Sochi has become the hottest topic for Syrians and regional powers, along with the Astana conference and the UN-led Geneva gathering, both of which are of equal importance in the view of Russia.
However, suspicion has marred most Russian attempts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. That is, in great part, due to the negative influence of Western media reports on Russia’s role in Syria and the wider Middle East, often accusing Moscow of attempts to destabilize the region.
Even now, the US State Department describes Sochi as “a one-time solution,” and it is close to impossible to predict the outcome of the talks.
More than 1,600 delegates will attend the Sochi congress, each calculating the risks and benefits of this ongoing, multiplayer geopolitical chess game.
That game, of course, includes Turkey’s current military operation in Syria's Afrin — which Turkey has named “Olive Branch.”
Russia, US and other regional players are concerned now with the post-Daesh and Al-Nusra era, and with the threat of global extremism expanding from Syria and Iraq. The Afrin operation prompts all parties to offer a clearer definition of the division of areas of influence and control in Syria in order to implement a realistic plan that goes beyond strategic and idealistic ambitions to determine the future of Syria.
“Operation Olive Branch” could not have been launched without the approval of Russia, which controls Afrin’s airspace. The operation shows how deep the rift between Turkey and its ally, America, has become, as Turkey has effectively engaged in a battle with US-backed Kurdish militias.
Through “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey is sending a message to the Americans and Russians that it will not allow any threat along its borders. The military action is complicating an already tense and unpredictable situation. Regiments of the Free Syrian Army, who receive military aid from the US but are supportive of Turkey, are now reportedly threatening to combat US forces in Afrin. The more awkward that situation becomes, the more it benefits the Damascus regime and its allies.
Russia — or Vladimir Putin’s Russia as it effectively is now as one man holds the strings of the country’s military and political institutions — is not, as some Western media depict it, “playing both sides.” It is, like all the players in Syria, trying to see how best to serve its national interest, fearing that if the Americans support the Kurds in Syria and play on existing ethnic tensions there, Washington will then use the Kurds to oppose Russian interests in Syria.
Russia’s alliance with the Syrian state and the Syrian army is strategic; Moscow will do its utmost to deny any country any influence on this relationship.
Moscow is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the Middle East.
In politics, there are no ethics, no honesty and no sincerity; just interests. That is true of all countries in Syria.
Paul Ryan, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, recently said that the US and Russia currently “perhaps” share “tactical symmetry for a convenient moment, but not a strategic alliance.”
What Ryan meant is that Washington and Russia have very different aims in Syria. America’s goal, simply, is to finish off Daesh and retain alliances with other militias in order to combat Iranian influence in Syria. He made that clear when he later added: “What matters most to us in Syria is defeating (Daesh) and preventing Iran from having a land bridge and Hezbollah a foothold.”
Tension between Ankara and Washington has escalated in the past few days: Turkey has threatened to extend “Operation Olive Branch” as far as Manbij, which is located north of Aleppo and lies between Afrin and the Kurdish autonomous region, home to a regiment of American soldiers advising the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). US President Donald Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did little to calm the situation.
Trump warned Erdogan of the “growing risk of conflict” between the two nations and reportedly promised to stop supporting the Kurds. Once given, the promise was almost immediately broken. Besides, it seems neither promise nor threat will dissuade Turkey from its course in Afrin.
This plays into Russia’s hands. Russia is seizing every opportunity to strengthen its position and role in the region. Russian tactics permit Moscow to stay above controversies in which Washington and even Turkey have become embroiled, enabling Russia to take the initiative in a number of activities in Syria.
The Afrin issue, then, could shape Syria’s future and the future of Turkish-American relations.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme