Monday

20th Jan 2020

Opinion

Think twice before teaming up with Putin in Syria

  • Russia was tempted to get involved because of the fact that the West is seen to lack a strategy, with no clear endgame in mind (Photo: james_gordon_losangeles)

The plot continues to thicken in the great power game being played out over the Syrian conflict.

The Paris attacks in particular have brought a new and dramatic twist in the quest to find a solution for the Syrian war and reshuffled the diplomatic cards once more.

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Having vowed to wage war against ISIS, French president Francois Hollande now seeks to enrol Russia in a campaign to destroy the movement that claimed responsibility for the attacks in the French capital on 13 November.

A resolution tabled by France which called for "all necessary measures" to be taken against ISIS was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council last Friday.

This week Hollande visited Washington and Moscow in a bid to broaden cooperation between the countries.

These developments make the French cancellation of the sale of two aircraft carriers to Russia seem like ages ago.

For Russia, it provides a great opportunity to come back in from the cold. However, France and its Western allies should be careful not to acquiesce in Russian demands too easily, for it could backfire in the long run.

Moscow’s opportunism

Ever since Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to enter the Syrian war on 30 September, his aim was not only to prop up Syria’s beleaguered president Bashar al-Assad, but also to create diplomatic space for Russia to become part of a solution to the conflict - and thus to be a power that cannot be ignored.

Russia was tempted to get involved because of the fact that the West is seen to lack a strategy, with no clear endgame in mind.

Whilst bombing ISIS-controlled oil facilities and support to the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces go some way in containing the self-proclaimed state, lack of coordination amongst Western allies and doubts about the motives of some of their regional allies mean that no clear path to peace could be crafted.

Sensing a political opportunity, Putin conceived of the operation in support of Assad as a chance to re-assert Moscow’s influence in the region, which had gradually withered away over the past 40 years.

But instead of fighting Damascus’ putative enemy, ISIS, Russia largely moved against the Free Syrian Army and associated opposition forces around Aleppo and Idlib.

This military approach was hardly if at all affected by the downing of a Russia jetliner on 31 October, killing all 224 people on board, and claimed by ISIS in retaliation for Russian actions in Syria.

It was not until after the Paris attacks that Moscow acknowledged that an explosive device had been responsible for the fate of Metrojet flight 9268. But rather than focusing its energy on fighting ISIS, Putin used it to try to convince the West that Assad is the best bulwark against further instability and that Russia is an indispensable partner in bringing an end to the conflict.

For Russia, with ISIS alive and kicking, Assad is not going to go anywhere.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours?

From a broader geopolitical perspective, Putin’s foray into the Middle East is chiefly motivated by a desire to bring an end to his country’s international isolation.

Following Western-imposed sanctions against Russia owing to its role in the Ukraine conflict, and amplified by the collapse in the price of oil, the Russian economy has taken a major hit.

With capital having fled the country on a grand scale and the Rouble having lost a great deal of its value, the Syrian conflict represents a great opportunity in Putin’s view to patch up relations with the West.

This is because Russia believes that its leverage with the Syrian President and its determined military approach make it a valuable ally for France and its Western coalition partners.

The price that Russia will want to exact in exchange for more support against ISIS can be high, albeit that Russia’s bargaining is likely to be constrained due to low oil prices.

Crimea on the table

Inevitably, the sanctions issue, implementation of Minsk II and the status of Crimea will be brought to the table.

Because of Western insistence on the illegality of the annexation of Crimea, it is unlikely that a compromise can be found there. What is more, a possible climbdown from principle on the part of Western countries could only invite Putin to try the same tactic in other circumstances.

The most that could be achieved is Russian reaffirmation to support the Minsk II process in exchange for a gradual reduction of sanctions that do not affect the Crimea issue.

At the same time, Western countries could give more space to Russian demands in relation to the Syria peace negotiations, including a transitional role for President Assad - something which is being openly discussed these days in any event.

After the meeting in Moscow, the French and Russian President stated they had agreed on three basic points.

First, France and Russia would intensify their intelligence exchange.

Second, strikes against ISIS would become part of a co-ordinated campaign.

Third, air strikes would focus on ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Notwithstanding these hopeful signs, the tragedy for Russia is that its prevarication and dissimulation tactics over the past three years following the events in Ukraine have instilled little confidence among potential partners that Moscow will ultimately live up to its promises.

Thus, - pace Russia’s role in the Iran negotiations - there is a lack of faith concerning Russia acting as an honest partner in a peace process in which it has a direct geopolitical stake.

Serious incidents such as the confrontation between Russia and Nato-ally Turkey only further complicate the situation.

Still, if international recognition is what Moscow is after, it should be earned by way of constructive and honest behaviour. Otherwise an agreement would not be worth much, and Western countries will pay the price in the shape of continuing Putinesque posturing for some time to come.

Willem Oosterveld is an analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) in the Netherlands. Sijbren de Jong is an analyst at HCSS and a lecturer at Leiden University, campus The Hague

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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