Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment

21-27 Nov 2015

Turkey’s apparently deliberated destruction - or ambush – of a Russian ground attack aircraft engaged on counter–terrorism operations within Syria undoubtedly gives a sharp ‘twist’ to the already taut Syria ‘knot’.  It has, predictably enough, inflamed relations between Turkey and Russia (perhaps to a level that Turkey may yet rue, to judge from Russian FM Lavrov’s harsh tone, by phone, in castigating the new Turkish FM).  Turkey has, in rushing for NATO cover, (likely intentionally), introduced a NATO–Russia polarisation into the already convoluted Syrian calculus, and thus made Russia’s hopes for a wide coalition to find a consensus on the military and political means to resolve the Syrian conflict, more problematic.

The immediate effect has been to harden Russian (and Iranian) resolve. Russian ground attack aircraft are continuing their operations right up to the Turkish border, but now with protective cover from interceptor aircraft (a practice which had lapsed when the agreement to co-ordinate air sorties with the US had been struck). And Russia will have no truck with Turkey’s ‘safe zones’ inside Syria, ostensibly for Turkmen, or Turkish supply convoys, or, for ‘moderates’ such as those that shot the Russian pilot whilst descending helpless in his parachute harness. More likely, Russia will closen its relations with the Kudish YPG, and support them in their  sealing off of the 80–90 kms of  the Syrian-Turkish border still open to Turkish supply operations for their Syrian proxies.

President Putin may have further retaliatory measures up his sleeve, but we shall have to wait on these. But, in this respect, the Russian leadership both will wish to make clear that they will not acquiesce before such provocations, but at the same time, they will not want to lose sight of the fact that their military operations will only be effective if they are encased by a political solution for Syria, which has both an internal and external aspect.  How then has the downing of the SU24 aircraft affected the prospects for a political solution in Syria?  Has Turkey succeeded in polarising matters politically (surely one of its primary aims), and dragged President Putin more deeply into the war than he would like?

Even before the attack on the Russian aircraft, it appeared that - despite John Kerry’s enthusiasm for a joint political initiative - Russia and America were far apart; in its wake, they are likely to be more distanced. It is likely then, that the Turkish action will have succeeded in distancing the two further.  The US asserts that Russia’s military actions are 'unhelpful', though we can expect that the attack on its aircraft will make Russia more militarily assertive - rather than less.  Unlike Kerry, President Obama has been sticking to the ‘narrative' that the various pressures on Russia will eventually converge to bring Putin 'to heel’.  One US official has cautioned that Kerry was almost ‘flying solo’ in Vienna, without much White House cover. Indeed Obama’s recent comments in Kuala Lumpur, suggest no shift in the strategic US position at all (even if there is some co–operation at a tactical level), as political commentator and former ambassador, MK Bhadrakumar picks up:

“Obama’s remarks at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday assume great significance.  Obama put the ball in Putin’s court by making the astounding claim that destroying the IS is “not only a realistic goal, we’re (US-led coalition) going to get it done”, but “it will be helpful” if Moscow readjusts its focus from the preservation of the Syrian regime to the fight against the IS. Obama stressed that if Putin is willing to make the necessary “strategic readjustment”, Russia could also be admitted to join the US-led coalition against the IS.

But Obama was categorical that “as a practical matter, it is not conceivable that Mr. Assad can regain legitimacy in a country in which a large majority of the country despises Assad; and will not stop fighting so long as he is in power.”

He viewed the success of the Vienna talks on its ability to “recognize the need for a new government” in Syria.

Obama added, “Russia has not officially committed to a transition of Assad moving out, but they did agree to the political transition process. And I think we will find out over the next several weeks whether or not we can bring about that change of perspective with the Russians”.

Of course, what Obama didn’t say was that he’d expect Putin to soften up the Iranian leaders during his “working visit” to Tehran [on Monday]. But what he did say was that Hollande is with him on the same page on this issue. By saying so, Obama may have pre-empted Hollande’s conversation with Putin in the Kremlin on Thursday.”

In sum, we are being ‘walked back' to the classic Reaganite thinking: Russia is under political pressure from western imposed sanctions and the low price of oil, and, in order to exit from these ‘pressures’, Putin must accommodate Washington, and fall in with the ‘Washington Consensus’ and US global leadership. This basic thesis has now found a new life through America’s ability to leverage pressures on Putin through Ukraine (viz the present blackout and siege on Crimea), and by exploiting President Putin’s  ‘error’ in militarily intervening in Syria (US Deputy Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, warned last week that Russia "has so badly mangled its intervention in Syria that it may have little choice but to favor settling the conflict"). According to this ‘Reaganite’ narrative, the trapping of the USSR in the Afghan quagmire was Russia’s undoing (according to Zbig Brzezinski) - and Putin’s intervention in Syria will prove to be his own self-inflicted ‘undoing’ too.

Today, many in the West seem to share this assessment that Russia’s intervention in Syria will be Putin's undoing. Is this why Obama took such an aloof position ("Turkey has the right to defend itself") on the latter’s shooting down of a Russian aircraft?  Is the incident seen as drawing Russia further into the ‘trap’ of Syria – just as the CIA sponsoring of jihadists in Afghanistan, drew Russia into the Afghan ‘trap’, in 1978?  At the very least, it increases the pressures on Putin, the Administration may have concluded.

