Lessons on playmaking in Syria by Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on Nov. 22 that the military episode of the Syrian civil war, ongoing since 2011, has now come to an end. He was speaking in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi ahead of a key trilateral meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Putin’s words do not mean that the clashes between fighting parties in Syria will come to an end overnight. But they do indicate that the parties have pledged to focus on the U.N.-led Geneva process for a political process to form a new Syria.
This latest wave of diplomacy, apparently orchestrated by Putin, started as soon as the U.S.-led forces announced that they had retaken the city of Raqqa from the occupation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Oct. 19. Putin made a short remark on that day saying that although he did not agree with U.S. President Donald Trump’s stance Trump “should be respected as he came to power through elections.”
That ice-breaking remark paved the way for the diplomacy that enabled the unannounced meeting between Putin and Trump in Da Nang, Vietnam on Nov. 11, during an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. After that meeting it was revealed in a joint statement that the two presidents “agree that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria” and an “ultimate political solution” in Syria has yet to be found.
Before flying (again to Sochi) for his fifth one-on-one meeting with Putin in 2017 on Nov. 13, Turkish President Erdoğan criticized the U.S. and Russia for closing the doors to a military option before the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad was over. Nearly six hours later, after speaking to Putin, Erdoğan still expressed reservations but gave his support to a political solution, which he said Turkey actually wanted from the start.
Events accelerated after Putin took full control. Without him it would have been extremely difficult to secure communication between the various parties, for example between the U.S. and Iran.
On Nov. 16 it was announced in Moscow that Russia, Turkey and Iran would hold a key meeting - as the founders of the Astana Process back in January 2017 which agreed a ceasefire and de-escalation roadmap in Syria. The same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said he would be hosting his Russian and Iranian counterparts in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya.
On Nov. 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow hoped the Sochi meeting could help start dialogue between the al-Assad regime and the opposition. Moscow knows that Ankara considers the U.S.’s partner in the anti-ISIL fight, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a terrorist group because it is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It also knows that al-Assad considers the Turkey-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) as a terrorist group (as well as the YPG). On the same day as Lavrov spoke, Erdoğan said Turkey did not want to be “duped” in the Afrin region of northwest Syria, bordering Turkey, by the U.S.-backed YPG/PKK presence there.
On Nov. 19, Çavuşoğlu, Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met in Antalya. Çavuşoğlu said Turkey objected to the YPG taking part in the Geneva talks, while Lavrov said the issue of Kurds taking part in the Geneva talks was discussed and “all three parties agreed.” On the same day, Rouhani said in Tehran that they considered ISIL to be “defeated.”
On Nov. 20, Turkey opened its air space to Russian planes for the first time in four years. Putin received al-Assad on the same evening in Sochi, in the presence of his top brass. The purpose of that meeting was to ensure that the results of his earlier meeting with the Turkish and Iranian presidents would not be rejected by al-Assad, who literally owes to his chair to Russia’s intervention in 2015. The speculation about al-Assad returning to Syria with a Russian plane via Turkish air space the next day were neither confirmed nor denied by either the Russians or the Turks. On the same night, Putin called Qatari Emir Tamim al-Thani in preparation for the Sochi summit, as Qatar has been an actor supplying money to rebels and jihadists in the Syria civil war, while also hosting a U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition base.
On Nov. 21, the chiefs of staff of the three countries - Valery Gerasimov, Hulusi Akar and Mohammad Bagheri - met in Sochi to discuss the military details of a possible agreement between Putin, Erdoğan and Rouhani on Nov. 22.
Putin then accelerated the telephone diplomacy, in order to maintain that there would be no possible objection to a Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a readout of Putin’s telephone conversation with Trump at 20:50 on Nov. 21, followed by a statement about Putin’s call to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Saud at 21:20. Then he spoke to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at 22:00 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at 22:05.
Those listed above are only the open diplomatic moves compiled from press reports. Parallel diplomacy, contacts between secret services, and other less overt efforts also went on. All in all, the pre-Sochi steps could well end up being taught in university international relations departments in the future.
Like it or not, Russia changed the game after it entered Syria militarily (with the encouragement of Iran) in 2015. For the last two years it has been the key playmaker that can speak to all actors in the region directly and easily.
Former Turkish Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu used to be fond of making bold remarks about Turkey becoming the playmaker in the Middle East with its “zero-problem with-neighbors” policy. Today, Turkey has many problems with its neighbors and its allies, but thanks to the diplomacy orchestrated by Russia it has at least become one of the actors in international solution efforts once again.