Is Vladimir Putin a peacemaker or a warrior king? In Syria, the answer seems to be both. Shame on the Western powers that the man who has come closest to bringing Syria to peace so far is a dictator of such ill repute. Yet in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, Putin may be doing just that.
Britain played an important part at each iteration of the Geneva talks, but it faced an uphill struggle. In 2014, the Foreign Office hired an expensive London public relations firm staffed by regional experts and career diplomats to handle contacts with the international media. They met with the leaders of the Syrian National Coalition every morning to brief them on that day’s message. The consultants attempted to provide media training to activists and commanders who were unaccustomed to such activities, in contrast to the slick Syrian regime representatives. The British ambassador to Turkey was seen flitting from room to room, hanging out in the hotel lobbies before diving into discreet meetings. Yet the SNC was so diverse and had such divergent aims under its umbrella that it was hard, even with an expensive public diplomacy effort paid for by Great Britain plc, to do anything but pretend that Assad was really in charge. There was also still some hope that the opposition could win on the battlefield, and it was a hope that lingered on when Geneva reconvened in 2016.
Now, with Aleppo destroyed and the rebels chased out, Putin has made the militants feel very differently. In Astana, there is no British minister present. Theresa May is visiting Istanbul on Saturday but all that she will get there will be a cursory update.
This is all about the Kremlin, Tehran and the Turks. With the West all but departed from the region — militarily and economically — this trio are the big players in the new Middle East. Steffan De Mistura, the United Nations Syria envoy, has backed the agreement for Turkey, Russia and Iran to enforce a prolonged ceasefire jointly. “The chances of success will be greater if the parties here are able to agree on a mechanism to oversee and implement a nationwide ceasefire,” he explained. “We didn’t have it in the past, that’s the reason why often we failed.”
Although the Putin-Assad-Hezbollah victory in Aleppo has clearly focused rebel minds, Putin has proven himself to be an able diplomat without needing to resort to direct force. His rapprochement with the Turks after a Russian fighter jet was shot down was swift. He has been able to exploit Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s discontent at American support for the Kurds, which has become the driving dynamic underlying Turkish strategy in Syria, rather than Ankara’s previous primary desire to see Assad fall. This brings Turkey into line with Putin’s views on the conflict; it’s a dramatic readjustment.
Ankara’s relations with the West are lower still because Erdogan has accused the United States of sheltering Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish president blames for last year’s failed coup. He remains paranoid that the West is plotting against him. While the ensuing crackdown in Turkey has been frowned upon by the Western powers — and rightly so — Putin has condoned Erdogan’s post-coup response through his indifferent silence. It is no doubt a great delight to both men to be holding the peace talks in Astana, far away from anything remotely “Western”.
Putin holds most of the cards. He has demolished Aleppo and rebel commanders fear what his fighter jets will do elsewhere if they continue to hold out. They appreciate that he is willing to show more flexibility on whether Assad is barred from holding office, or simply moved sideways, and appear to be blaming Tehran more for its intransigence. An exemplar of this remarkable turnaround is Mohammed Alloush, political head of Jaish Al-Islam and leader of the rebel negotiating team. He led Western-brokered peace talks in Geneva last year, but quit, claiming that the talks were a “waste of time” and blaming Assad. It is strange to have this political leader in Astana; at the same time, though, it is rather admirable, because his military-minded brother, Zahran Alloush, was killed by the Russians in a Damascus air strike in December 2015. Mohammed Alloush led the rebels at the Geneva talks last year, but marched out in protest, frustrated that the Assad regime would not give an inch to rebels it called “terrorists”.
The group Alloush represents is not a bunch of saints; on the battlefield it has been accused of using chemical weapons against Kurdish fighters, using human shields and firing devastating “hell cannons” at Syrian civilians. The group is hugely competent, able to co-ordinate mechanised and infantry units, acquire and deploy sophisticated artillery, and even briefly open its own airbase. Nevertheless, it knows that it cannot withstand another full-blooded assault from Hezbollah, the Syrian army and the essential power of Putin’s air force.
On day one of the talks, Alloush was only to be seen trading insults with the Syrian delegation, this time accusing them of being a “terrorist entity”. It was arguably true, of course, but hardly diplomatic language. His mood has since changed. “The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting,” he admitted, “and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor.” But, he added, “They are finding a lot of obstacles from Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime.”
In comparing Astana so far to Geneva’s past, Putin has understood and been prepared to act on something that the West was unable to. There was only so much the famed diplomatic and public relations prowess of Britain — where so many of the world’s top PR agencies are based — could do with a fractured opposition convinced that it still had a shot at victory. Putin changed the facts on the ground in Aleppo. Even if he is a peacemaker, he’s a warrior king first and foremost, with blood on his hands.