Russia and Turkey Pushed the West Out of Syria

Western nations have become irrelevant to Syria's future.

Abandoned by the West.

Photographer: AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images

Neither the U.S. nor European powers seem to have been aware that Russia and Turkey were negotiating a ceasefire and evacuation deal for Aleppo on Tuesday. After the capture of the ravaged but all-important city by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, this may be the new normal in Syria -- one in which the West is more of a spectator than an active participant.

Though the evacuation, planned for 5:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, was delayed by an outbreak of fighting, with the sides blaming each other as usual, talks are continuing, and Western nations are not part of them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday morning that it was "pointless" to talk to the U.S.; negotiations with Turkey would be "more effective than many months of a pointless hangout we have had with the United States."

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

While the Western press discussed dire English-language tweets from the last rebel-held enclave of Aleppo,  the Russians and Turks were talking to the rebels and the Assad regime, trying to finalize Assad's victory. Their deal included a withdrawal plan for the rebels that would spare civilians further bloodshed -- something that would enable Moscow and Ankara to burnish their humanitarian credentials and claim the mantle of peacemaker rather than kingmaker.

The U.S. had no idea about it. "I’m not aware that we had any indications that there were bilateral discussions to reach this kind of an arrangement," State Department spokesman John Kirby said when asked whether State knew Turkey, a U.S. ally, was involved in the talks. "So I don't know that there was any prior knowledge." Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, seemed unaware that a deal had been struck when she delivered a prosecutorial speech to the U.N. security council, blaming Assad's regime, Syria and Iran for "contributing to a noose around civilians" and asking, "Are you truly incapable of shame?"

At a press conference in Berlin Tuesday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande spoke of a "disastrous" and "heartbreaking " situation in Aleppo, never indicating they knew a deal was in the works and slamming Russia for blocking talks. On Tuesday evening, Merkel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to their Russian counterparts on the phone to discuss Syria, among other issues. By then, the deal had already been announced. The Kremlin readout of Merkel's call with President Vladimir Putin says, "It was agreed to step up bilateral contacts" -- a thinly veiled reference to Merkel's dismay at being insufficiently informed.

This is what happens when Western powers are neither willing to fight nor amenable to a deal. U.S. and European hand-wringing has done little to help the people of Aleppo -- something that will be remembered along with the bloodshed and the Assad regime's ruthlessness. Countries that have been willing both to fight and to talk have stepped up as the real players.

Not that the interests of these players are perfectly aligned, however. Russia and Turkey have diverging interests in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a sworn enemy of Assad, Putin his ally. Erdogan has a major problem with the Kurdish enclaves in Syria which he believes serve to destabilize the situation across the Turkish border. Putin has quietly backed the Kurds, and Russia has insisted they take part in any talks on Syria's future. A year ago, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane after it briefly intruded into the Turkish airspace near the border, prompting a confrontation between Putin and Erdogan that lasted until Putin quickly and unequivocally supported the Turkish leader against a failed military coup.

There is no obvious solution to the Russian-Turkish differences on Syria short of the country's partition into a "Russian zone" and a "Turkish zone" along the lines of the pre-World War I division of Iran between Russia and Britain, a possibility Turkey expert David Barchard raised in a recent article for the Middle East Eye. Perhaps things are moving toward this kind of a solution right out of the Great Game era: Putin and Erdogan have been talking on the phone before making each major move in Syria. Neither has felt the need to involve Western nations.

It is now clear that Russia only negotiated the previous Aleppo ceasefires with the U.S. as a smokescreen for operations that just had one goal -- a military victory for the Assad regime. Turkey's reticence is more troubling for the U.S. -- but perhaps it shouldn't be surprising. Turkey is the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization member that has dared to put boots on the ground in Syria in an operation it has called Euphrates Shield. It has the military capability to make gains without U.S. help. Russian acquiescence is more important for that than the approval of NATO allies.

If the two countries now agree on how to handle a common threat -- the Islamic State -- they will be in a position to negotiate a post-war settlement with the various Syrian sides.

Turkey and Russia need a fair division of responsibilities in the fight against Islamic State, hard as that may be to achieve. Turkish forces are actively fighting IS in the immediate vicinity of Aleppo, at the town of al-Bab, now held by the militants but, according to the Turkish government, encircled and about to fall. This is a sensitive area to the Assad regime, but Turkey's activity there appears to be OK with Russia as long as the Turkish army stays clear of Aleppo. Russia hasn't been actively engaged against IS lately, concentrating its firepower on Aleppo: It was even forced to withdraw a small garrison from Palmyra, the site of a major Russian victory celebration earlier this year, as the militants retook the historic site.

By refusing to take the risk of a ground force while backing the weakest side in the conflict -- the rebels who have now been pounded out of Aleppo and who have needed a lot of Turkish help to keep fighting elsewhere -- the U.S. has largely written itself out of Syria. Everyone, including the allies, has now seen the futility of relying on Washington for help or solutions.

Aleppo's humanitarian plight, the Assad regime's military victory and the gradually developing Russian-Turkish relationship in Syria mark a major defeat for U.S. foreign policy. It will reverberate throughout the Middle East and leave the incoming administration of Donald Trump with a hard choice: to play second fiddle in the region or to try to muscle in, preventing Russia and Turkey from dividing spheres of influence there.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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