March 6, 2019 —
In INSS’s Strategic Perspectives No. 27 – “Between Russia and Iran: Room to Pursue American Interests in Syria,” I argued that Russia’s solution to restraining Iranian behavior in Syria has been one of addition and mediation rather than subtraction. Moscow dilutes Iranian influence by working with other powers, including those most antithetical to Iran. Russia’s relations with Israel are now arguably closer to a “strategic partnership” than those with Iran. Its dealings with Saudi Arabia correspond more aptly to an “oil axis” than the partnership so often said to exist between Russia and Iran. Russia’s economic ties and diplomacy with Turkey and greenlighting of Turkish military action in Syria have also diluted Iranian leverage in Syria.
Those conclusions were based on information that was current in August 2018. Since then, there have been dramatic developments in the region and in U.S. policy on Syria. Despite -- and at times thanks to -- these twists and turns, Moscow has kept its ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey on track, while doing little more than marching in place in its management of relations with Iran. At the same time, President Putin has carefully maintained a cordial approach to President Trump and welcomed his December 19 Syria withdrawal announcement, though cautioning the need to wait and see what actually transpires.
Here are the recent highlights and the future implications for American policy in Syria.
The interactions between Putin and Netanyahu throughout the first 7 months of 2018 strengthened their relationship and bolstered Israeli security while presenting Tehran with new and growing challenges. Since August 2018, events on the ground both helped and hindered that relationship. Notably, UN peacekeepers, accompanied by Russian military police, returned to patrolling the Golan Heights separation zone for the first time in six years. The Russian-Israeli relationship appeared to be on firm ground and benefiting Israeli security interests.
Then, on September 17, Syrian air defense forces, attempting to stop an Israeli air raid, shot down a Russian Il-20 surveillance airplane, killing its crew of 15. The tragedy ruffled relations between Moscow and Jerusalem, especially between their military establishments as they disputed responsibility for the incident. While President Putin early on characterized it as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” he subsequently sent three battalions of S-300 air defense systems to Syria, despite Netanyahu’s objections.
Later, Putin discussed the incident and the S-300 decision on the phone and in person with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Relations at the top seemed to be on the mend. Moscow was reportedly seeking to renegotiate its de-confliction agreement with Jerusalem, not end it. Military experts held talks in Moscow and Jerusalem.
From the end of November until late-January 2019, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conducted repeated strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets – including the most extensive strikes since May 2018. Throughout, according to an IDF spokesperson, the Russia-Israeli communications system for avoiding accidental clashes in Syria was “honored by both sides and continues as we speak.” According to sources in Moscow, Russia’s policy toward IDF strikes in Syria would remain the same as long as they avoided hitting Russian facilities and personnel. Netanyahu and Putin conferred again by phone on February 21, in advance of an upcoming face-to-face meeting in Moscow. After Putin received Netanyahu in Moscow on February 27, the Israeli leader said Putin shared his goal of getting Iranian and all foreign fighters out of Syria.
Russia and Iran have numerous agreements committing them to cooperation on military and security issues. In January 2015, most prominently, Defense Ministers Sergei Shoigu and Hossein Dehqan signed an agreement on military cooperation. On December 25, 2018, delegations concluded a plan for military cooperation in the year 2019. In the meantime, work is reportedly proceeding on an expanded security accord to address narcotics and terrorism proliferation.
None of these agreements appear to involve or in any way restrict the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force efforts in Syria. They instead serve more as demonstrations of Russia’s political commitment to prevent the international isolation of Iran than as action-backed pledges to protect and cooperate with Iran on military-security matters.
Russian and Iranian officials demonstratively meet from time to time to discuss the situation in Syria. And yet there have been numerous signs of friction between Iran and Russia on matters concerning Syria in recent years. On December 25, 2018, for example, the same day Russia and Iran signed their work plan for military cooperation in 2019, Russia appeared to do nothing to stop Israeli strikes on Iranian weapons facilities on the grounds of Damascus International Airport. This pattern repeated on January 21-22, 2019, and soon sparked another spike of commentary on the open friction between Moscow and Tehran over their respective goals for Syria.
Moscow’s “no-hassle” reaction to the early October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis was clearly appreciated by Riyadh. Several weeks later, Putin commented that, “We have built really good relations with Saudi Arabia in recent years…. Why should we take any steps directed at downgrading our relations, if we do not understand what is really happening?” Not long after, King Salman telephoned Putin to discuss bilateral affairs, including energy cooperation; Middle East issues, including Syria; the Khashoggi case; and to reconfirm the long-standing invitation for Putin to visit Saudi Arabia.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in Syria is useful to Moscow in tempering not only Iranian but also Turkish ambitions there. Common interests in stabilizing world energy markets have also continued to draw Russia and Saudi Arabia close. Their collaboration has now carried over into 2019 despite Saudi disappointment over Russia probably implementing the production cuts agreed in Vienna in December gradually instead of immediately. All the same, Putin and King Salman reaffirmed their intention to continue coordination in world hydrocarbon markets when they spoke by phone on February 19.
