The Financial Times, Feb. 13, 2018 - Alexander Lavrentiev had an uncompromising message for the 1,393 Syrian politicians, tribal chiefs and religious leaders that gathered in Sochi this week: get a deal done. As Russia tries to force a breakthrough in the tortuous Syrian peace process, President Vladimir Putin’s chief envoy for the conflict barely took the time to shake guests’ hands.
Following a day of turbulent negotiations, Mr Lavrentiev then declared that the Syrian participants at the Black Sea resort had agreed to form a commission to reform the constitution. He said the deal would “contribute to revitalizing the Geneva process”, referring to the UN-mandated negotiations intended to resolve Syria’s seven-year conflict.
Russia is in a hurry to seal a political agreement after its military intervention tipped the war in favor of Bashar al-Assad and made Moscow the most important foreign actor in the country. But the Sochi talks, which were boycotted by the main Syrian opposition and saw Russian officials heckled by some participants, underlined the challenges the Kremlin faces.
In September 2015, Mr Putin waded into the Syrian conflict with a military campaign that he pledged would be quick and decisive. Almost two-and-a-half years later, he is in an ever deeper morass. In the wake of his Russian-backed military success, Assad has become more assertive and harder to control, whilst clashes continue, and western governments blame Moscow for abetting the bloodshed.
Last month, Putin declared that Moscow’s intervention had accomplished its mission, claimed that ISIS had been crushed and said troops would start returning home. Since then, Russia’s Hmeimim Air Base in north-west Syria has been attacked at least twice. Assad’s regime has been bombarding rebel holdouts, with Russian air support. More than 190 people have been killed in Idlib province in the past month.
Turkey has also launched an operation against YPG militias in the north-western Syrian border town of Afrin.
“Our president was right to state that ISIS has been defeated. But all other conflicts there are getting worse,” said Boris Dolgov, a Middle East expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The government somewhat overestimated the ability of the Syrians to find a solution themselves. They thought that after the elimination of ISIS, the military part of the conflict would be over. However, now the [warring] parties are again betting on force.”
The turmoil has soured Moscow’s success in capitalizing on the Syrian conflict to bolster its influence in the Middle East, a region where the US traditionally dominated. Even Kremlin advisers acknowledge that Russia’s Syria role has been marred by troubles similar to those the US encountered after invading Iraq and Afghanistan.
Any suggestion that Russia could get bogged down in a protracted conflict far away invokes the memory of the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan.
“There is a real fear in Russian society of a second Afghanistan,” said Vasily Kuznetsov, director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In Syria, Moscow is learning on the job. The campaign marks the first time Russia’s military has engaged in a mission far beyond its shores that involves not just battleground operations but also mediation efforts and humanitarian support.
“What we are facing in Syria reminds me of the video game “Perestroika”, where you always think you’ve made it to firm ground, only to discover that you’re sinking again,” said Mr Kuznetsov.
In the game, players must navigate a frog to safe ground by jumping from one lily pad to the next. But the lily pads keep moving, representing the political and economic chaos unleashed by reforms implemented during the dying days of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s problems in Syria were on open display in Sochi. Within minutes of the final declaration, Syrian opposition leaders denounced the outcome as tailor-made for Mr Assad and insisted it was irrelevant.
However, Russian officials say it is too early to write off Moscow’s Syria diplomacy.
“It is just not true that we believed we could fix this in a matter of months,” said a senior Russian foreign policy official. “Some of our military officials thought we could have been in and out quickly if we had done things their way. But we understand that only a considered approach led by diplomacy can achieve a lasting solution.”
Russian analysts argue that Mr Putin’s push to speed up the political negotiations is, in part, a show for domestic consumption.
“The declaration of victory was intended to create an impression of success in the run-up to the upcoming presidential elections [in March],” said Grigory Lukyanov, a conflict expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. “The narrative offered to the Russian public is not that we are a party to the conflict, but that Syria is a battleground of global geopolitics and that Russia has prevailed where the US failed.”
Vitaly Naumkin, one of Russia’s pre-eminent Middle East experts who now works as an adviser to Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syria envoy, insists Moscow is prepared for the long game.
Citing the Arab-Israeli conflict and the years-long dispute over Cyprus, he said: “How many decades have those been going on with the whole world trying to resolve them?”
“We work with everyone as we don’t divide the world into allies and adversaries,” said Vladimir Solotsynsky, a former ambassador to Turkey. “We take into account all parties’ interests but we are not tied down by values or ideology like the US.”
The foreign policy official, however, struck a cautious note. “In Syria, we are maybe standing at the very beginning of a long road.”
Timeline: Russia’s intervention in Syria
Russia intervenes militarily to back Bashar al-Assad’s regime after almost five years of rebellion against the Syrian president’s rule.
Assad thanks Vladimir Putin for his military support — praising the Russian leader for intervening to ‘fight terrorism’ and turning the tide in the civil war.
Turkey shoots down a Russian fighter jet over the Syrian-Turkish border. Putin later accuses Ankara of supplying military support to jihadis.
A regime offensive, backed by Russian air power, drives the rebels from their last stronghold in east Aleppo, tipping the war in Assad’s favour but killing scores of civilians.
Russia, with Iran and Turkey, mediates the first round of Astana talks. The key players in the Syrian conflict meet in the Kazakhstan capital for negotiations that aim to consolidate a ceasefire on the ground.
At a meeting with Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi Putin claims Russia’s military campaign is over. Assad thanks Russia’s military for “saving our country”.
Putin says ISIS has been defeated and claims “mission accomplished” in Syria.