Russia’s military intervention in the conflict in Syria has complicated the dynamics surrounding the protracted civil war and the efforts of the global anti-ISIL coalition. The downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber jet by Turkish air forces in the wake of the Russian operations against opposition forces, including the Syrian Turkmens in northern Syria, has created a new set of tensions between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member. It remains unclear if Ankara and Moscow will mend relations and how the continued tension might impact U.S. and Turkish interests. Please join us for a discussion on the Russian activities in Syria and their implications for the U.S. and Turkey.
Jeff Mankoff, Fellow and Deputy Director, Russia & Eurasia Program, CSIS
Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow, Hudson Institute
Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Kadir Ustun, Executive Director, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
On December 17th, 2015 the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a panel entitled: Russia in Syria: Implication for U.S. & Turkey. Panelists included Jeff Mankoff, of CISIS, Hannah Thoburn from Hudson Institute, and Kilic B. Kanat from the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. The Panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun.
Mr. Mankoff presented a brief outline of Russia’s past role as a regional hegemon (as the Soviet Union) and the patron of regimes in the Middle East, particularly Iraq. He emphasized that, to Russia, the Arab Spring was not viewed as a release of frustrations with autocratic rule, but rather as a revolt against secular and stable authority by radically and uncontrollable forces. This is especially important to remember when analyzing Russia’s view of events in Syria. Despite Putin’s fierce rhetoric, Russian intervention into the Syrian Civil War is less about propping up the Assad regime than it is about preserving the institutions of the state. It has also been a strategic way for Russia to reassert itself as a regional power broker in the Middle East. Russia has been successful in this, as it is now impossible to envision a peace solution in Syria that doesn’t involve Moscow. As Russia gains influence in the region, especially within the Syria conflict, it is able to grasp what Mankoff labels as “bargaining chips” to use against the U.S. in negotiations for a solution in Syria. He underscored that, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, European countries are compelled to engage with Russia in military partnerships in the quest to defeat ISIS. This has become a higher priority than ensuring the territorial integrity of another Russian conquest – Ukraine – giving Moscow the upper hand in that situation.
Hannah Thoburn agreed with Mr. Mankoff’s outline of the situation Russia finds itself in in Syria. She expanding on his comments by noting that Russia has used the downing of one of its fighter jets by Turkey as an excuse to ramp up its military presence and intervention in Syria. They have also used the crisis with Turkey as fodder for painting Turkey as the “now and bad other” in an effort to distract Russian citizens from the fledgling domestic situation in the country
Kilic Kanat noted that, just 5 months ago, there was cautious optimism that the two countries would be able to cooperate within a “complex interdependence” from increasing economic and cultural ties. Disagreements have long existed between Turkey and Russia regarding the Syrian conflict. However, both Russia and Turkey were able to mitigate them and deal practically with each other. However, this all collapsed the day that Turkey shot down Russia’s warplane. In the aftermath of the downing, Turkey has tried to deescalate the conflict, but Russia’s actions have been over aggressive. All of the panelists agreed that Russia, under the leadership of Putin, is extremely unpredictable in its actions. This makes the future of Russia’s cooperation and actions in Syria, as well as its position toward Turkey very uncertain.
Mr. Mankoff noted that Russia’s vision of the international system and diplomatic tactics “seem archaic to us (the west).” He said that Russia’s long term goal is, “to sit down with the US, and maybe Europe, to negotiate a new framework for global spheres of influence.” Ms. Thoburn agreed with Mr. Mankoff’s assessment, and added that Putin “wants the status and power that the Soviet Union had back for Russia.” She also pointed out Ukraine’s well founded fears that, if Putin can be integral in delivering a solution a Syria, it will lead to the West abandoning Ukraine to Russia.
Speaking to Western sanctions levied upon Russia, Ms. Thoburn pointed out that Russia responded by sanctioning “silly things” like cheese, apples, and pears. However, recent Russian sanctions of Turkish goods, such as tomatoes and tourism, have had a more direct impact on the life of the average Russian. Putin has altered the social contract he created with his constituents, where he would “provide economic growth in return for being left alone politically” to a new reality where Russians must “suffer a bit in order to build a better Russia.”
Mr. Kanat, speaking to Russian goals in Syria, said that counter terrorism is not the first priority of Moscow. He also pointed out that Russia’s cancelation of the Turkish Stream Pipeline was not unexpected; lower energy prices had already called its feasibility into question. Mr. Mankoff chimed in that, while the U.S. sees ISIS as the major problem in Syria, Russia sees all rebels (even the moderate ones) as a threat.