Scenario 1: An Opening in Jerusalem?
The conventional wisdom is that despite Russia’s alignment with Iran in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the cracks between Moscow and Tehran are beginning to show.
A senior White House official told Axios “We are sure the Iranians are not happy” that the national security advisers of the United States, Israel and Russia are meeting in Jerusalem this month, and Syria will be at the top of the agenda.
Signs of discontent between Moscow and Tehran are not hard to find. Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered limited comfort to Iran under US sanctions, even saying his country is not a “firefighting rescue crew” if Iran bails on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Russia and Iran are also in competition over reform and control of Syria’s security sector, as Kirill Semenov explains. And recall Putin outing Syria’s role in helping recover the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel in April, earning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s genuine and effusive gratitude, and likely infuriating Iran, as we reported here.
So the potential for an opening in Jerusalem is there, but it all depends on what the United States and Israel have to offer.
The conventional wisdom tends to drop off, however, in envisioning how exactly to exploit the fissures between Russia and Iran. For Putin, Syria is a major success. That might be a bitter pill for American policy-makers and observers, given Assad’s staying power and conduct in the war. But in Putin’s score, his military intervention kept Assad in power while securing and expanding Russian basing and influence, and all at an acceptable cost. Syria is not Putin’s Vietnam or another Afghanistan. He is in Syria for keeps. His victory there is his calling card in the region.
Vital to Putin's regional influence is his relationship with Iran and Turkey, the so-called Astana Group. He will therefore not be giving Iran up because of some perceived turnaround after the latest briefing by the United States on Iran’s "malign" behavior in the region, or simply because of the irritant of a contest with Iran for influence in Damascus.
Scenario 2: The deal on Iran (if there is one)
Maxim Suchkov writes that in Jerusalem, Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev may present some version of the proposal Putin offered Trump in Helsinki last year to separate Israeli and Iranian-backed forces in the Golan. That initiative went nowhere then, but it might have a second life now with Iran on defense in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s diplomatic blitz and Russia’s leverage over Iran increased as a result of the crisis.
Getting Russia to again try to broker some buffer zone or red lines between Iran and Israel in Syria, or even more optimistically, to raise the beginnings of a drawdown of Iranian and Iranian backed forces, would be a win for the Jerusalem meeting and a test of Putin’s influence with Tehran and Damascus.
What Putin ultimately wants, of course, is relief from US sanctions on Russia and a reset in US-Russia relations post-Mueller. Putin knows neither is likely, at least anytime soon, as Trump doesn’t hold all the cards on sanctions. The Russian president is willing to both use and expand his capital in Syria, but he will expect a payday. He could also decide to step back and let the parties fend for themselves. As we wrote last year after Helsinki, Syria is high risk, high reward, and Putin doesn’t work for free.
Scenario III: Ad-libbing in Idlib
Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, face a perhaps stickier set of options in Idlib, where there appears no way out without Turkey paying an unacceptable price.
Russia vetoed a UN Security Council on Idlib last week, claiming the resolution failed to acknowledge that Idlib is mostly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda linked group, which the UN considers a terrorist organization. So far, 270,000 people have been displaced and 3 million residents are under siege by Syrian government forces backed by Russia in the northwestern Syrian province on Turkey’s border.
The Syrian assault has strained Russia-Turkey ties. “The standoff over Idlib presented Moscow an opportunity to play a big-picture foreign policy game with Turkey,” explains Maxim Suchkov. “Such a game would bring Moscow and Ankara closer on other issues such as bilateral and military-technical cooperation. From the beginning, Vladimir Putin was willing to let Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear strong on the issue for his constituency, to help him win local elections. In September 2018, Putin had Erdogan sign the Sochi agreement on Idlib and assume some serious commitments, including fixing the HTS problem. Yet, from the outset, these commitments were hard to deliver in full."
“Now that Turkey has largely failed to separate its loyal opposition forces from terrorist groups, and with Erdogan in a post-election cycle, Moscow has pressed harder for more robust action,” Suchkov continues. “Moscow feels the situation in Idlib is spinning out of control as HTS consolidates its positions. The Russians themselves are under pressure from the Syrians — and the Iranians, to a lesser extent — because Turkey has failed to do what it promised.”
The catch for Turkey is that HTS has nowhere to go. Idlib is HTS’ last stand unless its members flee to Turkey. Syria, backed by Russia, sees an endgame in routing HTS and the remaining opposition forces in Syria — but with heavy costs that Turkey cannot accept. Last September they agreed that Turkey, which cannot afford an influx of refugees (it currently hosts over 3 million), would work to isolate and marginalize HTS to avoid an all-out attack.
“All the objectives Russia says it now seeks with Turkey — joint patrols, peace talks, measures to curb HTS — are important steps in politically managing the situation. But they are not in the ultimate interest of Moscow,” adds Suchkov. “These steps are tools to play it ‘soft,’ with more respect and sensitivity toward Turkish positions. This is a fine line to walk, which Moscow had to learn the hard way with the 2015 jet crisis. At the same time, Russia is sending all kinds of 'military messages' to Ankara, carrying out bombings in Syria to pressure Erdogan. Though the Russians carefully avoid targeting Turkish positions, they turn a blind eye if the Syrians do.”
“The escalating situation in Idlib, which is revealing the limits of Turkey’s influence over Russia,” writes Semih Idiz, “is another driving force behind Erdogan’s desire to reach a settlement with the United States. … Despite Ankara and Washington's deep differences on Syria, they agree on the need to prevent Syrian government and Russian attacks on Idlib.”
If Erdogan can’t find common ground with the United States on a "safe zone" in the northeast or a workaround on Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400, he will turn to Putin for some type of deal around the Syrian Kurds in the northeast or a sphere of influence in Idlib, Suchkov concludes. This will ultimately depend on Putin facilitating an understanding between Erdogan and Assad, which has only gotten more difficult as a result of the siege of Idlib.
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