25 December 2016

** A Sit-Down in Moscow, Undeterred by an Envoy's Murder

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and Mevlut Cavusoglu, his Turkish counterpart, pay tribute Tuesday to Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey who was murdered by a Turkish police officer the day before. 

Today in Moscow, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey sat down to discuss the thorny task of how to resolve the civil war in Syria, a conflict in which each country has a decidedly large stake. Hanging over the meetings was the specter of Monday's events in Ankara, where Russia's ambassador to Turkey was gunned down by a Turkish police officer. Given the near-total defeat of Syrian rebels besieged in the key city of Aleppo, a watershed moment in the hostilities, the assassination did not deflect the meetings, underlining the strong desire among the war's most prominent backers to find a path forward in the conflict. Despite the tension among the parties, which each desires to take the course that best suits its ends, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara each realize that none can act unilaterally with any success, given the extent of their involvement in Syria.

For Russia and Turkey in particular, the show of diplomacy in the wake of envoy Andrei Karlov's murder was important to protect their budding rapprochement — and the economic benefits and proactive collaboration on Syria that it allows. But today's attempts to "revive a political process," in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's words, to end the Syrian conflict will not be able to paper over the divergent goals that the three parties attending the Moscow meetings hold for Syria.

Russia, whose military might has bolstered the loyalist forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad, is searching for a political settlement that enables it to wind down its active role in the conflict without becoming more deeply mired in the costly fight against the rebels and the Islamic State. The recent fall of Palmyra to Islamic State fighters functioned as a chilling reminder to Moscow of the deadly extent of the work that is left in Syria before the country is secure. But the opportunity to taper its involvement looks more promising now than ever given the impending fall of Aleppo and the strength that victory would give to the loyalists.

Turkey, while not eager to embrace a political settlement that buttresses al Assad's power in Damascus, is keen to stop the erosion of rebel-held territory as it tries to solidify its position in northern Aleppo province, where it can block Kurdish expansion. Russia and Turkey align, at least, on their appetite for a comprehensive cease-fire, although they each are pursuing different ends. Russia knows that Turkey and other powers that retain influence with the rebels are the key for any political resolution to the conflict, even a limited one, to succeed. For Turkey, the continuing chaos of battle works against its goals in northern Syria. It needs stability so it can pursue its objective of enlarging its sphere of influence in its former Ottoman domains and stunting the spread of Kurdish forces.

Iran, on the other hand, is committed to securing a loyalist military victory that would shore up its strong links to Damascus, which in turn will help it maintain its reach in the Middle East. Al Assad's most reliable military ally, Iran will remain involved in the fight until the Syrian leader's political security is assured. Because of the existential nature of the fight for them, Iran and loyalist forces would act as spoilers to any cease-fire attempt that would leave al Assad vulnerable. Even if Ankara and Moscow could craft a partial political settlement, it would be a fragile one subject to the shifting tides of a continued battle.

Iran will view any Russian-Turkish attempts to bridge a cease-fire with a wary eye, even though Iran’s foreign minister today was party to a joint statement expressing the need for one. And Tehran is not the only party that might feel like it is on the outside looking in at the tense but cordial Russian-Turkish accord. The United States, despite its role in combating Islamic State forces in Syria through its support for rebel units, was not even invited to today's meetings in Moscow. Nor will the United States have a seat at the table next week when Russia, Turkey and Iran reconvene in Kazakhstan for meetings intended to further today's discussions and set the stage for a larger set of meetings in February. The snubbing of the United States helps serve Russia's goal of portraying itself as an arbiter of peace in Syria. That further solidifies its ability to leverage its involvement in the Syrian crisis in other spheres.

Of course, a deeper political solution to the multilayered Syrian crisis is beyond the scope of the current meetings. Turkey, in particular, wouldn't have it any other way. For Turkey, cultivating a closer relationship with Russia and engaging in extended tactical negotiations with Moscow will help ensure that its immediate objectives — limiting the extent of future losses of rebel-held territory — are viable. There is a lot at stake for Turkey and Russia in seeing the civil war end, but the path forward could be especially rocky when the topic turns to the question of al Assad's continued rule. But for now, a cease-fire, no matter how small or how fragile, would serve the interests of both. Their shared interest in seeing that happen, especially at such a crucial juncture in the conflict, has helped them ease past the diplomatic damage wrought by the killing of an ambassador.

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