By Ishaan Tharoor
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing aggressively for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict — and he seems to have found common cause with Turkey and the United States, two countries that were firmly opposed to Russia's Middle East agenda not too long ago.
On Wednesday, Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. For more than half a decade, Erdogan has clamored loudly for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Moscow ally whose regime has essentially subcontracted its bombing campaigns to the Russian air force. Just over a year ago, Putin was accusing Turkey of abetting the Islamic State, while Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet.
But now the Syrian regime holds almost all of the country's major urban centers and is steadily expanding and consolidating its control. The conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives — and forced millions to flee their homes — shows no sign of stopping, but Assad's position seems relatively secure.
So Erdogan and Putin jointly called for the implementation of "de-escalation zones," which would better prevent direct clashes between rebel and government forces. Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic State or the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are not protected by these arrangements.
"Turkey would have an important role in any bid to create safe areas in Syria for opposition groups and Syrians displaced by more than six years of fighting," my colleague Andrew Roth reported.
Roth received from a source a copy of a Russian proposal presented to Syrian rebel leaders attending the latest round of cease-fire talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. "According to the document," Roth wrote, "Russia proposed that 'the use of any kind of weapon in the de-escalation zones by the parties to the conflict shall be prohibited, including the planes of the Syrian armed forces.' "
The zones, according to the document, would be located in Idlib Governorate in northwest Syria, north of the city of Homs, in eastern Ghouta — an area outside of Damascus — and in the south along the border with Jordan. For many beleaguered Syrians, this could be welcome news. But critics can point out that there have been cease-fires in Syria before — and they didn't stop the sustained and withering strikes carried out by Assad and Russian planes on civilian areas.
Nevertheless, it seems that the Trump administration is backing the plan. "We spoke about this with Mr. Trump yesterday," Putin said, referring to what he described as a "very good" phone call with President Trump on Tuesday. "As far as I understood, the American administration supports these ideas."
Putin also admitted that American support would be crucial to implementing any of these proposals.
"The Syrian people have the greatest influence on President Assad. They are, quite obviously, split," Putin said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday. He suggested that "without the participation of a party such as the United States, it is impossible to solve these problems effectively."
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius suggests that Trump's apparent lack of planning for the Syrian endgame may provide Russia a useful opening.
"Putin’s proposal may be an effort to fill the vacuum of any clear Trump administration diplomatic strategy for Syria," Ignatius wrote. "Much as Chinese President Xi Jinping made himself Trump’s partner for dealing with North Korea, Putin may be attempting a similar play for Syria. The benefits for Moscow would be reducing its diplomatic isolation and improving its image after getting caught red-handed interfering in last year’s U.S. presidential election."
But although Erdogan, Putin and Trump may all be on the same page about these "de-escalation" zones, it doesn't mean the path ahead will be much smoother.
Syria's divisions are entrenched and profound, and great-power collaboration can only do so much to ease the process. The cease-fire talks hit a snag Wednesday when a Syrian rebel delegation suspended its participation in protest against, fittingly, ongoing air raids in the country by pro-regime forces.
More significantly, the United States and Turkey are having a tense clash over strategy against the Islamic State. According to Al-Monitor journalist Amberin Zaman, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a "horrible" phone call soon after Turkish jets targeted Kurdish units in northeastern Syria and Iraq on April 25, killing 20 fighters. The units, known by the abbreviation YPG, are backed by Washington and are crucial in the campaign against the Islamic State, but they are seen by Ankara as an extension of an armed Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
"At one stage in the conversation Tillerson was kind of like saying 'Okay, whatever, you go your way, we will go ours,' " a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor.
Erdogan and his government are frustrated by the United States' continued reliance on Syrian Kurds in the campaign against Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria.
"To tear down the black banners now fluttering over Raqqa is to write oneself into the history books," noted Aron Lund of the Century Foundation. "And Erdogan has no intention of letting his Kurdish enemy become the knight in shining armor who slayed the jihadi dragon and saved the Western princess, especially not since he suspects it might come with a reward of half the Syrian kingdom."
In a radio interview Wednesday, senior Erdogan adviser Ilnur Cevik even seemed to threaten U.S. special forces and armored vehicles deployed alongside Syrian Kurdish units. "All of a sudden, by accident, a few rockets can hit them," he said.
All of this means there's a lot more jockeying and intrigue to come. Erdogan visits the White House later this month — and he and Trump should have an interesting conversation.