Owen Matthews

Putin’s great game

This time he’s taking on Turkey’s President Erdogan, a ruler as ruthless as he is

Putin’s great game
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Russia’s bombing of the city of Aleppo this week sent a clear message: Vladimir Putin is now in charge of the endgame in Syria. Moscow’s plan — essentially, to restore its ally Bashar al-Assad to power — is quickly becoming a reality that the rest of the world will have to accept. America, Britain and the rest may not be comfortable with Putin’s ambitions in the Middle East, or his methods of achieving them. But the idea of backing a ‘moderate opposition’ in Syria has been proved a fantasy that leaves the field to Putin and Assad.

The Syrian partial ceasefire, brokered in Munich last week by America’s John Kerry, only served to reinforce this sense of Putin’s power. Under the terms of the deal, all combatants were to cease hostilities while humanitarian aid was delivered to rebel enclaves besieged by government troops. Except Russia, whose planes have continued bombing ‘terrorist targets’ — and since Assad insists that all his enemies are ‘terrorists’, the Munich ceasefire effectively means business as usual for Russian and Syrian warplanes. In recent days, they have bombed Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals in rebel-held Idlib and Azaz, and Free Syrian Army positions in the northern suburbs of Aleppo. In response to international condemnation, the Russian foreign ministry has declared that it ‘has still not received convincing evidence of civilian deaths as a result of Russian air strikes’.

Presidents Putin and Obama have both sought to intervene in the conflict militarily, but all the successes have been Russia’s. Between August 2014 and December last year, the US Air Force made 4,669 air strikes to aid Syria’s elusive ‘moderate opposition’ and degrade Isis. But while this made little impact strategically, Russian air power has proved decisive. Since last September, a single squadron of Russian bombers flying some 510 sorties a week has turned the balance of the war in Assad’s favour. Russian armour and tanks have reinvigorated the Syrian army’s battered forces. Ostensibly flown in to protect the Khmeimim airbase, Russian T-90 tanks have since been reported in the vanguard of Syrian army assaults on rebel strongholds south of Aleppo.

Putin is also seeking to reconcile Syria’s warring factions. While the Pentagon spent billions trying to train an army of democracy--friendly moderates which turned out not to exist, Russian military intelligence has been working with its Syrian counterparts to identify rebel groups who would be willing to cut a deal with Assad. The senior Syrian officer corps was largely trained in Moscow during the Cold War. According to one well-placed Russian diplomat, the Kremlin has drawn up a list of 38 potential opposition allies and has been actively wooing them since last October. The list is said to include the Syrian National Council’s current president, Khaled al-Khoja, together with three of his predecessors — Ahmad Jarba, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib and Hadi al-Bahra.

Throughout the winter, a number of rebel leaders have gone to Moscow to discuss terms — with mixed success. Late last month, a Russian attempt to bring several Syrian opposition parties together in Moscow collapsed. Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a close Assad ally who defected from the Syrian Republican Guard in 2012, has drawn up an 11-point ‘national project’ which envisions a general ceasefire, followed by a joint regime-rebel assault on Isis. It is a proposal backed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and part of a wider strategy that Russia pursued successfully in Chechnya in the early 2000s: reward rebels who are willing to change sides with a place at the winners’ table, while mercilessly bombing those who resist.

Russia’s new best friends are Syria’s Kurds. Earlier this month, the ‘Rojava Democratic Self-Rule Administration’ proclaimed itself the new government in Kurdish-held northern Syria and opened its first overseas representative office, in Moscow. Meanwhile, 200 Russian military advisers have been deployed to the Kurdish-controlled town of Qamishli, next to the Turkish border, to secure a military airport for Russian use. That gives Russia a stronghold from which to strike Isis in northeast Syria and protect its new Kurdish friends from attack by Turkey.

A wider Kurdish-Russian pact could be a game-changer for Assad — but it also massively raises the risk of the Syrian conflict spilling over into a wider war. A deal between the Kurdish YPG militia and Damascus would deprive the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — a coalition that includes Arab and Assyrian groups — of some of their most effective soldiers. It would also further confuse United States policy in Syria, since the Kurds have been Washington’s closest allies in the region for years.