It is hard to see how Turkey might envisage the Russian jet incident as somehow being a precursor facilitating its known expansionary ambitions in northern Syria (its claims to the ancient Vilayats of Aleppo and Mosul, and its claimed R2P for Syria’s Turkmen) under guise of a safe zone.  Russia has absolute control of the airspace in this part of Syria, and any incursion by Turkish forces would very likely be met by an Iranian escalation on the ground too.  The Turkish army would find themselves facing both absolute Russian air superiority, and the Syrian and Iran armed forces.  This seems an an unlikely prospect.  Is then Turkey’s intent simply to draw Russia deeper into the Syrian conflict?

The US and British assessment, according to Sunday’s Financial Times quoting western diplomats (who have been talking with the Russians), is one of “increasing [hope] about the prospect of a political deal over the future of Syria” - their optimism being “nurtured by recent signs of Russia’s cooperation, as well as a belief that Moscow’s military intervention in Syria is faltering” (emphasis added).  That is to say, they are optimistic that Russia is about to agree to President Assad’s ouster, though Putin has been plain in saying that outsiders have no right to dictate such things to the Syrian people.

The FT also quotes a “senior European intelligence official” as estimating that the “Kremlin had misjudged what its military intervention in Syria could achieve”. The official continued: “The Russians had since ‘looked under the bonnet’ and discovered the Syrian army and militias supporting it were incapable of winning the war in Syria”. (Comment: the intelligence official is almost certainly British, judging from the use of the term “under the bonnet”).  In other words, the Russians, this intelligence officer is saying, have already given up on their military initiative.

This seems incredible. Is it possible that western leaders believe their own narrative?  Unfortunately, it seems possible they do – such is the power of ‘group think’. Just last week, the supposedly authoritative Janes’ Defence Weekly suggested last week that the Syrian Army, and its various allies, had recovered only 0.4% of territory by their military operations under Russian leadership. It is difficult to understand how Janes’ could reach such an odd conclusion when the P4+1 forces are making gains in all spheres of conflict.  How quick the British senior official is to conclude that Russia's military operation has failed – after barely five weeks.

Is it possible too, to think that many in the West believed that Putin’s intent in visiting the Supreme Leader in Tehran on Monday was to coerce him into abandoning support for the Syrian leadership and state, and to accede to the Washington line?  Who are these Russians with whom these diplomats are talking?  It should be clear by now that Putin’s visit to Tehran, rather, was about Russia entering into a strategic relationship with Iran, and reaffirming their common stance on Syria.  If anything, the downing of the Russian jet will have strengthened Russia and Iran’s joint resolve on the matter of Syria, and on the need for a shared response to Washington. Do they really believe that they are going to wedge Russia and Iran apart on Syria?  It seems so, for that clearly is their policy: to work on exacerbating divisions between Iran and Russia – or, prying Russia away from Iran in their diplomatic language.

It seems the legacy of the Cold War (and long history of hostilities with Iran) makes it hard for western officials to perceive either Russia (or Iran)  other than through these old paradigmatic lenses. To be fair, the debate in Washington on Syria is more diffuse. There are officials – senior officials – who do see the merit of co-operation with Russia, and for the need for a political solution, which puts the issue of President Assad’s participation in future elections to one side – rather than pre-conditioning the politics by a desired outcome: the removal of President Assad.

But President Obama it seems, does not wish to stray, at this time, from the safety of conventional ‘Beltway’ and think-tank opining that Russian ‘Atlanticists’ are somehow still capable of capitalising on any Putin ‘error’: and of seizing the reins of power, in order to steer Russia toward the US-led global order.  Perhaps too, the US President feels that he has his legacy (the P5+1 deal) in the bag, and is content now to rest, for the short remainder of his term, within the comfort zone of orthodoxy.

But on the other hand, maybe Obama (to himself) is as sceptical of this Reaganite way of thinking as he was about his cabinet colleagues’ advocacy of the strategy of building up ‘moderates’. But if so, his comments in Kuala Lumpur do not reflect any such doubts, but rather the reverse. There, he was clear: let the next few weeks [of Russia stewing in the Syrian quagmire] show whether it brings about Putin’s 'strategic readjustment’, or not – and in the meanwhile America can watch from the sidelines, whilst demonstrating that it is America, rather than Russia, leading any anti-ISIS coalition. This not the spirit that is likely to engender any political breakthrough – rather it is recipe for stasis.

It seems though, that Putin never intended to put all his eggs into one basket (American co-operation) -- planning rather to allow ‘facts on the ground’ to speak for themselves, politically as well as militarily.  In short, we may be heading for a political settlement under force of arms (if Russia’s military intervention is successful, contrary to western expectations) -- a political settlement after ‘the fact’, as it were, rather than in parallel to the ‘military facts’.

This will put Europeans on the spot. The US policy now seems to be to ‘blanket Syria’ with US-led coalition interventions, both to seize the lead, as well as ‘to cut Russia’s role down to size’. This will only exacerbate tensions between Russia and the US (and possibly lead to accidents in an overcrowded airspace).

What the Europeans want, more than anything, however, is a political settlement that might staunch the flow of refugees to Europe.  They may see that Russia has a better chance of achieving that through open elections in Syria, and they may fear America’s ‘Assad must go’ first' formula might end in a chaos that exacerbates the refugee flight.  They will have to choose.