Since Russia has deployed its military to Syria back in September 2015 it became a party to the conflict together with other actors involved. Its military support to the Syrian government helped to change the tide of war. With Moscow’s help Syrian state, its institutions, and, most importantly, army did not entirely collapse, while ISIS was overrun and political process started. In January 2017 Moscow initiated Astana format which united Russia, Turkey and Iran in their attempt to finish the military stage of the conflict, to de-escalate and to launch the political process. This format had several main goals: First and foremost was to bring armed opposition and the Syrian government to the negotiating table, the second – to separate moderate opposition from the terrorists, strike reconciliation deals and establish de-escalation zones, and, finally, searching for compromises on political and humanitarian issues. By now, all these goals were mostly reached in one way or another. Current reality on the ground in Syria is significantly different from the one back in 2015 and even in 2018.
Intensity of the fighting in Syria dropped significantly, the government now controls about 75-80 percent of the country, the military stage of the conflict is coming to the end giving more space to political and humanitarian track. Undoubtedly, Astana talks have become the most effective and useful platform which contributed a lot to the progress in the Syrian settlement. It established contacts between the armed opposition groups operating on the ground and the Syrian government and brought them to the negotiating table. It lowered intensity of the conflict by striking ceasefire deals and establishing de-escalation zones on the ground. It largely succeeded in separating moderate opposition from the terrorists (relocating them to Idlib province) and made preliminary preparations needed for the launch of the political process – National Dialog congress in Sochi, constitutional committee, Working Group on the Release of Detainees, Handover of Bodies and Identification of Missing Persons, etc.
In other words, Astana trilateral format fulfilled its main original goals and now a serious question arises – what can keep Russia, Turkey and Iran together when the conflict will enter into political settlement stage? Will this trilateral format remain relevant and effective in addressing and resolving new issues and challenges? Will it be able to settle Syrian Kurds issue, to initiate political process and transformation, to reintegrate Syria back into the “Arab family” and to effectively solve an issue of reconstruction? All these questions need to be addressed in coming months.
Trilateral Russia-Turkey-Iran format has become the main platform which started to navigate the Syrian conflict. All three members proved that despite having quite a lot of differences in many areas including Syria, they managed to establish functioning mechanism which allows them to be in constant contact, and be able to react quickly and effectively to the developments on the ground. This is why relations between Astana members in the Syrian context are so important to understand because their character and nature affects the work of the Astana format and, therefore, influences the Syrian conflict’s dynamic in general.
Although Russia and Iran have many common interests, e.g. developing bilateral economic and military cooperation, fighting terrorism and instability in the Middle East, etc., it does not make them perfect partners.
The rocky history of Russia-Iran relations and often conflicting interests in the regional affairs make their partnership in Syria more of a marriage of convenience. Despite being two major backers of the Syrian regime, Moscow and Iran have quite enough differences in Syria, especially given that the military stage of the conflict is coming to an end. Both countries already do not see eye to eye on a number of key issues, including the fate of Bashar al-Assad, postwar political reforms, the role of the Kurds, cooperation with the US and Gulf states, the extent of their postwar military presence and influence in Syria, and so on. Such issues might well become a source of frictions between Moscow and Tehran in the future.
Important matters which unite them in the region is necessity to confront externally-inspired insurgency in the region (this is how both countries view it), to fight terrorism, and to keep territorial integrity of the regional states – and most importantly of Syria. Once those issues will be successfully tackled there are going to be less incentives for both to cooperate on the regional matters.
In short, Russia’s partnership with Iran on Syria might be described as a curse and a blessing at the same time. On the one hand, Moscow’s decision to deploy its forces to Syria in the fall of 2015 followed after a deal with Damascus and Tehran. Russia would deploy its air forces only if Iran will commit ground troops – otherwise Russian air cover would be meaningless. Since Iran committed its forces (IRGC, army, pro-Iranian militias, etc.) it prevented Russia from sending its own ground troops to Syria. As a result, they arranged mutually beneficial division of labor which worked out quite successfully for both. On the other hand, over the last eight years of conflict Iran heavily invested in Syria and built solid multi-layered economic and military presence. Tehran has been delivering not only military assistance but financial and humanitarian aid, it has been providing important social services. Such excessive Iranian presence in the country is counter-productive for Russia’s long-term policy in Syria which eventually envisages political transition, reforms (including the army and security apparatus which have become populated by pro-Iranian factions), intra-Syrian reconciliation and reconciliation with the regional powers and the West. It is also a serious issue because Iran’s increased influence in Syria is a major security concern for the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia with whom Moscow tries to build and maintain constructive dialog, including on Syria. Iran remaining a major irritant for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US almost certainly excludes lift of Syria sanctions which is a key for the successful reconstruction and economic restoration of the country.
Moscow clearly understands that it is impossible to reach a comprehensive and lasting settlement in Syria without compromising with the West and regional powers. However, this might happen only if Iran will also be ready for compromises.
Together with that Russia also understands well that Iran won’t leave Syria. It is naïve to expect that after spending billions of dollars and scarifying thousands of soldiers Tehran will just abandon all its gains in Syria. Also, Moscow is aware that without Iranian financial and economic assistance it will become Russia’s responsibility. As a result, Moscow tries to sit on multiple chairs in Syria. It doesn’t want alienate Iran as it still needs its help in Syria and broader region, but it also wants Damascus’ reconciliation with the West and the Gulf states which will significantly help Syrian reconstruction. This is why, Russia’s main challenge for 2020 will be to keep healthy balance between maintaining good relations with Iran and its adversaries. It will require from Moscow a delicate maneuvering between Iran, Turkey, the West and GCC states with the overall desire to set up and maintain constructive cooperation on Syria. That said, Iran might easily play a spoiler role for Moscow because developing better relations with the US and its allies will almost certainly lead to to more frictions between Russia and Iran.
