Since 2015, Russia has been deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. Sending conflicting messages to opposing sides, Moscow is now the only player in the crisis maintaining diplomatic channels with all the parties involved. Here's how it has managed.
Russia has been involved in the Syrian crisis, co-operating mainly with its ally Iran. Its aim has been to keep the Assad regime in power.
Moscow conducted an air campaign in Syria in September 2015, which it says was to fight the terrorist group Daesh, but its real targets were the opposition groups fighting against the regime. At the same time, it was able to create several diplomatic channels with political and military groups on opposing sides, and also regional and international actors such as the US, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
After more than six years of civil war, how is Russia handling the Syrian crisis in terms of its relations with different actors?
Turkey: ongoing co-operation despite opposite positions
Turkey and Russia have been on opposite sides in the Syrian conflict. While Turkey has been backing the opposition against the Syrian regime, Russia intervened militarily in 2015 to keep Assad in power.
At the end of 2016, when US support for the PYD and its armed wing, the YPG, in northern Syria deepened, Ankara and Moscow agreed to co-operate to end the Syrian conflict. They underlined the importance of the country's territorial integrity. The YPG hasn't keep its goal to have an autonomous territory in Syria a secret. Russia and Turkey have been leading the Syria talks in Astana, where the opposing sides have meet.
Co-operation continued for more than a year, resulting in an agreement to administer four de-escalation zones, including one in Idlib province, which is bordered by YPG-controlled Afrin to the north. Turkish and Russian troops are now based in the northwest Idlib province.
But while Russia is co-operating with Turkey over these de-escalation zones, it has continued to organize air strikes in some opposition-held areas and to support the PYD group. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of separatist PKK in Turkey, which has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years and is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
“We are in solidarity with Russia regarding Idlib. This will also include Afrin,” Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on November 1.
“Afrin could be a threat to us at any moment.”
In addition to its peacekeeping mission in Idlib, Turkey has striven to prevent the spread of the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, along its border. But Russia, which financially supports the YPG in Afrin, has stationed its troops between the Euphrates Shield area and the YPG, effectively preventing assaults by the Turkish-backed opposition.
After the start of the Syrian war, the YPG took control of Afrin, Kobane and Amuda, and soon thereafter proclaimed three autonomous areas, or cantons, called Afrin, Kobane and Jezira (from the west to the east), following the withdrawal of Syrian regime forces.
Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 to prevent the YPG from linking its so-called cantons to create an uninterrupted stretch of land in northern Syria. The operation also helped clear Daesh out of the region.
The US’ systematic support for the YPG pushed Turkey towards more co-operation with Russia, even though Turkey and Russia have backed opposite camps in the Syrian war. But Russia did keep its diplomatic connections with the YPG, although it did not arm the group like the US did.
While the peace talks are continuing, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran attended summit in Sochi on Wednesday to discuss the future of Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia, Iran and Turkey had managed to prevent Syria's collapse.
PYD: Russian support despite Turkey’s concerns
Only two days before Russia began its far-reaching air strikes in Syria on September 30, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Assad regime and the Kurds were the only ones truly fighting Daesh, signalling a rapprochement with the PYD in Syria.
Around two weeks after Putin’s speech, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with PYD co-chairman Salih Muslim in Paris. After another week, Bogdanov also met a PYD co-chairwoman, Asya Abdullah, in Moscow. The meetings were followed by the initiative to open a PYD office in Moscow, which is still in operation.
On October 23, two weeks after Bogdanov’s meeting in Moscow, Putin said that the Assad regime and PYD needed to unite forces, and called on the organization to come over to the regime's side of the Syrian conflict. This never actually happened, but Russia has kept up its support for the PYD in Syria, calling it a legitimate actor.
In addition to diplomatic channels, Russia has protected the group on the ground several times on its own, and with the help of Syrian regime forces.
In October, according to Anadolu Agency, the Assad regime offered autonomy to the PYD in return for the withdrawal of its YPG troops from areas under regime control. But the organisation demanded a federated status instead.
Russia has played a delicate balancing game with the PYD/YPG in Syria, preventing Turkey-backed opposition forces from approaching YPG-controlled areas in northern Syria.
On March 1, Russia had created a practical buffer zone to protect the YPG using Syrian regime forces right after Turkish-backed opposition forces defeated Daesh and reached Manbij, a region controlled by the YPG.
Russia prevented a possible move by Turkey against the YPG a second time on August 28, when Turkish-backed opposition forces started moving towards Tel Rifat, a city controlled by the group. Russian troops and Syrian regime forces moved to east Afrin coming between the YPG and the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army.
Despite ongoing support for the PYD, pressure from Ankara was successful in not inviting the PYD to the Syria talks.
Turkey's presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on November 5 that Russia had rescinded its invitation to the PYD/YPG to attend the proposed Congress of Syrian National Dialogue.
