“Victors do not investigate their own crimes, so that little is known about them…”
On the eve before the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue on January 30th, 2018, representatives of the Assad regime’s main opposition group, the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), arrived to their terminal at the Sochi International Airport. As the group’s representatives met with their Russian hosts and prepared to be escorted to the conference, they sighted promotional billboards mounted atop the baggage claim caravels displaying the Syrian Arab Republic’s flag—the primary symbol of the Assad regime. The offended SNC representatives refused to step outside the airport and denied their invitation on spot, citing the conference’s disingenuity to any resistant forces in the way of Assad. Within an hour, the most important opposition delegation invited to Sochi was booked on the next flight to Ankara.
Two days prior, a Turkish mission—ironically coined “Operation Olive Branch”—invaded the Kurdish northern province in Afrin, Syria. The Turkish government issued a statement citing the Sochi Conference’s deference; the inclusion of Syrian Kurds in diplomatic dialogue without consent from the Erdogan government, was a red line for Turkey. Turkish intervention in Afrin was strategically designed to blockade Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) representatives from attending the dialogue, crippling the Kurds with reconnaissance airstrikes and ground force invasion. Turkey’s sortie triumphed. The YPG’s spokesman, Fawza al-Yussef announced that Turkey—one of the conference’s hosts—violated the talks’ principle of political dialogue and that no YPG official, under any circumstances, would attend the talks.
While the conference was quick to invite several local leaders of the ethnic Kurdish community and hosted the regime’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ delegation, Sochi was barren of any contrariety or deliberation. The television screens in the conference lobby—purposed to broadcast the delegates’ speeches and statements—were turned off at the start of the opening ceremonies. Journalists present at the dialogue grew concerned of the lack of interaction with the conference’s host, the Russian government, and lack of access to what little dialogue took place. Many within the international community regarded Sochi as an emblematic failure—a diplomatic disaster that began before the conference commenced, rooted in a conflict far more complex than its proponents realize. Yet, within the contextual framework of Russian neo-revisionism in the Levant, the conference brought unparalleled success.
The Neo-Revisionsist Vision
While Sochi proved to be a diplomatic failure from its start, it still achieved a number of Russian objectives that, in the long-term, seek to revise the regional order and political expectations in the Levant. While Russian forces initially sought to ‘fill’ the political vacuum in the dawn of the Syrian civil war, they recognized immense capital if Russia were to become a major proponent in the region, eclipsing the United States. Russia’s objective aligns with what Richard Sakwa deems “neo-revisionsim.” Vladimir Putin’s government does not seek to unilaterally challenge or undermine current embedded frameworks of the regional order; rather, Moscow has made its mission to alter decades of Western dominance in the Middle East and ensure Russian strategic interests are equally recognized.
The Syrian Congress of National Dialogue at Sochi was designed by the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian governments to serve as a complimentary step—possibly a diplomatic alternative—to ongoing reconstructive talks in Geneva, serving as the eighth round of the Astana negotiations. The talks were originally hailed among members in the international community for its diverse guest list; Sochi called on not only the twenty-member SNC delegation, but also upon participation from the Syrian Kurds, a force that had been absent in diplomatic talks despite their integral role in the civil war. The inclusion of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the dialogue was a watershed in reconstruction efforts, sowing seeds of optimism among many negotiators and lending confidence to Russia’s emerging role as a diplomatic heavyweight in the Levant.
In advance of Sochi, experts and policymakers overlooked the dialogue’s ulterior intent to manipulate the lack of “strategic incoherence” embedded in the policies, agendas, and objectives of Syria’s actors. Dr. Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council introduced the concept of strategic incoherence in the wake of Operation Olive Branch, pointing to the tunnel-visioned policies of the Syrian crisis’ most valuable players, unengaged in adequate multilateral coordination. Syria’s disaster has yielded local actors the latitude to pursue diverging aims: while the United States’ regional strategy has primarily focused on driving out the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) through cooperation with YPG and Peshmerga militias, Turkey has made its mission to stave Kurdish territorial influence, no matter the cost. While Iran and Russia have dually empowered the Assad regime to keep its reins on power in Damascus, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) and Russian ground forces assisting pro-government Shabiha factions and Shi’a paramilitaries, they contradict an international community that insists upon Assad’s removal. Disorder has reigned supreme in Syria since 2012, and the Russian government has capitalized upon elements of discontinuity and strategic incoherence to pave its own path to a new Levantine order.
Sochi, while a diplomatic breakdown, was an invaluable diplomatic measure of distraction for the Russian government. While Moscow’s chief diplomats arranged Sochi’s diverse guest list—to great fanfare—pro-Assad’s militant factions prepared dropped mortar shells and rockets on the besieged enclave of East Ghouta, displacing an estimated 30,000 civilians and isolating individuals from international aid convoy trucks and supplies. While Russians forces present in Syria have offered the city’s residents a safe passage out from the bombardment in what it calls a “humanitarian corridor,” Moscow has not ceased its assistance to retake eastern Ghouta, deploying warplanes in a series of bombing and ground assaults.
An Impossible Order
While many experts have lamented the retracted international role in Syria, enabling Russia to capitalize upon its goal empowering its geopolitical stature in the region. Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution defined Moscow’s chief objective as one that transcends ISIS’s defeat and securing Assad’s grip on power; “preserving Assad’s rule was always less about Assad, and more about safeguarding what Putin saw as another domino in a series of U.S.-orchestrated revolutions in Russia’s backyard.” Russian President Vladimir Putin was reportedly agitated by U.S. interventionist strategies in Libya and Iraq during the Bush and Obama administrations, and recognized the strategic value in hybridized, low-cost, asymmetric proxy war. The lack of political coherence is attractive to Putin’s foreign policy agenda; Syria’s geostrategic position between East and West, as well as their warm-water ports, satisfy Russia’s overarching political and economic interests. Securing Assad in Moscow’s corner will retain Russia as a major influencer in the regional order.
While the Russian government has flexed its ability to redefine the Levant under its own terms, there is no certainty that this political order can survive. Moscow has pursued shuttle diplomacy with Israel and Iran, constructed alternative diplomatic dialogues outside of the Geneva Conference, and has established multiple frameworks for a new Syrian constitution and federal elections. It has proven its ability to serve as a power broker in a time of crisis. Yet these reforms cannot remain permanently in place; while the Assad government has maximized its territorial control, opposition still remains in tact and the regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons—facilitated by Moscow—will remain sealed in the memories of the conflict’s survivors.