Following a round of mid-morning consultations, the United Nations Security Council convened a vote on and unanimously adopted Resolution 2336 regarding the Russian and Turkish-brokered ceasefire agreement between select rebel groups operating in Syria and the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad
On December 29, 2016, Russia, announcing her agreement with Turkey on a comprehensive peace in Syria, showed another aspect of her multi-layered and multi-vector approach in foreign policy, and in particular, in the Syrian case. The agreement was obtained under conditions that not so long ago the relations between Moscow and Ankara were in a state of tension, and their relationship has not fully improved yet in the new period. Also the Kremlin referred to Russia and Turkey as “guarantors” to the agreement, while the mistrust accumulated from previous conflicts and current conflict of interest still exists between the two states in Syria and the Middle East.
Besides this problem, the uncertainty over the role of the US, the Arabs and some domestic groups in Syria is considered as some shortcoming of the agreement that cast a shadow over its implementation. Regardless of the fact that it seems Iran is considered as a Russian subordinate in this agreement - and this is challenging -, the distrust of Tehran and Damascus to Turkey, and that the Syrian government stresses that she will implement the agreement with the Russian guarantee not Turkey’s are also signs of the new peace fragile
agreement. Despite these problems, the resulting agreement, so far, can be considered as a diplomatic success for the Kremlin, particularly in the context of the “relative” alignment of Turkey with Russian considerations and the creation of a “relative” distance between Turkey and the US.
This achievement is above all the result of applying a multi-vector policy and the regime interaction in Russia’s foreign policy. Under this approach, the Kremlin’s policy toward the Middle East and Syria advances with Russian simultaneous interaction with different sub-national, national, regional and trans-regional forces which often follow different, and at times, conflicting interests and directions. Under different circumstances, a conduit for interaction with all these forces is maintained whose main goal is to maintain a safe level of maneuvering room between various actors to increase the “result” coefficient, leave the critical spaces, and earn a certain amount of interest from each actor.
This approach, realizing the need for flexibility in tactics and tools, is on the Kremlin’s agenda for optimally using the existing resources. Accordingly, Moscow, while avoiding any long-term commitment and coalition-building under the current unclear and unpredictable conditions in the international arena and the Middle East, tries to secure interests and stave off the threats by moving her tools and partners in various subjects through various ways, and applying more options.
The successful implementation of this policy in the Syrian crisis, and in the simultaneous interaction between Moscow and various parties involved in the conflict from trans-regional powers such as the US, the EU, the NATO and China to regional powers such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and the Syrian civil groups is evident. This is despite the fact that many of these actors have different views and interests with each other and with Russia, but Moscow has always kept some space open to interact with all of them. In the recent agreement, she has also served as an important mediator between the formation of the heterogeneous group of Iran and Turkey (under the current situation), on the one hand, and the government in Damascus and the Syrian opposition, on the other hand, to achieve reconciliation.
The multi-vector approach allows Russia to provide specific interests and objectives while interacting with Iran in the operational field and with Turkey in the diplomatic field. Neither the cooperation with Iran is a violation of interaction with Turkey (the Arab-US), nor the cooperation with Ankara is a barrier to interacting with Tehran; however, these two states have different views on this matter. Certainly, it can be said that Russia is the only player engaged in Syria who enjoys such a vast space for this game, and clearly, Iran, the US, the Arabs and Turkey, with their one-sided game, do not have such room for maneuver.
This tactics, with varying levels of success, is also on Moscow’s agenda in other developments from Afghanistan (simultaneous talks with the Taliban and Kabul), the Iranian nuclear deal (simultaneous interaction with Tehran and Washington), the Arab-Israeli conflict (the simultaneous relationship with Israel, the Arabs, Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah), the challenge of competition for power between the Middle Eastern powers (simultaneous cooperation with Tehran, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Cairo), and etc.
Some benefit of this multi-layered approach can be assessed in the clear messages of the recent agreement sent for actors involved in Syria. For example, a message for Iran stressing on the fact that Moscow has not any “special” attention to interacting with Tehran in advancing her policy in Syria, and that Russia has a “regime” interaction approach, and she does not totally rely on the Iranian assistance; a message for the US stressing on the fact that the Kremlin enjoys the relative power to attract her regional allies; a message for other Western allies, including Saudi Arabia, stressing on the fact that Russian considerations should be considered, if the Saudi are willing to get a share of the future of Syria, and the message to all these actors stressing that Russia is an active power with various means of influence and specific interests in the Middle East, and these interests should be respected.
Trends indicate that different actors involved in the Middle East and Syria, willingly or unwillingly, are forced to accept these interests. This success, though not assumed that long ago, is achieved by the optimal use of available resources and diplomatic skills, and is the result of pragmatic, profit-oriented and non-ideological approach of Russia under Putin that distinguishes his foreign policy from those of the previous periods. But the Russian desirable achievement in Syria and the Middle East will be gained once Russia can come to an agreement in the form of a concert of great powers, especially with the US, regarding the distribution of shares in these areas.
Russia knows that the Syrian crisis has been shaped in the macro context of the Middle East and international developments, and will be also resolved in this context. In this context, the US and her allies enjoy various constructive and destructive tools for stabilizing or exacerbating tensions surrounding Syria. Therefore, based on previous failed peace plans, Moscow knows that it is necessary to consider her interests and considerations as well as those of other forces to achieve a lasting peace in Syria, and if their interests are not considered, the peace agreement can be disrupted in one way or another.
Russia is also well aware that though Turkey has some relative influence on some Syrian opposition groups, she cannot “guarantee” the implementation of the peace pact. In particular, the power of Turkey and Russia, even in interacting with Iran, will not suffice to realize the comprehensive stability in Syria, including the final removal of the ISIS. With this consideration, it does not seem wrong to assume that the agreement reached between Moscow and Ankara is in fact a tactic for preparing the grounds for the great transaction/agreement with the US under Trump on Syria and the Middle East. It is also not unlikely that the current agreement is coordinated with the US through different channels, or at least the important considerations in Washington are considered in it.
Alireza Nouri, an analyst of Russian politics, is the fellow at IRAS.
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