It is going to be harder for Russia to navigate in the new post-war Syria environment. Contrary to the belief of many Moscow could never control Iran in Syria. Of course, Russia has certain leverages but in no way it can dictate Tehran what to do or not to do. As the conflict in Syria is entering political settlement stage Moscow will face more challenges as the focus will shift to reforms and Damascus and Tehran can easily sabotage any initiative or plan proposed by Russia that doesn’t suit their interests.
Moscow-Ankara relation already passed through different stages over the course of the Syrian conflict: From partnership to alienation and back to the close coordination on Syria. Russia and Ankara have never seen each other eye to eye on Syria but it did not prevent them from establishing pragmatic partnership. Turkey supported regime change in Syria since the first months of the uprising and contributed a lot to the onset of the Syrian civil war providing logistical, financial, military support to the opposition and allowing foreign jihadists to flow into and out of Syria freely.
Despite this differences Russia and Turkey ultimately established pragmatic cooperation on Syria. It happened after Moscow deployed its forces to Syria creating a new reality on the ground and after the incident when Turkey downed Russian jet which led to the biggest crisis in bilateral relations in decades. Eventually, pragmatism on both sides helped to restore relations and move further. Since January 2017 Turkey is one of the Astana format members and plays one of the most important roles in resolving the Syrian conflict.
The mere fact that Turkey shares the longest border with Syria is alone enough to explain why Russia will inevitably need Turkey to settle the Syrian crisis. As of today, there are two major military and territorial issues in Syria which are directly connected with Turkey – HTS controlled Idlib province and Turkish buffer zone in Northeast Syria which was established during Putin-Erdogan meeting on Oct. 22.
These two areas in Syria – Idlib and Northeast buffer zone are extremely important for Ankara as problems related with them – HTS terrorists, Kurdish issue, resettlement of refugees – are important to Turkish security. As far as Russia is also deeply involved in settling these issues Moscow-Ankara track in Syrian conflict will remain dominant. These two issues will remain in 2020 and Russia will need to find a way how to resolve them.
Events of the last month clearly demonstrated importance of these two issues. Although, Syrian army got a big part of the Syrian-Turkish border under its control without a bullet being shot, the issue of country’s territorial integrity is still an open question. According to the memorandum reached in Sochi on Oct. 22 both Moscow and Ankara reaffirmed their respect and commitment to Syrian territorial integrity. However, it remains to be seen for how long Turkey will stay in its newly established buffer zone and whether it will agree to leave at all. It seems that once provisions of Putin-Erdogan deal on Northeast Syria will be fulfilled, especially withdrawal of Kurdish forces and weapons from 32 km zone from the Turkish border, and observation mechanisms will prove its effectiveness, Moscow will pressure Ankara to withdraw its forces from Syria. This is why, it is a potential source of friction between Russia and Turkey. In addition, we should not forget a possibility of Turkey-US reconciliation on Syria which might spoil Russian plans.
The problem with Northeast Syria is also tightly connected with Idlib province. Russia-Turkey agreement on Idlib buffer zone from September 2018 is de-facto dysfunctional. According to the agreement Ankara had to make sure that terrorists are separated from the moderate opposition groups and it is Turkey’s responsibility to prevent their attacks on Syrian soil, including attacks on Russian military objects and infrastructure. In reality this agreement is still not fulfilled: Idlib has been taken over by Al-Qaeda-linked militants of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS) which now controls about 90% of the province. Although Syrian army backed by Russia took over Khan Sheikhoun and surrounding areas in Idlib province, it did not resolve the issue completely. Eventually, Moscow plans to take M4 and M5 highways under control as these strategic roads connect Aleppo with the coast and Damascus.
So far, Moscow and Ankara stick to the September 2018 agreement on Idlib but it is unclear for how long they will do so. Given the recent Putin-Erdogan deal on Northeast Syria it looks increasingly likely Idlib and the Northeast safe-zone can become quid pro quo in future Russia-Turkey talks. It is going to be the next phase of settling an issue of Idlib and will likely be among the most important issues in 2020.
Another important challenge for Russia-Turkey partnership in Syria in 2020 is Ankara-Damascus talks. After striking a deal on Northeast Syria Moscow has become a step closer to bringing Turkey to negotiation table with the Syrian government. In order to reach a final solution on Northeast Syria the two parties have to talk and reach a compromise. But Turkey is still quite reluctant to fully re-legitimize Assad and the Syrian government which makes it very challenging for Moscow to broker such negotiations.
As a result, Russia’s relations with Iran and Turkey on Syrian track in 2020 won’t become easier. The final settlement of the conflict is still quite far and there are still a lot of roadblocks on Moscow’s way to smoothly deal with Iran and Turkey in Syria. On the other hand, it seems that after eight years of war everyone got tired and not willing anymore to continue inflexible policies. Both Turkey and Iran have domestic economic problems which are partly caused by the ongoing turmoil in Syria and Iraq. Economic incentives which come with the end of war and beginning of economic reconstruction in Syria might well play a positive role for them to become more prone to compromise.