RD Interview: Former diplomat Daniel Kurtzer of Princeton explains the nature of U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria and the ability of the two former superpower rivals to influence their regional allies.
A Syrian soldier keeps watch near Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers west of Hama, Syria, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. Photo: AP
The ongoing attempts of Russia and the United States to find a solution to the five-year-old Syrian conflict finally resulted in a ceasefire, which kicked in at midnight on Feb. 27. Although there have been some violations of the truce, it has largely been observed and the amount of fighting has dropped significantly compared with previous weeks.
For a deeper understanding of the U.S.-Russia attempt to stop the fighting in Syria and the role of regional powers in the conflict, Russia Direct sat down with Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005) and professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University, during the Valdai Club's conference last week.
Russia Direct: How do you see the Russian and the U.S. role in the Middle East in terms of resolving the Syria conflict?
Daniel Kurtzer: In recent months, and I would date it since September of 2015, the two countries reestablished a good dialogue on Syria and have cut through some of the problems that prevented them from eagerly talking to each other before that.
And that’s shown in the Vienna process and in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and now in the ceasefire agreement. So, the progression of cooperation in the last two months has been terrific.
RD: You said that the dialogue between Russia and the U.S. was reestablished in September 2015, exactly when Russia launched its air campaign in Syria and deployed its air forces. Hence it increased Moscow’s stakes in the conflict, putting it on the same level as the U.S., which contributed to a meaningful dialogue.
D.K.: I would not use the vocabulary of putting one side on the same level as the other. Russia and the U.S. have different interests in Syria but there are also some overlapping interests. We have not agreed on the areas of difference: Russia insists that it is nobody’s decision except Syria’s whether its President Bashar Assad stays while the U.S. believes that Assad is a part of the problem.
On the other hand, there is certainly an agreement on the Geneva process, how the transition should take place and on what the international community can do in those areas where we have agreement.
There is also a little bit of military coordination with respect to where Russia is operating and where the U.S. is operating. So, I think you have to keep both areas of agreement and disagreement in mind and hopefully narrow the disagreement over time.
RD: One of the reasons why the parties of the Syria conflict cannot find a solution is because they all have different priorities. Do you see any possibility how the parties can compromise?
D.K.: Well, if I did see it, I think I really would have shared it and we would have had a solution. The answer is that I do not know if there is any magic formula.
If you even leave Russia and the U.S. out of the equation, the differences of view involving Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are much deeper than between the two big powers. It is hard to see how you begin to narrow those differences in the region itself.
RD: Then do you think the U.S. has enough power or enough leverage over Turkey and Saudi Arabia to drive them closer to its own position? And the same about Russia, does Moscow has enough influence on Iran and Syrian regime to affect their approach?
D.K.: I think both the U.S. and Russia have limits to the degree to which they can influence their allies. Saudi Arabia and Turkey would consider that existential national interests are involved, and so they will talk to the U.S. about them from that perspective. Then they will engage in a serious dialogue that they are not going to simply be persuaded to change their interests because the United States wants them to.
And I think the same applies to Russia and Syria. You saw recently Assad said no to the ceasefire because he wants to take over the whole country. And Russia was very quick to say hold on. So, there are limits of what a big power can influence with respect to its allies.
RD: But what about the recent rift between the U.S. and Turkey over the Syrian Kurds? Do you see it as an indication of a weakening alliance between the two states? For the first time actually Turkey issued an ultimatum to the U.S. asking it to choose between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.
D.K.: Look, it is not the first time we’ve had a crisis with Turkey. Remember in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Turkey closed its borders. So far the NATO alliance has been strong enough to withstand very significant differences. This is a case where the U.S. feels very strongly that Turkey should not proactively go after the Kurds.
But I think the U.S. is sensitive to also not having the Kurds think that this is an opportunity to unite with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) inside Turkey and resume its insurgency. So it is a little bit of nuance here that needs to be understood. We would not want to see Turkey becoming a catalyst for the crisis, but we also do not want the Kurds to become a catalyst. It is a very delicate issue here.
RD: You mentioned 2003 Iraq, but the main difference between then and now is that currently Russia is involved. Turkey is playing a dangerous game against the Kurds in Syria. If Ankara decides to be more actively engaged in anti-Kurdish actions in Syria, it almost certainly will lead to the escalation and possible incidents and clashes with Russia. How do you see this development?
D.K.: You have to think in terms of scenarios, because if the Turks wake up one morning and decide to go after the Kurds in Syria – that’s one thing. But if the Kurds in Syria overplay their hand and provoke a Turkish reaction, then it is different.
RD: But how could they provoke if they are on the sovereign territory of Syria and just defending themselves?
D.K.: We saw a case where a Russian airplane violated Turkey’s airspace for 17 seconds and was shot down. The Turks should not have reacted the way they did. Instead they should have escorted it back to Syrian airspace. But the fact is, there was a violation of the airspace.
What if there is a violation of the Turkish border by Syrian Kurds, whether purposely or without a purpose? Will Turkey use it as an excuse and argue that they will not tolerate the violation of their territorial integrity. So, the scenarios are becoming very complicated when it’s not clear-cut.
If Turkey decides to “invade” Syria and go after the Kurds, you have one scenario. But what happens if there is a provocation that the Turks believe gives them a justification? I am not arguing that makes it right, but it is just to suggest it is not so simple.
RD: How in your opinion will NATO react in that case and what is NATO’s overall position on Turkey’s current approach?
D.K.: Well, I do not think Turkey will go to NATO and I do not think NATO will react. This is a Turkish problem. NATO is not obligated to act in every situation in which one of its members is involved in military action. It is obligated to take up a situation when that member state is threatened and comes to invoke the NATO charter. I don’t think Turkey would invoke the NATO charter.
RD: But the first think Turkey did after the downing the Russian plane was it called an emergency NATO meeting.
D.K.: Right. But I think they were trying to contain damage. That’s all.
RD: What do you see as the main obstacle for the current Syria ceasefire?
D.K.: It’s the 10,000 pound elephant in the room and that is that Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) are not part of the ceasefire. So, both Russia and the U.S. will continue to operate against these two elements. But are we both sophisticated enough to be able to attack only Jabhat al-Nusra and only ISIS? Or does it end up as an escalatory situation? So, that’s the biggest problem.
RD: Now both Russia and the U.S. have set up direct communication between their military and jointly decide who are ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra militants and what are the areas they want to target. Do you see it a productive move?
D.K.: I wish them both good luck in doing that. It is not so simple. We know that a lot of the opposition operates in the areas where Jabhat al-Nusra is active and it is not that they coordinate, but there are some linkages. So, when you are attacking Jabhat al-Nusra and it is linked up with other opposition groups, how sophisticated can you be in defining exactly where your target is? It is very complicated on the ground.