes wrong.

Another critical issue pointed out by the US military command deals with the delineation agreement that envisages clear demarcation of moderate opposition and their disengagement from the Nusra Front assets on the ground. If this happens, the Pentagon worries that moderates would lose tactical advance over the Syrian army since both moderate factions in the Syrian opposition and Nusra Front forces fight the same enemy, the Assad government.

Such a step would endanger already shaky ties between the US military and anti-Assad forces in Aleppo province, thus possibly resulting in a complete loss of any friendly forces on the ground.

To understand why a military agreement with the United States in Syria has a crucial importance for the Russian political leadership, one should look at the broader US-Russian relations after the Crimean crisis.

In order to break its international isolation and rebuild working ties with Western partners, Moscow entered into the Syrian conflict primarily to make it harder, if not impossible, for Washington to ignore Russia and thus lead cooperation between the two superpowers over the Syrian issue to a broader relationship in other spheres. Besides it seems evident that Russia is trying to use the last months of Obama's term to nail a deal that would be a basis for cooperation with a future US president.

Russian strategy vis-à-vis the US presence in Syria is confined to efforts to bring American leadership into broader cooperation with Moscow. Russia is creating specific conditions in the war-torn country that make harder for the US to ignore Russia when solving humanitarian or military issues.

In this context, indiscriminate bombing by the regime furthers the goal of influencing Western public opinion and creating enough pressure on European and American leaders to concede to make agreements with Damascus. Similarly, cases when Russian war planes operate in close proximity with coalition assets or when Russia carries out strikes on remote opposition outposts that turn out to be used by the American special forces – are all designed to make establishing military coordination with Russia a necessary and only option.

Finally, Moscow deliberately plays on the disagreements and political problems within the coalition in order to complicate US actions in Syria. In this regard, a deliberate investment in more military and political dialogue with NATO member Turkey has a clear message for the US administration: soon the US will not be able to take a single step without first consulting with Russia, so it is highly recommended to cooperate together as equal partners in Syria.

To undermine the US’ position in Syria, Moscow deliberately targets the US-Turkey alliance by deepening political and military dialogue with Ankara. Witnessing how much Turkey is irritated by US reluctance to admit its concerns over the recent coup and Kurdish advances on the Syrian border, Russia offers Turkey just what it needs now: political support in its fight against coup elements within the state apparatus and military cooperation in Syria, where Russia seems to have agreed to let Turkey curve out a zone of influence to prevent unification of the Kurdish territories. Ongoing military and political contacts seem to benefit both sides.

By pulling Turkey closer to its side, Russia is hoping that Turkey will prove itself a responsible partner. Turkey is expected to avoid directly challenging Russian interests in the Aleppo region. Meanwhile it is promised a place in the transition period where Turkey is going to have a say over the political process.

Russia wants from Turkey more openness in issues of control over the Turkish-Syrian border and humanitarian help to the besieged population in Syria. On the other hand, Russia seems to be willing to prevent Turkey and the US from forming workable ties on the ground in Syria by further exacerbating differences and highlighting the incompatibility of their strategic goals.


In the long run, Russia hopes that cooperation with a staunch opponent to the Assad regime will not only bring the conflict into a more controllable state where Russia has an upper hand both as a military and diplomatic superpower, but also create perfect conditions where the US, a main addressee of Moscow's current dialogue with Ankara, will be forced to accept Russia as an indispensable partner.

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