Russian diplomacy aims to accelerate Syrian endgame

The failed coup in Turkey has come as a god-sent opportunity for Russia to connect the dots. Russian diplomacy will be in top gear in Laos on Monday when Minister of Foreign Affairs  Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry sit down to assemble the joint mechanism to fight terrorism in Syria under the ‘Moscow Agreements’, and to transfer synergy thereof to a trilateral meeting of US, Russian and UN officials in Geneva later in the week to kick-start peace talks.

If ten days shook the world in 1917, as John Reid put it dramatically while narrating the events of the Bolshevik Revolution, a 10-day historic pause similarly promises to shake up the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Russian President Putin meets with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 14, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Maximov/Pool TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

After a ten-day pause, the United States and Russia are set to pick up the threads of the important landmark agreement reached in Moscow during Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin on July 14-15 regarding joint efforts to fight the terrorist groups in Syria and to facilitate the resumption of peace talks in Geneva.

Kerry is slated to meet his Russian Counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the high-level ASEAN events in Laos on July 25-26. The meeting comes ten days after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, which profoundly changes the kaleidoscope of the Syrian conflict.

The wariness in Moscow after Kerry’s talks – given the formidable resistance inside the Beltway to the very idea of US-Russia coordination on Syria – has palpably melted away. A cautious optimism has taken over. The failed Turkish coup accounts for it.

New fault lines appear, which work to Moscow’s advantage. The hairline fracture in Turkey’s relations with the West through recent years has aggravated. Ankara’s standing in the western alliance has become hazy.

A rupture is improbable and perhaps unlikely – but not impossible, either. Surely, the testiness over each side’s intentions is introducing uncertainty. Suffice it to say, Turkey under President Recep Erdogan will not be party to the anti-Russian cold war front that Washington is assembling under NATO banner.

The cold-shouldering of Erdogan by NATO counterparts at the recent summit meeting of the alliance in Warsaw (July 8-9) underscored that the contradictions are fundamental.

To be sure, there’s going to be consequences. If the NATO cannot now hope to encircle Russia in the Black Sea or threaten Crimea, a rollback of Turkey’s military intervention in Syria will sound the death knell for the ‘regime change’ agenda in that country pursued by the US and regional allies.

The neocons in the US and the lobbyists of America’s Middle East allies in the Washington think tanks and the media and the cold warriors in the defense establishment are whistling in the dark.

Bizarre as it may sound, ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria is now predicated on overthrow of Erdogan first. For Turkey, Russia’s goodwill is vital for preventing the emergence of a Kurdish enclave along its border, which is a core issue.

The 48-hour deadline given by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance to the Islamic State (IS) to leave their stronghold of Manjib is expiring today (July 23). The horrific air strikes by American and French aircraft, killing over 140 civilians, hint at an imminent no-holds barred offensive.

Now, doesn’t Turkey know that SDF is a metaphor for the US’ Syrian Kurdish allies? Doesn’t Turkey sense that Syrian Kurds are tiptoeing toward their ‘Rojava’ project – contiguous enclave in northern Syria? Will Turkey remain satisfied with Washington’s assurance that Kurds will vacate Manjib after capturing it?

On the eve of the capture of Manjib by Kurds (with the support of US Special Forces and airpower), Erdogan told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a phone conversation,

  • Today, we are determined more than ever before to contribute to the solution of regional problems hand in hand with Iran and Russia and in cooperation with them.

Thus, a strategic congruence between Turkey, Russia and Iran is struggling to surface. The protagonists may have specific interests in Syria, but the bottom line is that Turkey is under enormous pressure to abandon the disruptive role it played so far by supplying and equipping Syrian opposition groups.

Moscow is closely watching. The foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova refused to condemn the horrific air strikes in Manjib, merely saying on Thursday,

  • Of course, these reports should be studied and the results of verification and investigation procedures should be made public. If these horrible facts are confirmed, proper conclusions will have to be drawn and all necessary measures taken to obviate the recurrence of anything of the kind in the future.

On the contrary, Syrian National Coalition, which is supported by Turkey, demands immediate halt to air strikes in Manjib (which, Pentagon, of course, promptly rejected.)

The point is, Russia also keeps line of communication open to the Kurds (who maintain representative office in Moscow) and can be expected to leverage its influence to extract constructive cooperation from Turkey.

Moscow is walking a fine line, signalling the terms of a constructive Russian-Turkish engagement. Foreign Minister Lavrov said on Friday that development of relations between Russia and Turkey will depend on their cooperation on Syria and on Ankara’s readiness to “take steps against those who finance terrorists in Syria”. To quote Lavrov,

  • Much will depend on how we will cooperate on the settlement of the Syrian crisis… During discussions of the Syrian crisis, we provided many facts that prove that Turkish territory is used for providing supplies to terrorists and sending militants to Syria. These facts remain on the table. Now that we’ve restored our relations, it will be hard to ignore the facts that we provided, and we hope that our Turkish partners will now start answering these questions, will take measures to stop their territory being used for supporting the fratricidal war in Syria.

Lavrov hinted that this is also Iran’s expectation. He stressed the urgency:

  • All the more so because the situation in Syria has changed over the past few months, and conditions are being created for defeating terrorists and launching a genuine intra-Syrian dialogue.

All in all, Russian diplomacy is working on several inter-related templates simultaneously to create synergy – coordination with the US; axis with Iran (delivery of S-300 has seriously begun); kick-starting peace talks; reconciling opposition groups; getting Turkey to cooperate, and so on.

At the same time, there is no let-up in the military operations. The Iranian media reported that Russian jets are intensively bombing the region north of Aleppo city. The Kremlin spokesman said on Friday that if need arises, Russia may send more troops to Syria.

Moscow estimates that Obama administration will somehow ride out the domestic criticism of Russian-American coordinated strategy to fight extremist groups in Syria. Indeed, Washington has run out of options in Syria and Moscow cannot be oblivious of that.

The Obama administration cannot afford to overlook the intelligence reports that Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, is planning to attack targets in the West. Simply put, the Russian prognosis is coming true.

However, it is the failed coup in Turkey that becomes a god-sent opportunity for Russia to connect the dots and accelerate the endgame in Syria.

Russian diplomacy will be in top gear in Laos on Monday when Lavrov and Kerry sit down to assemble the joint mechanism to fight terrorism in Syria under the ‘Moscow Agreements’, and to transfer synergy thereof to a trilateral meeting of US, Russian and UN officials in Geneva later in the week to kick start peace talks even as August 1 deadline draws closer.

Putin hopes to receive Erdogan for a ‘bilateral’ soon thereafter.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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