Putin’s Game in Syria and the Impact on the Negotiations

By Leon Hartwell

Over the past few months Russia has significantly stepped up its war campaign in Syria. The war has already claimed the lives of almost 500,000 people and millions of Syrians are either internally displaced or have become refugees. Ever since announcing the US-Russia brokered ceasefire, which came into effect on 27th of February, President Vladimir Putin has been presenting himself as the chief peacemaker. He has set up a coordination centre where warring parties can send complaints of breaches of the ceasefire, and Putin has personally been calling leaders from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Syria to rally support for the truce. Far from being an agent of peace, Putin is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. What is Putin’s game in Syria and what are the likely consequences on the negotiation process?

There is an old Russian joke that goes something along these lines:

Once upon a time in Russia, God approached a peasant working in the field and told him: “My son, I will give you anything you desire.” “Really?”, an astonished peasant replied. “Yes”, said God, “the only condition is that your neighbour will receive double of that which you ask for.” The peasant thought long and hard about what he yearned for most, and after a few minutes he replied to God: “I want to be blind in one eye”, effectively blinding his neighbour.

Putin, like the Russian peasant, would rather drag the rest of Europe down with him than see his neighbours prosper. Political pundits claim that Putin’s chief goal has been to restore Russia’s great power status. Part of Putin’s plan was to keep Ukraine under Russia’s sphere of influence by utilising former President Viktor Yanukovych. When Ukrainians in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) demanded closer European integration and stood up against Russia’s puppets, Putin knew that he could not have the whole of Ukraine for himself, so he invaded Crimea and fuelled a war in the east.

If courting Ukraine was part of his grand plan to resituate Russia as a great power again, then Putin has failed. The Russian-Ukraine relationship was crucial to fulfilling this strategic goal, but his actions in Crimea and in the rest of Ukraine drove a wedge in the sand between Moscow and Kiev. Furthermore, the Western world responded with sanctions, which in turn, hurt the Russian economy. Although Putin is able to portray Russia as great power, in real terms, he is much further from his goal than ever before. Great powers are able to exert influence at the global level, but in order to sustain their influence, they require economic and military strength.

After Putin severed relations with Ukraine in 2014, Russia became increasingly embroiled in Syria. Some would like to think of Putin as a grand chess master, but his involvement in Syria can best be described as opportunistic. In the beginning, Putin thought he could help out his ally, President Bashar al-Assad. But, as the war in Syria dragged out and the death count escalated, Putin observed something important: The greater the crisis in Syria, the more divided Europe becomes.

In 2015 alone, more than 1 million refugees have entered Europe, the bulk of them came from Syria. The conflict therefore adds a lot of pressure on the EU and its neighbours. Add to this cocktail right-wing European politicians funded by the Kremlin, and the result is nationalism backed by calls to pull out of the EU and the Schengen Agreement. Eurobarometer, which measures public opinion, recently claimed that “immigration” is the number one concern amongst European citizens, outranking “the economic situation” and “unemployment”.

Keeping the Syrian war alive is therefore in Putin’s interest, as it weakens the EU, it plays Turkey off against the EU, and it creates serious divisions between different EU member states. Such divisions are crucial, especially if he is able to use it to undermine the sanctions regime against Russia. Furthermore, disintegration of the EU also postpones or eliminates enlargement possibilities and other partnerships, especially with regards to Georgia and Ukraine.

Putin’s Recent Actions in Syria

In the middle of last year, the war in Syria started to swing in favour of groups opposed to Assad. Putin’s response was to significantly increase military support for Assad, sending everything from marines to fighter jets to beef up his ally. Russia’s military presence has been cloaked as a war against terrorists, but far from aiming their fire power at Islamic State (ISIS) targets, air strikes often include local government buildings, schools, and hospitals. By targeting these facilities, Putin has made sure that territories held by Assad’s enemies are ungovernable, and it forces people to flee, thereby destabilising other areas. The UN, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has expressed concern of the systematic use of siege and starvation in the Syrian war. These are serious war crimes.

