Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and writer based in Moscow. He is a regular contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center blog, Al-Jazeera, and other outlets. He is currently a consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East with Russian official and private entities. He has also written about Russia’s foreign policy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council states, with a focus on relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Diwan interviewed Frolovskiy in mid-January, as Turkey began its long-awaited intervention in Afrin, to discuss with him Russia’s overall calculations in Syria.
Michael Young: Turkey has just intervened in Afrin to fight Syrian Kurdish forces. How might this affect Ankara’s relations with Moscow?
Dmitriy Frolovskiy: Russia’s leadership has acknowledged how delicate the Kurdish issue is for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has shut its eyes on the intervention. Ankara would have never agreed to come to the negotiating table over Syria unless it received guarantees that Kurdish autonomy would never take place on its southern border. Moscow also would rather have a strong centralized government in Damascus, hence does not need Kurdish forces trained and equipped by Washington to challenge it. Damascus, despite official pronouncements to the contrary, does not seem to object to Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria to block Kurdish autonomy, and still cherishes hopes of restoring its prewar borders.
Nevertheless, Washington’s decision to create a 30,000-strong border security force has thwarted the plans of both Russia and Turkey. In effect, we should anticipate more cooperation between Moscow and Ankara and bilateral ties to remain strong in the near future. At the same time, the Kremlin nurtures no illusions about Erdogan and his dislike of the current regime in Damascus and his capacity to quickly switch sides should the situation dictate it. If the Trump administration is capable of striking a deal with Ankara and is willing to abandon its alliance with the Kurdish forces, Russian-Turkish relations will suffer and Moscow will be less willing to tolerate Turkish troops inside Syria. But I do not think that this will take place and the Putin-Erdogan alliance will likely persist.
MY: Russia is finding it difficult to convene the Sochi conference on Syria. Why is that?
DF: The Kremlin perceives both the Astana process and Sochi as parts of the same overall process, hence bringing the rebel groups to the negotiating table is vital for its objectives. At the same time, the rebel groups have rejected Sochi and accused Russia of being an aggressor state and of bypassing the UN-sponsored Geneva process. Their rhetoric has become more confident, and may be a result of their sense that the U.S. intends to provide stronger support to the Syrian Democratic Forces and other opposition groups. This evolving scenario ultimately puts Russia at the crossroads. On the one hand the Kremlin wants the rebel groups to attend the conference, and on the other it is not ready to soften its position and abandon plans for an Astana-Sochi settlement. In effect, the conference will likely take place without those rebel groups at the table.
MY: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent criticism of U.S. foreign policy, including in Syria, suggests that Russia is finding it difficult to get U.S. help for a Syrian endgame that Moscow would favor. How do you see the future of U.S.-Russian relations in Syria?
DF: The Kremlin hoped that U.S. policy toward Syria would be different under the Trump administration, but these hopes were finally shattered by Washington’s recent announcement that it would form a 30,000-strong Kurdish-dominated border security force in Syria. Despite Trump’s mixed signals that he has “very little to do with Syria other than killing [the Islamic State],” the Kremlin now acknowledges that by establishing a controlled zone over nearly 25 percent of Syrian territory in the north and east, Washington is determined to secure an influential role in a political settlement and the country’s postwar future. The area will also help the United States to secure a stronghold in the Levant and affect Russia’s relations with its regional allies.
The Kremlin is not happy with such a development and some Russian officials even accuse the White House of having waited until Russian troops had done all the dirty work to jump in at the last moment and claim its share. Moscow has invested too much in Syria, including President Vladimir Putin’s personal reputation, to make any concessions when a political settlement is looming ahead. I am likewise skeptical that the Geneva process will have an impact. Ultimately the future of Syria will be decided by President Donald Trump’s and Putin’s capacity to reach a consensus. However, I do not see any current opportunities for improvement in U.S.-Russian relations over Syria. Things may get worse before they get better.
MY: After initial Russian successes in Syria, now it seems things are becoming much more difficult. Where do you see this leading for Moscow?
DF: I do not agree that it is becoming more difficult for Moscow. It was difficult when the Kremlin intervened in the Syrian conflict and risked entering a quagmire, with serious implications for Putin’s domestic popularity. It was, likewise, difficult when a Russian jet was shot down by Turkey. And there were many other difficult moments. Moscow might already have a vision of what a political settlement in Syria should look like. It originates from Russia’s own experience in resolving the conflict in Chechnya as well as some solutions being transplanted from neighboring Lebanon. The Kremlin also exercises a strong influence over Damascus and is capable of pushing forward most of the reforms that it deems necessary.
Overall, Russia has invested a great deal in Syria and now strives to maintain its long-term presence in the Levant. It is interested in having a stable and reliable regime in Damascus capable of serving its objectives. However, Moscow has no interest in funding, nor the capacity to fund, Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction. Russia’s own economy still suffers from low oil prices and stagnation that might last for years. In effect, this might inject tensions into Syrian-Russian relations in the future.