US: Continued collaboration and distrust
Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia and the US have been supporting different groups in Syria. But despite uneasiness in their bilateral relations, the two countries could still co-operate in Syria.
Washington and Moscow have both been fighting against Daesh, and courting the PYD, but Russia does not share the same objections to the Assad regime as the US does.
Last April, US President Donald Trump said the United States’ relationship with Moscow “may be at an all-time low.” His comments about Moscow came after Washington fired missiles at Syria in response to its suspected use of poisonous gas against civilians, prompting condemnation by Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin mirrored Trump's sentiments in an interview broadcast on Russian television, “The level of trust (between Russia and the US) on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated.”
Despite the ongoing crisis between two international powers, the two countries have still been co-operating in different areas. There is an ongoing agreement about intelligence sharing and not attacking the other's troops.
Last week, Russia and Jordan agreed to establish a temporary "de-escalation zone" along the confrontation line in southwestern Syria. That zone specifically focuses on the withdrawal of Iran-backed Shia militias from the Israeli border.
Washington has been trying to co-operate with Moscow, and to consider Israel’s security concerns, while Iran-backed militias have been gaining power along the border close to the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.
But the two sides are still trying to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. Russian President Putin held a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, a day after Syrian regime leader Assad met Putin in Sochi.
Before the conversation, the two leaders met in Vietnam during the APEC summit on November 11. They signed a joint statement on Syria, underlining the importance of Syria's territorial integrity and independence. Since the fight in Syria is coming to an end, the two leaders also stated the importance of the Geneva talks, which was brokered by the UN, seeking a political solution to the crisis.
Israel: Concerns over Iran's presence in Syria
Russian-Israeli talks on Syria have mainly focused on Israel's security concerns, due to Iran-backed militias gaining influence in Syria, especially around the Golan Heights. Israel has repeatedly threatened to step up strikes if it is attacked by Shia militias, whom it sees as a threat to its security.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin in August in Sochi to discuss the crisis in Syria. According to Reuters, Netanyahu told his Russian counterpart that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria.
On October 23, 2017, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Hezbollah of orchestrating the shellings across the Golan Heights, and called on Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian ally to curb the Lebanese militias.
"Therefore I call here both on the Assad regime ... and also on the Russian forces that are present there, to restrain Hezbollah. And this is another example of why they should be kicked out of Syria as fast as possible.” Lieberman said.
On November 12, a US State Department official told Reuters that Russia had agreed "to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance" from the Golan Heights border with Israel.
The move, according to one Israeli official who talked to Reuters, is meant to keep rival factions inside Syria away from each other, but it would effectively keep Iranian-linked forces at various distances from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as well.
While Israel has been lobbying Russia and the US to deny Iranian presence in Syria, Russia was quick to refuse any agreement with them on the issue in an attempt to keep Iran as a close ally.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on November 14 that Moscow has not promised to ensure a withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria, stating that Iranian presence in Syria is legitimate.
Iran: main partner to back Assad regime
As Moscow continues talks with the US and Israel, it is still on the same page with Tehran, which has also been backing the Syrian regime since the beginning of the conflict. Iran has been an ally of the Syrian regime from even before the uprising in 2011.
In 2015, only weeks before the Russian air campaign, General Qasem Soleimani visited Moscow to work out the details of a plan for co-ordinated military action in Syria. An Israeli security official talked to Israeli Ynet news, and two unnamed Western intelligence sources told Fox News, that Soleimani met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Hundreds of Iranian troops as well as Shia militias are now in Syria fighting against Daesh and opposition groups. They are getting ground support from the Syrian regime and air support from Russia.
Iran has been participating the in Astana talks with other regional and international actors to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Russia was the first country to use Iran's Hamadan airbase in August 2016 since the beginning of Syria's war. Despite the fact that Moscow and Tehran faced problems with the airbase, and Russia had to move its fighter jets back, it was a sign of strong collaboration between the two allies.
Russia's handling of the Syrian crisis is not limited to these actors. Even though its main allies are the Syrian regime and Iran, it could create ties with opposition groups to find a political solution.
The Syrian opposition has been continuing to operate in Syria politically and militarily since the beginning of the war against Assad.
Now, the opposition has been participating in the Astana talks along with Turkey, the Syrian regime and its supporters Russia and Iran.
The Syrian opposition says the regime, the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias have continued military offensives in many areas in Syria, despite an ongoing ceasefire, and have held talks with Russian officials.
In the last meeting between Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders in Sochi, Syrian opposition was not invited along with the regime. However, during the same day, the opposition groups were meeting in Saudi Arabia's capital to seek a unified position.
The opposition meeting came a day after a surprise visit by Assad to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. After the talks, Kremlin said Putin was to hold a telephone conversation with the king of Saudi Arabia to inform him about his meeting with Assad.
Despite several rounds of peace talks in both Geneva and Astana, they have so far failed to end the Syrian conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, including civilians.