Last Sunday in northeast Syria was a day fraught with geopolitical symbolism. As Russian forces raised their flag over a former school that had been used by American troops in the town of Ain Issa, a U.S. patrol watched as Turkish or Turkish-backed forces fired in its direction, about 100 miles to the east on the M4 highway. Russia was taking control while the Americans—whose withdrawal from Syria was announced then reversed last month by President Donald Trump—found themselves in a precarious position on an uncertain mission.
Moscow can present itself, and does, as a clear winner. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Oct. 22 and signed an agreement declaring that Turkey would get its “safe zone” along one section of the border where it has invaded Syria and where an estimated 180,000 people have been displaced; meanwhile, Russia would send patrols to mostly Kurdish towns in other parts of the border area, such as Qamishli and Kobani. Turkey and Russia would then conduct joint patrols. In short, Russia would appear to replace the U.S. as the arbiter of any arrangement in eastern Syria, even though Trump tried to claim credit for some sort of historic ceasefire.
But events since Oct. 22 have left many puzzled. In fact there isn’t a ceasefire along the Turkish “safe zone.” Instead, shelling by either Turkey or Turkish-backed militants continues, like the shots that almost hit the U.S. patrol. A volunteer medic with the aid organization Free Burma Rangers was killed on Nov. 3. A shelter for women and children at Jinwar was evacuated the next day.
This is a familiar situation for the Russians, who have long experience with ceasefires that aren’t really ceasefires.
The Russian press has been following developments closely as Moscow plays up its growing role in eastern Syria. In an ironic juxtaposition, Russian state media carried the story about the shelling of the Americans on Sunday next to one about the Donbass region in Ukraine, where Ukrainian and separatist forces were being disengaged near Zolotoye as part of an agreement there mostly on the Kremlin’s terms.
Russia played a key role in the crisis that led to the Donbass conflict in eastern Ukraine after Moscow seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. In Donbass, which includes two separatist pro-Russian self-declared “republics,” there is a ceasefire with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But on Sunday, Russia’s TASS news agency reported that the “ceasefire” had been violated 13 times and “142 projectiles” had fallen in the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Similarly, in September 2018, Russia and Turkey also concluded a “sustainable ceasefire” in Syria’s Idlib province that was supposed to prevent an Assad regime offensive. But there is fighting daily in Idlib, as well as airstrikes.
From Russia’s point of view, this is a success. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also says the Oct. 22 agreement with Turkey has prevented massive bloodshed and “turned the problem of confrontation between Turks and Kurds into the framework of measures on trust-building.”
I’ve seen this kind of “sustainable ceasefire” firsthand in Donbass. On the front line, the men spend most of the time sitting around, joking and smoking, but every day around dusk there are clashes. The forces use only small arms and therefore the ceasefire isn’t “violated” according to its own nomenclature. But soldiers die. Civilians suffer. That is likely what is in store for people living in or near the new Turkish “safe zone” that Russia has signed off on.
This serves Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests. Putin came to power in 1999 and has been trying to rebuild Russia’s world influence ever since. He began by extending Russian power in the northern Caucasus and then asserting that power more forcefully in former Soviet states.
Where Putin has faced opposition, as in Ukraine or Georgia, Russia has pried off pieces of those countries: Donbass is in the process of being pared off Ukraine; South Ossetia and Abkhazia were taken from Georgia, and Putin went to war in 2008 to defend them. Russia has also supported Transnistria’s awkward autonomy from Moldova.
Russia is not always the supporter of breakaway republics, but it benefits from long-simmering conflicts where it can become a supporter of one—or both—of the parties to the conflict. For instance, Russia is a key ally of Serbia and has supported it against NATO’s role in Kosovo. It recently held a military exercise dubbed Slavic Shield in Serbia, where it sent its state-of-the-art S-400 air-defense system.
The same system is part of Russia’s double dealing with the Syrian regime and Turkey. Russia is the key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its intervention with air power in 2015 helped keep him in power. And yet, Russia also signed a deal with Turkey, the main backer of the Syrian opposition, to sell Ankara S-400s. Russia’s real goal is not to end the war, but rather to contribute to low-level chaos where all sides become dependent on Moscow. That is why Russia pushed the Astana peace talks with Turkey and Iran to deal with the Syria war, sidelining the U.S. and UN talks in Geneva.
Russia presents itself as a stabilizing influence, contrasting its role with erratic U.S. behavior, which is an easy target. It can point to Trump’s announcement the U.S. was withdrawing from Syria—and then returning to guard oil wells. It presents Turkey as failing to abide by the ceasefire it signed and its TASS state media highlights Turkey shelling villages. Then Russia can swoop in play the arbiter, helping get Syrian soldiers released from Turkish-backed militias.
Through its media and officials, Moscow blames the U.S. for terrorism and instability in the Middle East. Russia’s Sputnik news has claimed the U.S. “evacuated” ISIS members.
However Russia’s contribution to stability is not as straightforward as it would have the world believe.
Moscow’s statecraft does benefit from having the same leadership for decades whereas the U.S. seems to zigzag from one policy to another. But Russia is constantly, openly seeking a larger role in world affairs, from dealings with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, to sending contractors to African countries as part of a new push for Russia-Africa ties.
These are the same kinds of contractors that once launched an ill-fated attack on U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. Special Operations forces in February 2018 to try to seize those storied if unproductive oil fields. The experience showed that while Moscow may appear a grand master of the regional chess game, its forces don’t always achieve results.
This is because Moscow’s real role is not linear. It doesn’t necessarily want a full ceasefire in eastern Syria or Idlib. It doesn’t even need the U.S. to leave or the U.S.-backed SDF to be dismantled. It wants to be the go-to power for all sides. In 2017, for instance, Moscow signed off on a ceasefire in southern Syria with the U.S. and Jordan. Russia has held frequent discussions with Israel about Israel’s concerns over Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
Moscow thrives off chaos because it can step in and present itself as a responsible player, even if its role in places like the Donbass show that long-term Moscow entrenchment doesn’t lead to economic success or total stability. Its role in the Balkans won’t lead to Serbia or North Macedonia joining the European Union. Quite the contrary, it will seek to pry them away
In Syria, it will not be surprising if the “safe zone” area that Russia and Turkey have signed off on becomes a zone of low-level Idlib- or Donbass-style conflict. The SDF, the Syrian regime army, and the Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups may continue to clash. But in each instance they can then turn to Moscow for guidance on what to do next. Moscow thrives in this scenario.