Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shake hands in Moscow in October 2015. (The Kremlin)

A Breakthrough for Russia and the Regime in Syria

10/07/2016 . By Hassan Hassan

More than a year into the Russian intervention in Syria, the long-term impact of the involvement has remained constant since the first two months of the campaign: the removal of Bashar al-Assad’s government has become untenable. The Russian campaign has been more successful than many observers anticipated in ensuring the regime does not lose. It has also been too limited to turn the tables and enable a regime victory, an outcome defined as the takeover of the country, the surrender of the rebels, or the stability of what the regime currently holds. However, two recent developments appear to help the regime and its Russian backers achieve the breakthrough in northern Syria they have sought since launching the mission last year.

The first development was the Turkish-backed operation to fight the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Aleppo on August 23 this year. When the operation started, Moscow issued a three-paragraph statement that situated the Turkish operation in its narrow context of being directed at the Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish militias. The Russian foreign ministry expressed concerns about the development and the prospect of greater civilian losses and heightened ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds. The ministry made no mention of concerns related to the regime, a clear indication that Moscow did not oppose the operation but reserved the right to retract its tacit approval. Russia, as well as Iran and the regime in Damascus, was increasingly worried about the ambitions of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia—the People’s Protection Units or YPG—as the Kurdish group was poised to play an even greater role in the fight against the Islamic State in three provinces in northern Syria. The Turkish incursion into northern and eastern Syria serves as a check on Kurdish expansion in that region.

Due to mutual understanding or alignment of interests, Russia avoided confrontation with Turkey. And Turkey reciprocated. During the vicious Russian onslaught on Aleppo over the past few weeks, Ankara uncharacteristically avoided hostile rhetoric against Moscow. Despite pleas by the opposition for regional backers to act against the intensification of the airstrikes, the response from Ankara was that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would make a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin to revive a failed U.S.-Russian ceasefire plan.

Such a position by Turkey is uncharacteristic. Even though Turkish officials have demonstrated an inclination toward diplomacy since the botched coup, their relative silence over Aleppo raised eyebrows among its proxies and supporters in the region. There have been even rumors that Turkey struck a deal with Russia that involves the abandonment of Aleppo in exchange for a free hand in eastern Syria.

The reality is that, while Turkey is still committed to the rebel groups that it supports in Aleppo and Idlib, Russia has pinned Turkey after Turkey’s military involvement inside the Syria. Turkey has hardly any countermeasure other than to seek a diplomatic understanding with Russia to deescalate the situation in Aleppo. The presence of both countries in the north, as I argued in August, has changed the state of play in that region. Russia knows that Turkey prefers to avoid confrontation because Russia can make Turkey’s task against the Islamic State and the YPG significantly harder. For example, the regime’s forces are only six miles away from the Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab, much closer than the rebels some 20 miles away. Al-Bab is a key town for the YPG, which seeks to use it to link its cantons east of the Euphrates with other areas of control in the northwest via Manbij, which it helped liberate in August, an event that triggered the Turkish intervention. If the rebels take al-Bab, they will face the YPG west of the town and the regime to its south.

Turkey finds itself compelled to strike a balance between committing to the welfare of its proxies in Aleppo and Idlib and avoiding a confrontation with Russia. The delicate balance is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, and thus Turkey has no moves other than to seek deescalation diplomatically. At the same time, Turkey has to preserve the strength of allied groups in the north. Rebel allies are an important source of influence in future Syria regardless of how the situation develops and, more importantly, they remain a vital piece for Turkey’s chess game in the event that Russia changes its calculations in northern Syria. Russia too will continue to maintain links with the YPG even as it seeks to check their ambitions.

America Grasping at Straws

The picture for the Syrian rebels in the north seems bleaker if the Turkish dilemma is viewed alongside the weakened American hand in the same region, the second development in recent weeks. An indication of how the situation has devolved is that despite the Russian onslaught on Aleppo over the past few weeks, both Washington and Ankara have been proven powerless.

Threats by Washington to sever diplomatic channels with Russia fell on deaf ears in Moscow. On Monday, the United States finally announced certain lines of communication with Russia would be suspended, after the ceasefire agreement the two countries reached last month failed to take hold. Earlier, even as the Syrian regime declared the end of the ceasefire, Washington desperately insisted the deal was still on. Secretary of State John Kerry had dismissed the remarks from Damascus and said the agreement was reached with Moscow, not the regime.

Despite attempts by Washington to persuade the Russians to comply with the terms, including the delivery of aid and cessation of air raids against opposition areas, no progress was made. Tension reached a high point when Russia reportedly struck an aid convoy, and the U.S. mistakenly targeted dozens of regime soldiers in the city of Deir Ezzor. The U.S. still hopes to revive the ceasefire deal, which involves a joint campaign to strike Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda offshoot. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the idea of strikes against the Syrian regime was back on the table on Wednesday, with more officials showing support for the kinetic effort to prevent the fall of Aleppo. On the same day, Turkey and Russia also discussed the prospect of deescalation in a telephone conversation between the presidents of the two countries, and further discussions are expected when the two presidents meet on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul next week. Notwithstanding discussions of a military course, the Obama administration’s ultimate objective is still to revive the deal with Moscow.

Russia, meanwhile, knows the constraints and priorities of the two rivals in northern Syria. For Turkey, the priority is to prevent the PYD from connecting its cantons in the north and to fight the Islamic State. The regime factors later in Turkey’s calculations today. Crucially, Turkey also finds itself in a new reality where it has to maintain a level of calm with Russia, especially as the two countries work to improve their bilateral relations.

For the United States, the priorities continue to be the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Russia’s operations are concentrated in the north, where the front’s influence is mostly concentrated. This means that if the U.S. wants to fight Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, it has to reach a deeper understanding with Russia than the existing deconfliction procedures that exist in eastern and northeastern Syria, where the regime has little to no presence.

Russia finds itself in an optimal position of leverage against the only two countries that can make a substantive difference for the rebels in northern Syria. Both the United States and Turkey have clear priorities that do not involve the regime and their hands are tied by the need to maintain a certain balance with Russia. This new reality opens new possibilities for the Russian involvement in Syria unconceivable some months ago.