As Russia claims its lead in the Syrian conflict, even foraying into Turkish airspace, Western diplomats have been forced back to the drawing board, knocked off balance by Moscow’s whirlwind performance at the United Nations' 70th General Assembly.
As the greatest geopolitical show on earth, Russian President Vladimir Putin did well to choose the General Assembly to officially launch his Syria offensive. In a cleverly timed and expertly executed performance at the annual summit, Russia both humiliated and courted its Western rivals, as Putin’s first address to the assembly in 10 years inaugurated what some diplomats have called Russia’s “hijacking” of the Syrian conflict.
Western officials, while expecting Syria to dominate the summit, were thrown off balance as the Russians rolled out their simultaneously diplomatic and military offensive, not only taking the reins on Syria but also claiming the moral high ground in both fighting Islamist terrorists and dealing with the Arab world.
Russia has stressed its role as a legitimate party in Syria, while lambasting the West for intervening “uninvited.” In an almost paternalistic moment during Putin’s speech, the Russian leader jabbed foreign powers over their actions in Libya and Iraq. "I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?" he said. “We should all remember what our past has taught us.”
Ukrainian delegates, who found their agenda usurped by Russian developments in Syria throughout the summit, responded by walking out of the hall.
The Russians have gone to pains to paint their offensive as anti-terrorist, inviting world leaders to debate the extremist threat in North Africa and the Middle East at the Security Council on Sept. 30. Forced onto the back foot, the Americans supported the initiative — US Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the initiative and stressed the US and Russia’s shared goal in fighting terror. The Russians, meanwhile, barely acknowledged a similar event chaired by US President Barack Obama the day before, sending a low-level diplomat in place of the president or foreign minister.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs at New York University, argues that once the “initial anger and perplexity has worn off,” the Americans may see certain value in Russia taking the lead in Syria, especially when “the US is not in any position to do anything about it anyway.”
“Even if Russian bombs are falling on other rebel targets, at least one in three are falling on the Islamic State [IS],” Galeotti told Al-Monitor.
As an enemy of both IS (whose members include Russian citizens from the north Caucasus who might well return home to stage attacks) and opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime, a longtime ally of Moscow, the Russians are now tasked with weakening both groups simultaneously, while trying to convince the West to join Russia's efforts.
But there is also a deeper motive underlying the Russians’ recent switch in gears, Galeotti argues.
“The Islamic State is a great concern to Moscow,” he said, “but not as great as the exclusion of Russia, as it sees it, from its rightful place in the world.
“For some time the Russians have seen counterterrorism cooperation as one possible way of making cracks in the walls that have been raised around them [in response to their actions in Ukraine].”
Galeotti believes that the Russians waited until after the Iran nuclear agreement was signed before ramping up their Syria game plan in order not to sabotage the deal for their allies in Tehran. The rest, he says, fell into place.
“The fact that Assad was really on the ropes and the General Assembly was around the corner — which provided the opportunity to go and make a big splash — was not entirely coincidental, but there was a bit of luck involved too,” Galeotti said.
Some Western diplomats share Galeotti’s view that the Russians are welcome to take on Syria. “Yes, they have their base in the Middle East; they restored their standing as a global player, but what have they inherited, a new Afghanistan?” one official told Al-Monitor, speaking anonymously.
“If the Russians destroy the Syrian opposition, insist on propping up Assad and carry on antagonizing Turkey and the Saudis, they will further isolate themselves, like they did with Ukraine,” the official said.
Jonathan Cristol, a Middle East specialist at the World Policy think tank, argues that Russia’s performance at the General Assembly was both a warning and a protection mechanism for Moscow. “This was definitely not just about Putin showing his face on the world stage,” he told Al-Monitor. “He came to the General Assembly for the first time in a decade because he had a message for the West: Russia is calling the shots on Syria. Now, he’s following through on it. As a result, the Western coalition has been left with very little leverage.”
Not only having secured a meeting with Obama, who has snubbed Putin over his early 2014 Crimea coup, the Russians also walked away from New York with an important concession from the West: that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s removal was no longer a prerequisite for launching political talks.
The about-face on Assad was a humiliation for the Western coalition, which has sunk a great deal of time and energy into trying to get rid of the beleaguered leader, and claims to safeguard those who oppose him.
Western officials told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that they saw no other option than to soften their tone on Assad in order to break the stalemate between the two sides, but fear a surge in IS recruitment as a direct result of the shift, with disappointed opposition supporters, desperate to see Assad gone, expected to enlist with the regime’s larger enemy.
Others look on the concession as a positive turning point in the long-running conflict. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed hope that the diplomatic commotion sparked by Russia at the General Assembly could see a “different push” for political negotiations in the coming weeks.
But as Russia continues to target the Syrian opposition and antagonize its Middle Eastern rivals, Putin’s appeal for a “broad coalition” looks increasingly unrealistic.
Galeotti believes that at best, Russia will have a relationship with the United States similar to the Americans’ dealings with Iran in Iraq: “Arms-length contact to coordinate military efforts against the Islamic State, but nothing public.”
It that respect, the West may win back some leverage. “When the excitement of their stealing the show wears off, Russia is going to find itself leading the fight against the most impenetrable army in recent history,” a Middle Eastern official told Al-Monitor. “They are going to need all the help they can get,” he said. “This is not Chechnya.”