Almost a hundred armed groups form part of Syria’s opposition and alliances are complex. Broadly speaking, regional experts tend to divide Assad’s enemies into two categories: thawri (revolutionary) and Salafi-jihadi. According to International Crisis Group, Thawri groups generally have a political agenda within Syria’s borders. Opposition groups, particularly in the south, are committed to pluralism, representative governance, and freedom of expression. In contrasts, Salafi-jihadi groups generally embrace the “Levantine jihad” and includes supporters of the ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, and other al-Qaeda affiliates. It is important to add that Syrian opposition groups are highly fluid, their alliances have changed many times throughout the war. Putin has effectively exploited this and tends to stretch the word “terrorist” to include almost everyone opposed to the Assad regime, because anyone classified as a terrorist is a legitimate target. It is in this context that The Guardian recently noted, “While Moscow’s intervention has the declared aim of battling the Islamic State terror group, military observers claim at least 70% of airstrikes have targeted opposition groups fighting to oust Assad.”

The Impact on the Negotiations

Putin’s surge in military support in recent months has by some estimates changed the balance of power in Syria and Assad is once again winning the war. The intensification of his intervention comes at a strategic moment, when the EU and its partners are drifting further and further apart, and more importantly, it occurred in the middle of attempts to find a negotiated solution.

The first round of Syrian peace talks on October 30th last year have been described as some of the most serious since it collapsed in 2014. Following this round, there were also discussions in Vienna, and more importantly, talks were early on anticipated for January 2016. Knowing the talks would recommence, Putin empowered Assad to take as much as he possibly can before continuation of the negotiations. In others words, he was negotiating on the battlefield. As a result, when Assad eventually steps to the negotiation table on the 9th of March, he is able to make greater demands than what he would have, had there been more of a balance of power between the parties. The amount of territory that a party to a conflict controls on the battlefield can crucially impact their bargaining position.

Putin strengthened Assad’s “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” (BATNA), which is the most advantageous alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations collapse. Before the intensification of the airstrikes, Assad had a weak BATNA because his military was stretched thin. It meant he would have had to enter into negotiations, and he would have been forced by circumstances to make substantial concessions for a transition to take place in Syria. Now that Assad’s BATNA is stronger, thanks to Putin, he would be able to make major demands and ask for ambitious if not unreasonable compromises from opposition groups. Knowing that they were until recently in a much stronger position, it would be hard for the opposition to accept a situation where the status quo does not look much different from before the war. More importantly, Assad will be portrayed as the good guy, supposedly suing for peace, while the opposition, will be depicted as uncompromising and unwilling to make peace. If opposition groups walk away from the talks, Assad will be able to justify further and greater assaults against them.

Some would like to think of Putin’s surge in Syria as helpful to the peace process because they would argue that it weakened the opposition’s BATNA. In other words, opposition groups do not have much of a choice now, they would have to settle at the negotiation table. The problem, as mentioned above, is there are many opposition groups in Syria — ranging from radical groups to moderates — willing to change their allegiances based on the circumstances. Should moderate Sunni Syrian rebels feel that the formal negotiations do not bring them closer to achieving some of their goals, they might walk out and turn to radical Islamic groups to fight a common enemy. The result could be greater extremism in the region, which will lead to an even larger humanitarian crisis. If the situation escalates, existing players — including Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US– could in turn, also intensify their efforts in Syrian, and the war could spill over into a greater conflict. NATO’s involvement in Syria could also become a reality should Turkey invoke Article 5. That could bring NATO and Russia into direct conflict with one another.

Putin has effectively wormed his way into Syria’s lead peacemaking position, and in the process, he has marginalised Staffan de Mistura’s (UN Special Envoy to Syria) role. So far, US involvement in Syria has been fairly limited and largely focused on containing ISIS. Shortly after announcing the US-Russian brokered ceasefire, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has mentioned the possibility of a Plan B. Yet, that relates to possible partitioning of Syria rather than a concrete alternative strategy to counter Putin’s actions. The EU, for its part, has been concerned with the influx of refugees, and discussion revolves around blocking refugees from entering its borders. In other words, the EU’s strategy is focused on the effects rather than some of the causes related to the Syrian crisis. The basis of any strategy with regards to Syria should start with calling Putin’s game. Assigning a “central” firefighter role to Putin in the Syrian conflict, as argued by Federica Mogherini (the EU’s foreign policy chief), is a huge mistake when it is in his interest to continue to stoke the fire.

Leon Hartwell is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Political Science. Follow him on Twitter @LeonHartwell

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