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Sochi Congress exposes limit of Russia’s influence

The Syrian National Dialogue Congress meeting held in Sochi, Russia on 30 January 2018 [Raşit Aydoğan/Anadolu Agency]

By most accounts, the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue held in the Russian resort of Sochi was less than a resounding success. Billed as the Russian equivalent to the Geneva peace process, the Sochi Congress risks becoming little more than political cover for Russia’s ambitions in Syria.

For Russia, a diplomatic breakthrough, in the form of a successful peace process, would be considered icing on the cake following a largely successful military intervention beginning in late September 2015. However, the apparent failure of Sochi is perhaps an indicator that Russia’s influence in Syria has peaked.

Political and diplomatic limitations aside, events on the ground call for a radical rethink to approaches on conflict resolution. With a developing Turkish intervention in the Afrin enclave, coupled with a determination by the United States to maintain a substantial military force in Syria, the possibility of reaching a comprehensive resolution to the conflict, as envisaged by Sochi and Geneva, is remote.

Furthermore, the ferocity of the Syrian war, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced, means that conflict resolution may be premature. There has to be a sufficiently long period of cold peace, in the form of local ceasefires, before the parties involved can move towards a more permanent settlement.

Moscow over-reach?

The dramatic downing of a Russian Sukhoi SU-25 jet in Idlib at the weekend underscores the risk to Russia’s military reputation. Although Russian military losses in Syria have been modest, this rare event (to date no Russian fighter jets had been downed by Syrian opposition groups), is a dramatic indication of the vulnerability of the Russian air force in Syria.

Russia’s forceful entry into the war in late September 2015 proved to be a game changer. Against the odds, and against a backdrop of negative reporting in the West, Russia managed to turn the tide of the war firmly in favour of the Syrian regime. And the Russian intervention has been remarkably cost-effective, at least in human terms, with even the highest estimates putting the number of Russian servicemen killed at less than 100.

Read: Russia air strike kills 33 in Idlib, including pregnant woman

Besides entrenching the Syrian regime, Moscow has achieved its core strategic aim of protecting its military presence in the country, as embodied by the Tartus naval base. In fact, in the years since Russia’s military intervention in late 2015, the Russians have significantly expanded their military presence beyond Tartus, notably including the Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia.

Furthermore, Russian forces have been deployed to many parts of Syria, with a significant unofficial contingent in the form of private military companies. The outsourcing of key military duties to contractors speaks to Moscow’s confidence on the ground, in addition to indicating plans for a long-term presence in Syria.

However, despite all these successes, there are clear indications that Moscow may have reached the ceiling of its capability in Syria. The Russian-brokered de-escalation zones are rapidly collapsing, as evidenced by ferocious fighting in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

Wreckages of collapsed buildings are seen after Assad Regime's airplanes and artillery units hit the de-escalation zone of Arbin town in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on January 06, 2018 [Ammar Al-Bushy / Anadolu Agency]

Wreckages of collapsed buildings are seen after the Assad Regime carried out arir strikes in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on 6 January 2018 [Ammar Al-Bushy / Anadolu Agency]

The collapse of these shaky ceasefires is in part a reflection of a gap between Syrian and Russian plans. Whilst Russia may be prepared to “freeze” the conflict in order to consolidate its strategic gains, the Syrian government is anxious to restore full sovereignty by destroying remaining pockets of rebel resistance.

The Kurdish question

Arguably the biggest emerging gap between Syria and Russia is over attitudes and approaches to the proto-state led by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) aligned Syrian Kurds in the form of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its parent political organisation, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Russia’s attitude to Turkey’s operation “Olive Branch”, aimed primarily at wresting control of the Afrin enclave from the YPG, is at best ambivalent and bordering on qualified support for some of Turkey’s war aims. Russia’s acquiescence in the face of an aggressive Turkish military posture in north-west Syria can be viewed as part of a broader Russo-Turkish reconciliation process in Syria.

By contrast, Damascus has condemned the Turkish operation on the grounds that it violates Syrian sovereignty. This unequivocal Syrian line also diverges from the position of Damascus’ closest ally Iran, which – similar to Russia – has adopted an ambivalent attitude to the Turkish operation in Afrin.

Read: Turkish offensive on Afrin cuts fuel supply to 2 million in Idlib

Turkey’s operation to retake Afrin, and possibly nearby Manbij, has all the hallmarks of a long-term military presence. Besides realising the immediate goal of ousting the YPG from sensitive areas in the north-west, the Turkish operation is designed to balance the US military presence in Kurdish-controlled areas and thus deter Washington from extending additional support to the Kurds.

The current strategic trajectory indicates that Damascus cannot make further territorial gains once it has fully retaken Eastern Ghouta and Idlib. Indeed, it has been suggested that Russian and Iranian acquiescence to Turkey’s incursion in Afrin is a trade-off for Turkey’s acquiescence to Damascus’ retaking of Idlib.

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Indeed, the trajectory for 2018 appears to be one dominated by stalemate as key powers Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran look to consolidate their positions inside Syria. In this scenario, prospects for a comprehensive resolution to the conflict, as envisaged by the Sochi Congress’ final statement, are remote.

Not surprisingly the Russian media is blaming negative reporting for the failure of the Sochi Congress to dominate Syria-related headlines. In fact, Sochi’s failure has deeper causes, notably Russia’s inability to unilaterally dictate the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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