Syria and the problematic course being charted by Russia and Turkey

What is the motive behind alternative talks on Syria’s future that bypass both America and the broader international community? Sharif Nashashibi cuts through the diplomatic fog to assess the possibilities for a breakthrough

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly have a lot to talk about. Emrah Gurel / AP Photo
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Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan were working to organise a new series of Syrian peace talks without American or United Nations involvement.

Despite Mr Putin saying “it won’t compete” with UN-brokered talks in Geneva “but will complement them”, this is clearly a snub to the United States and UN. Under Barack Obama, American relations with both Russia and Turkey have steadily soured over a range of issues.

Meanwhile, last month Moscow accused the UN of “sabotaging” a resolution on Syrian talks “for more than six months”, without elaborating. In October, Russia was voted off the UN Human Rights Council amid mounting allegations of its responsibility for war crimes in Syria.

It is hard to see how having two separate negotiating tracks, sponsored by different players with differing agendas, will “complement” each other.

The Russian-Turkish initiative is not so much about improving on the failed Geneva process (to which both, particularly Moscow, were integral) than about furthering their national and regional interests, as well as improving bilateral ties.

The proposed talks, and their brokering of the Aleppo evacuation deal, should be seen as part of their fence-mending process that began in June this year following major strains caused by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015.

Monday’s assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara is likely to bring the two governments even closer – Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan have said as much, and Ankara has acted swiftly and resolutely to avoid diplomatic fallout.

This attempt to take leadership of diplomacy over Syria can also be seen as part of ongoing moves by both countries to boost their regional influence. Mr Putin is concertedly and successfully filling the void left by what is widely viewed as an American withdrawal from the Middle East under Mr Obama, and the subsequent anger of US allies in the region.

Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan has not only cultivated closer ties with some Arab Gulf states, but is also in various stages of reconciliation with Russia, Israel, Iran and even the Syrian regime – a strategy of reversing Turkey’s relative isolation following strident regional policies in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Another impetus may be the desire to avoid direct confrontation between pro-Damascus forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. Such a scenario is looming on the horizon amid speculation over the next military move by Mr Al Assad and his foreign allies, including Russia, following their capture of east Aleppo.

Speculation is rife that Idlib province, which borders Turkey and is a supply route for Ankara-backed rebels, could be next. Additionally, as rebels fighting ISIL push south from northern Syria – backed by Turkish ground and air forces – it is likely that they will eventually come face to face with pro-regime forces. Direct fighting could draw in Moscow and Ankara, which they would strenuously want to avoid.

The Kurdish issue is also a factor in Mr Erdogan’s diplomatic partnering with Mr Putin over Syria. Moscow has backed Syrian Kurdish fighters – which have avoided, if not colluded with, pro-regime forces – as a thorn in Ankara’s side.

Given the resumption and intensification of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, and the current campaign by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels against Kurdish forces – which Ankara accuses of supporting the insurgency in Turkey – Mr Erdogan may be seeing an opportunity to isolate and weaken Syrian Kurds by persuading Mr Putin, and by extension Mr Al Assad, to shun them.

This could suit Mr Al Assad if he sees Turkey weakening Syrian Kurds as a means to eventually recapture chunks of northern Syria – in which they have declared autonomy – as part of his repeated vow to retake the whole country.

More broadly, there is the need by both Ankara and Moscow to eventually extricate themselves from the Syrian conflict, in which they have become increasingly involved militarily – Russia on behalf of Mr Al Assad and Turkey against ISIL and Syrian Kurds. Turkey has the added, immense burden of hosting some 2.5 million Syrian refugees and counting.

The Syrian conflict shows no sign of ending by military means anytime soon. As such, Moscow and Ankara will need to formulate by diplomacy suitable exit strategies, if not by an overall settlement, then by interim solutions that meet their respective interests.

Though there are numerous incentives for this diplomatic partnership, there are also major risks, particularly for Turkey. Excluding the US from this process is unproblematic while Mr Obama is in office, but in a few weeks he will be replaced by Donald Trump, who has exchanged warm words with Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin, and has vowed a more robust and direct approach to combating ISIL than Mr Obama.

The Turkish and Russian presidents see in Mr Trump an opportunity to reset relations with the US, but what if the new US president wants in on Turkish-Russian diplomacy over Syria? Given his mercurial nature, what if he sees things differently from them, or is convinced to do so by Republican hawks, including his vice president?

Excluding the UN is even more problematic, indeed unrealistic. Any agreement brokered by Ankara and Moscow would be difficult to implement and monitor on the ground without it. Last week, Staffan de Mistura said the UN would have to broker any talks for them to have legitimacy. It is naive to expect it to shoulder a deal from which it was deliberately excluded. Just as the fence-mending process would be boosted by a diplomatic breakthrough brokered by Moscow and Ankara, so too could it be strained if talks fail, particularly if they end acrimoniously.

Failure is almost assured without agreement on Mr Al Assad’s fate, on which Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin disagree, and on which previous talks have made no headway whatsoever. There is nothing to suggest that their proposed talks could succeed where all others have failed.

Indeed, organising the Aleppo evacuation has been fraught with difficulties and stoppages, and led to a blame game between Turkey and Russia, so negotiating something nationwide would be far harder. Successful talks may not even be on Mr Al Assad’s agenda. His hallmark strategy thus far has been to attend them, be so intransigent that they fail, then use their failure as a pretext to launch another military onslaught. Fresh from capturing east Aleppo, he may be emboldened to press on militarily. Turkey runs the risk of inadvertently being used to further that strategy.

While Mr Putin has not budged on his Syria policy, Ankara has softened its stance towards the Al Assad regime since its thaw with Moscow, focusing instead on ISIL and the Kurds. However, any major shifts by Mr Erdogan – such as accepting that Mr Al Assad remain in power – would strain ties with the Syrian opposition and potentially Turkey’s Gulf allies.

There is already considerable unease about the Turkish-Russian thaw, and what many see as Ankara’s subsequent abandonment of the Syrian revolution. That unease has been heightened by the assassination of Russia’ ambassador to Turkey, with speculation over whether it will make Ankara more malleable over Syria, and encourage it to see the conflict there as Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad do: as a war on terrorism rather than a struggle for freedom.

The Syrian opposition would likely reject any deal that is seen as selling it out in favour of better ties with Moscow and Damascus, not least because the Gulf states have not softened their stance toward Assad. Given all these considerations, Turkey may be taking on a poisoned chalice.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs