By Tim Marshall
The pace of events is quickening, the road is opening is for the fighting in Syria to get worse, and Russia has deliberately put itself in the driving seat.
Syria is where Russia’s concerns about Ukraine, the EU, and Turkey come together in an imperfect and toxic mix of brutal realpolitik.
Many western analysts have been getting it wrong on Russia for years now. They judge its foreign policy by their own standards. However, if you take the view that President Putin is an ultra nationalist, who cares only about power and achieving his aims by any means necessary, then his moves are easier to predict. If you understand that he is not merely, as so many profiles of him suggest, a tactician, but also a strategist then the moves make sense.
When the sun was shining on the Russian oil fields, he used the profits to rebuild the Russian military while his future opponents talked of the ‘peace dividend’ of the end of the Cold War.
Popular opinion says he ‘lost’ Ukraine, and that the public would not stand for it. But he ‘won’ Crimea and the port of Sebastopol and his ratings rocketed.
The EU thought he could not stand sanctions, forgetting that Putin is from a country which endured Stalingrad for ‘Mother Russia’, and that he agrees with his political ancestors who insisted ‘you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs’.
Last year the Obama administration smirked and said Russia’s entry into Syria proved it had forgotten the lesson of its Afghanistan experience. This not only forgot America’s own experience there, but failed to take into account that the Russian footprint in Syria remains small, or if compared to the USA’s at the height of its Afghan experience, tiny.
Having manoeuvred the pieces into place – Putin is now attempting a checkmate, but will settle for a draw.
His military has ensured President Assad cannot lose and therefore guarantees Russia a say in any peace deal. In recent weeks extra jets have been sent, and this week a Russian ship, the Zelenyy Dol, which can fire cruise missiles, arrived in the Mediterranean. Now, aided by Russian air cover and Iranian ground troops, Assad’s forces are advancing on Aleppo. 100,000 people have fled this month, that figure may double within weeks.
For Turkey, once again the object of Moscow’s attention, that means potentially another 200,000 refugees pressing on its border. It also means Syria’s Kurds rushing to fill the vacuum the rebel forces may leave behind and thus helping to create Turkey’s nightmare – a possible Kurdish statelet on its border. It is no coincidence that last week Russia allowed the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (DUP) to open an office in Moscow. Turkey now shells the DUP’s military wing, the YPG inside Syria. It is also mulling crossing the border, possibly supported by Saudi Arabia, and the UAE if the Americans agree to help. This is a move which could bring Turkey into an explosive confrontation with Russia. Turkey’s NATO allies in Europe and the USA are at last concentrating hard, asking themselves what will they do if Turkey asks for help, and should they step in now with concessions to Moscow to prevent the situation arising?
The Kremlin knows that another 200,000 refugees entering Turkey could turn into a extra 200,000 refugees trying to get to Europe at a time when the fences are going up across the Balkans, and the Greeks are proving themselves incapable of halting the flow. That in turn fuels Euro skepticism, and the Russians would like nothing better than a Europe which fell apart and thus offered no unified bloc against them either economically or politically.
Which brings us back to Ukraine. Putin seems to be gambling that he can push things in Syria far enough to gain concessions not just there, but also on sanctions, and on the level of NATO forces in Eastern Europe. What he doesn’t want to do is start a major multi nation war. The threat of an accidental escalation is growing. The Iranians have said they also are prepared to defend Syria airspace. Their arch rivals, the Saudis, may have denied already sending war planes to Turkey, but they have confirmed they intend to do so.
Two years ago President Obama dismissed Russia as ‘a regional power acting out of weakness’. Even if that was true, which it is not, it would only mean that Putin plays chess better than Obama. Especially when he’s concentrating.