The danger is that Russia’s overtures to the Kurds could put Moscow on a direct collision course with the Turks. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish YPG as an offshoot of Turkey’s home-grown Kurdistan Workers’ Party — or PKK — which has been fighting a renewed insurgency against the Turkish state since last summer. Turkey’s tough-talking president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has repeatedly declared that he will not tolerate a de-facto Syrian Kurdish state on his southern border.

Last week, Turkey’s army — the second largest in Nato — backed up Erdoğan’s words by shelling YPG positions from across the frontier, ostensibly in self-defence. Moreover, Erdoğan recently said that a Turkish-US buffer zone mooted for northern Iraq in 2003 would have preserved Iraq from its current problems with Isis. Erdoğan added that he saw no need ‘currently’ for a similar buffer zone in northern Syria — but said that the Turkish military had all the parliamentary authority it needed to create one if the order was given.

More worryingly, Putin and Assad have accused the Turkish army of running weapons to Ankara-backed rebel groups deep inside Syrian territory via the Bab al-Salam border crossing point. The Russians expect Turkey to go further. ‘At a certain point, a full Turkish intervention is inevitable,’ Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, told Bloomberg last week. ‘That would mean a completely different conflict, with a much larger force fighting on the side of the opposition and the risk of a direct Russian-Turkish conflict.’ Nationalist-leaning media on both sides are already fighting a war of words. It’s highly likely that another clash — beginning with, say, a Russian airstrike hitting Turkish troops inside Syria — would escalate quickly. In that case, Turkey could potentially invoke article five of Nato’s founding treaty, which states that an ‘armed attack against one [member] shall be considered an attack against them all’. The terrifying result: war between Nato and Russia.

To further complicate the situation, Saudi Arabia moved fighter jets to Turkey last week to carry out strikes inside Syria — and both Turkish and Saudi foreign ministers agreed that Saudi special forces troops deploying via Turkey might be involved in a future operation to liberate Raqqa from Isis. But Saudi troops on the ground in Syria would be a red rag to Assad’s other key ally, Iran — which already has troops from its revolutionary guards fighting in Syria.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, US senator John McCain correctly predicted that Russia would not observe the recent ceasefire. ‘Russian presses its advantage militarily, creates new facts on the ground, uses the denial and delivery of humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, negotiates an agreement to lock in the spoils of war, and then chooses when to resume fighting,’ he said. ‘The only thing that has changed about Mr Putin’s ambitions is that his appetite is growing with the eating.’

Certainly part of Putin’s plan in Syria is to distract international attention from his own unfinished intervention in eastern Ukraine. That conflict has cost Russia dearly: international banking sanctions and falling oil prices have sent inflation soaring and halved the value of the ruble. Putin is also ambitious to restore his country’s status as a world power. And he would like to show potential allies in the Middle East and the wider world that Russia stands by its friends. For the first time since the 1980s, Moscow’s military and diplomatic backing is something truly worth having.

Putin’s intervention in Syria is an act of reckless geopolitical buccaneering — just like his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his annexation of Crimea in 2014. But it’s worth asking the question: if Assad wins decisively, and peace breaks out, is Putin’s plan so terrible? Washington and Moscow want many of the same things: an end to hostilities on the ground, the destruction of radical Islamist groups such as Isis and the Al-Nusra Front, the establishment of a transitional government and, eventually, free elections. Even the Americans are willing to fudge on a key rebel demand — that Assad, personally, be removed from power. They agree that he could at least stay for a transitional period.

If Putin’s latest gambit does bring peace to Syria, even if it is a peace on Assad’s terms, it may one day be counted as a success, albeit a self-serving one. But it is also Putin’s riskiest move yet, and growing riskier by the second. So far Putin’s opponents have consisted of the disorganised regimes of former Soviet nations. In his Syrian war, he faces a ruler every bit as choleric and ruthless as himself — Erdoğan — and an increasingly belligerent Saudi Arabia. The prospect of peace in Syria is now dependent on the wisdom, restraint and goodwill of Putin and Erdoğan: an unsettling prospect.

Owen Matthews is a contributing editor for Newsweek magazine, based in Istanbul.