Since Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Ankara and Moscow have done two major deals: over Aleppo in 2016; and about Afrin in 2018. The pattern has been the same in each. Turkey has not resisted the return to Russian-Syrian government control of a key area held by Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey. In return, Russia has not impeded a Turkish military offensive aimed at bolstering Turkey’s border security interests in Syria and undermining Kurdish efforts to establish autonomy.
Russian and Turkish military and diplomatic officials have met repeatedly in recent months to discuss the Idlib and Manbij regions in northern Syria. Though the trade-offs remain a matter of speculation, a third deal may not follow the
same pattern of the Aleppo and Afrin deals.
Even as Turkey failed to meet the first stage deadline of October 15 to clear out jihadi opposition forces from Idlib, Putin gave Ankara a pass. Putin has instead repeatedly celebrated completion of the offshore portion of the huge TurkStream gas pipeline project. Russian forbearance on the lack of Turkish progress toward clearing the agreed de-escalation zone in Idlib continues even as the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have degraded Turkey’s earlier positions and pushed more moderate opposition forces out.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s Syria withdrawal declaration on December 19, amended two months later to leave a residual force of 400, has raised fresh uncertainties over the ultimate control of the Manbij region and territories east of the Euphrates River. Ankara has pushed hard to take them over and to destroy all Kurdish forces in the area, a problematic goal given American partnering with local Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Russia has meanwhile called instead for the return of these territories to Syrian government control. For their part, the Syrian Kurds have made overtures to Damascus to take back oversight of the area while granting Kurds substantial autonomy within a unified Syria, a position Moscow had long advocated.
Turkey appears overextended and not up to the challenge in Idlib and Manbij. Turkey’s strategic obsession has been to control the 800-kilometer border with Syria. Erdogan therefore now arguably has an incentive to cut a deal ceding control to Damascus of Idlib region in exchange for Russia backing a safe zone along the border in Manbij and northeastern Syria that would impede potential cross-border Kurdish synergy. However, Putin has proposed a revival of the 1998 Adana Agreement by which Damascus pledged to rein in the activities of the Kurdish PKK on Syrian territory, but at the price that Ankara not control a safe zone and acknowledge the sovereignty of Damascus over reclaimed Syrian regions. Erdogan will probably wait until after March 31 local elections in Turkey to make a decision.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITED STATES
Putin continues to adopt an upbeat pose in describing his relationship with President Trump. Returning to the annual Valdai conference in October 2018, the Russian president asserted, “Of course he listens. And not just listens, I see that he reacts to the arguments I make.” On December 20, at his annual extended press conference, Putin stated both that he “overall” agreed with President Trump that ISIS had been defeated in Syria, and that “Donald is right” about the continuing risk from ISIS and similar groups in the region. In addition, he again praised continuing Russian-American deconfliction efforts in Syria: “Despite all the disagreements, … we are satisfied with our cooperation.”
In Sochi on February 14, Putin praised President Trump’s determination to follow through on his campaign promise to leave Syria. Putin had registered a more skeptical stance after President Trump’s December 19 call for a prompt American withdrawal from Syria. A Middle East expert in Moscow had then cautioned that it was premature to consider Trump’s withdrawal decision an obvious “victory” for Russia. On the other hand, concluded the expert, if the United States really were to withdraw its forces from Syria, then “Russia will become the only global player on earth and its role as a mediator in the escalating situation between the Turks, Kurds, Iranians and Syrians may increase.”
In any case, Russia has had an incentive in recent months to maintain and even strengthen the other pillars of its Iranian counterbalancing strategy in Syria. At the same time, the powers in the region have had even more incentive to court and cut deals with Putin’s Moscow. President Trump’s withdrawal decision has more than justified all of their efforts to hedge against further U.S. disengagement by courting Moscow.
Russia will now also have even more reason not to impede Israeli strikes on Iranian-Hezbollah facilities in Syria, though for the sake of appearances will continue from time to time to criticize the dangers of IDF strikes. Russia will also have even more reason to court Saudi Arabia and encourage it to play a more significant role in Syria, particularly financially but ultimately as yet another lever restraining the Iranian presence and Turkish ambitions in Syria.
At the same time, a personal relationship with President Trump is still of instrumental value to Putin in his quest to solidify Russia’s position as a great power on the world stage. The United States is still relevant to Moscow in Syria because of U.S. airpower and America’s potential UN veto to any ‘final’ political solution.
For these reasons, Russia will not soon if ever abandon its efforts to engage Washington on the Syrian conflict and what comes afterward in the region. The Trump administration therefore retains significant leverage to pursue key American priorities after the elimination of the ISIS caliphate in Syria. Washington should thus continue to strive toward a UN-led political solution to Syria, working with Russia where overlapping interests make it possible. The United States need not and should not concede anything in advance on Asad’s future. It should likewise continue to aim to reduce Iran’s leverage in Syria and power in the region, priorities not only for the United States but also for Russia.
Dr. John W. Parker is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.