But there have been few signs so far of a major thaw at the United Nations, where Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin used a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council last week to criticize Turkey for permitting what he claims is the continued flow of weapons and terrorists across the border into Syria, council diplomats told Foreign Policy. Moscow’s private criticism of Ankara hasn’t previously been reported.
The rebuke underscored the tensions that continue to define Russia’s interactions with Turkey even at a time when they are trying to put their relationship back on track after nearly a year of public recriminations and threats risked bringing the two countries to the brink of war. It also reflected the fact that Moscow and Ankara remain deeply divided over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is receiving direct military assistance from Russia as he fights rebels armed and backed by Turkey.
This is one of those “fellas, stop fighting–you’re both assholes” moments that often come up in international affairs. Turkey has deliberately left its border porous to facilitate the movement of people and goods to Syrian rebels of both moderate and extremist persuasions (to the extent that distinction can be made), and even to ISIS before the cost of looking the other way on that front proved too high to bear. On the other hand, Russia has supported Assad no matter how depraved Assad’s efforts to win back the country by killing half of its people have gotten–they’ve even participated in their fair share of the killing. And the two countries are even further apart on the question of what to do about the YPG than Turkey and the US are, and Turkey and the US are pretty far apart on that question. The Kurdish issue is so important to Ankara that it’s hard to imagine them budging on it, but Moscow is in so much stronger a position right now that it’s hard to see them budging either.
Now, FP’s reporting on this story is all anonymous sources so a grain of salt is probably required. But maybe it’s not a coincidence that Moscow is suddenly back to touting an imminent agreement to cooperate with the US on counter-terrorism airstrikes:
Acknowledging an unfolding disaster in Syria’s besieged city of Aleppo, where roughly two million people are trapped, Russia conceded on Monday that daily three-hour halts in fighting that it had proposed last week were insufficient, possibly opening the door to longer pauses.
Russia also suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the United States to attack Islamic State fighters in the Aleppo area as part of a solution. Such a joint effort would be a new level of cooperation between the two powers in seeking a way out of the five-year-old Syria war, in which the Russians and Americans basically back opposite sides.
The developments suggested that Russia wished to avoid the appearance of responsibility for the suffering in Aleppo, the once-thriving commercial epicenter of northern Syria that has been a strategic battleground for much of the war.
Say what you want about what Russia is actually doing in Syria (propping up Assad), but they clearly want their mission to be seen as an effort in the international fight against jihadi terrorism. The problem is that even Karl Rove and Frank Luntz working together couldn’t spin starving a few hundred thousand Syrian civilians as somehow advancing the war on terror. A iplomatic breakthrough with Turkey would have been something the Russians could have pointed toward as evidence that they’re not in Syria to do anything but take on terrorism and they’ll work with anybody to do it. But if that’s not in the cards, then apparently the Russians are going to go back to Plan A, cutting some kind of deal with the US.
Note that there’s been no comment from Washington yet on Russia’s claims about a deal being “close.” The last time an agreement was “close,” it reportedly fell apart because Russia wouldn’t (couldn’t?) accede to US demands, particularly that Assad’s air force be grounded completely or limited to only certain parts of Syrian airspace. If the Russians are back again trying to cut a deal so soon after those talks broke down, it seems like a no-brainer that the Obama administration would continue to insist on that same concession. Which doesn’t mean they will, of course.