November 20, 2017
Russia’s “Syrian People’s Congress” in Sochi: Goals and Realities
By Neil Hauer
Actual data on the conference attendees remains scarce. Russian officials said they invited thirty-three Syrian groups and political parties and expected between 1,200 and 1,500 Syrian attendees. However, it is unclear how many of these will actually come. The Syrian National Congress, a large opposition bloc, has rejected the conference, while Turkey has thus far blocked the inclusion of Syrian Kurdish groups.
Russia is pursuing two main objectives at the Sochi conference. Firstly, it is attempting to forge a multilateral consensus on what will become of Idlib, ideally avoiding a protracted military operation that will incur financial and personnel losses. Secondly, it seeks to forestall a confrontation between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds, whose YPG militia dominates the US-backed SDF. However, without broad political representation from the opposition, the first goal is more or less impossible to achieve. Moscow will also attempt to progress on several other issues, including Turkey’s persistent concerns over the YPG, the situation in southern Syria, and the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. Most fundamentally, Russia faces problems with its allies – namely, the likely difficult task of persuading the regime to compromise and abandon its desire to reassert control over 'every inch' of Syria, as well as Iran's warnings that the war is far from over and that Moscow should prepare for an Idlib campaign.
It is also difficult to see how Russia will make progress on the Turkish-Kurdish dispute. Ankara’s concerns over the SDF’s domination of northern Syria and increasingly-accepted international legitimacy have led it to refuse any Kurdish presence at the conference at all. Turkish rhetoric has escalated to the point where Turkish President Recep Erdogan has openly called to “cleanse” Afrin of the PKK, a thinly-veiled reference to a full-scale military campaign against the region. Russia’s ties with the SDF, normally quite strong, have cooled recently, potentially opening the door to direct Turkish action against the YPG. Open threats from the Assad regime towards the Kurds have also suggested that perhaps it would be easier for the Kremlin to further pull back from the SDF. Acquiescing to further military conflict along these lines would be directly counterproductive to Russia’s goal of scaling down the conflict, however, not to mention the complicating factor of the US-SDF alliance. Given this, it is not clear how or in what manner Moscow hopes to make political progress regarding Syria’s Kurds.
Another problem unlikely to be solved at the talks is the situation in southern Syria. This region is currently the most internationally-accepted safe zone in Syria, with Russia, Jordan, the United States, and Israel all agreed to varying degrees on deconfliction efforts there. The one overarching issue is regarding Russian promises to Israel to create a buffer zone of ten to fifteen kilometers from the Israeli line of control in the Golan Heights, in which no Iranian or Hezbollah forces will be allowed. Some sources have suggested that 1,000 Russian military police are already present (up from 400 in August) in the southern area. Yet, these forces have not yet attempted to restrain Iranian and Hezbollah forces to any degree. A reported Russian-drawn map of the proposed buffer zone shared on social media last week gave no indication of areas where “resistance axis” troops would be forbidden to operate, drawing further consternation from Israel. It remains unclear how Moscow plans to address this issue in Sochi.
One possible realm for success in Sochi is in Deir Ezzor. On the verge of full reconquest from ISIS, the region’s remoteness means fewer conflicting international interests. However, this position affects the nature of political settlement in the area as well, with a complex network of tribal ties currently the subject of a struggle for influence between the US and SDF on one side, and Iran and the regime on the other. Russia has few cards to play in Deir Ezzor beyond military support, something the scale of its losses in the area speaks to. Even here, however, Russia faces the serious risk of military escalation with regards to the region’s oil and gas deposits, the largest in Syria. The regime has already indicated that it desires these resources, and that it will likely seek to attain them by military means rather than leave them with the SDF. Moscow could perhaps secure an agreement of the type that exists in Hasaka province, where the regime receives roughly two-thirds of production from wells under Kurdish control. This will be far more difficult in Deir Ezzor, given the larger scale of resources available and the fact that even the Hasaka agreement may not prove durable in the medium term if and when Damascus is able to transfer greater forces to the east. This risk is further increased by the fact that former opposition fighters from Deir Ezzor, having joined the SDF, are increasingly deploying in the area and could look to challenge the regime again as they once did.
Perhaps the greatest political challenge facing the conference is that of the opposition’s deep mistrust for Russia as a serious broker for an inter-Syrian settlement. It is hard to see how Moscow will succeed in establishing a perception of the Sochi talks different from that of Astana, which has largely become an arena for Russia, Iran, and Turkey to impose their own policies on Syria regardless of the whims of local actors. The planned meeting of Putin, Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi on November 22nd will only reinforce this idea. Nevertheless, the willingness of some opposition factions, particularly those involved with the de-escalation zones organized as a result of the Astana talks, to attend shows that Moscow has successfully battered some opposition groups into negotiations.
Achieving regime accession to compromise is equally unlikely. Assad is increasingly winning his battle for a return of international legitimacy, having just secured full United Nations backing for his plans for rebuilding Aleppo. What incentive does the Syrian leader have to compromise now? It seems much more likely that the regime will continue, as it has since the very start, to negotiate for cosmetic purposes only, unaffected by Russian pleading or guarantees.
Influencing both the regime and other local and international actors has been relatively simple for Moscow over the past year. Following the fall of Aleppo, opposition-regime conflict has largely been frozen, enabling a focus on ISIS territory. The United States has accepted this division as well, with their proxies in the Kurdish-dominated SDF capturing territory backed by American airpower, much the same as the Syrian army and various Iran-backed militias with Russian air support. Combatting ISIS was done not only out of a genuine will to defeat the group, but also because it was the only path of action all local and international actors could agree upon. Now, with the last ISIS-held city in Syria retaken by regime forces, the potential for violent disputes and unplanned escalations becomes extremely high once again. Moscow is hoping the Sochi conference will allow it to set the terms for the post-ISIS phase of the conflict, but this will prove vastly more challenging than its political strategizing to date. In the end, Sochi will likely only prove a stopgap incident as Iran and the regime rest and regroup for whatever offensive they plan next.
Neil Hauer is an independent analyst focused on Syria, Russia, and the Caucasus. Based in Tbilisi, Georgia, he served as senior intelligence analyst at The SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based geopolitical risk consultancy, for three years. He is presently engaged primarily on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. Follow him on Twitter at @NeilPHauer.