Moscow continues to demonstrate a credible investment in the Syrian conflict by reinforcing its position in the country. Over the weekend, satellite imagery revealed new Russian aerial components arriving at Bassel al Assad air base near the Syrian city of Latakia. Footage from the Syrian front lines also revealed a significant number of Russian troops being directly embedded in units loyal to Damascus. This broadening Russian presence suggests that Moscow could be readying itself to provide close air support for Syrian units locked in open conflict against numerous rebel groups as well as the Islamic State.
Russia knows that any fully negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria is likely to fail. But this doesn't mean that Syria is not useful for Moscow. Right now, Russia is attempting to validate itself as a player on the global stage, by using its position in Syria as leverage in talks with other power brokers this week and beyond.
First on Moscow's list is Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Monday for a three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their joint press conference was tense; Netanyahu argued that Syria and Iran were attempting to open a second front against Israel in the Golan Heights by arming Hezbollah, an argument that Israel has been pushing to justify its ability to strike targets in Syria with impunity. Putin's position was to suggest that the arms were not from Syria, which cannot spare the weaponry. In other words, Hezbollah's weapons could not be from Russian supplies sent explicitly for use by Syrian government forces.
Israel and Russia have a complex and fluid relationship. Each continually meddles in the other's back yard. Israel has a deep military and security relationship with many former Soviet states, and Russia has long politically and militarily backed Syria and Iran. However, the two countries have been known to exchange favors when needed. Three days before Russia launched its war in Georgia in 2008, Israel officially froze all military sales to Georgia. The week after the five-day war concluded, Syrian President Bashar al Assad traveled to Moscow and failed to secure a highly anticipated arms deal with Russia.
What is notable about Netanyahu's current trip to Russia is that he is accompanied by two top Israeli generals: Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi. Eisenkot holds the portfolio for military coordination for Israel Defense Forces, while Halevi oversees intelligence on issues such as Syrian weapons leaking to Hezbollah. The generals' presence is a rarity for state visits and signals that Israel might be looking for a deal on military coordination in Syria as well as Russian intelligence (or interference) on the weapons going to Hezbollah.
Moscow would likely want Israel to trade something in return for any concessions. Israeli defense contractors have been crawling all over Ukraine, training Ukrainian forces and privately establishing volunteer units to fight Russian-backed separatists in the east. Another point of contention is Israel's freeze on drone and other military sales to Russia because of the Ukraine crisis. As in 2008, Russia may be interested in leveraging a deal with Israel.
Russia's strengthening position in Syria has complicated the plans of another regional power: Turkey. Unlike its other coalition partners, Turkey is interested in more than an anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria. Turkey hopes to ultimately cultivate a Sunni-led Syria, or at least a strong Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria. Ankara is a major supporter of the rebels, while Russia supports the Syrian government forces. And Russia's expanded aerial presence seriously complicates Turkey's plans for a no-fly zone in Syria.
This sets the stage for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to travel to Moscow on Wednesday to meet with Putin. Tensions are high between Ankara and Moscow, and not just over Syria. In recent months, Russia has warmed up to Azerbaijan, Turkey's traditional ally in the Caucasus. Rumors are swirling that Baku and Moscow are collaborating on a way to shake up the status quo in the long-frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara has been Baku's military guarantor should the conflict resume, but now Moscow is trying to position itself to be the sole outside power guaranteeing security on the ground. In addition, energy negotiations between Russia and Turkey for the TurkStream project have stalled, mainly because the two sides cannot agree on the mechanisms and timing of discounts for natural gas. Putin could connect Syria with either of these issues when negotiating with Erdogan.
Finally, Russia has timed its expanded involvement in Syria to gain leverage against what it considers its chief rival: the United States. Relations between the United States and Russia are at one of their lowest ebbs since the end of the Cold War. Discussions between Washington and Moscow over issues such as Ukraine and sanctions are intermittent and occur at a mid-to-low level, save communications between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart John Kerry. One of Russia's primary objectives is to position itself in Syria so that the United States has to resume regular talks with Russia.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a 50-minute conversation and decided to resume defense talks, including discussions about Syria. It was their first exchange in more than a year. Also over the weekend, Kerry gave a nod to the Russian-led negotiations in Syria by saying the United States wasn't too particular as to when al Assad leaves power, as long as there is a planned transition.
These developments are positive for the U.S.-Russian relationship, but Moscow needs more. Russia is interested in laying the groundwork for a deal over the future of Ukraine, as well as creating an atmosphere in which the West will remove sanctions. Russia knows this cannot happen immediately, but Moscow is interested in each side moving toward those goals over the next year or two.
In recent weeks, the Kremlin has not hidden its desire for Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama to finally sit down to discuss all of these issues. The two leaders had a brief conversation in China last year, but neither has paid the other a visit since Putin regained the Russian presidency. Russia sees an opportunity this Friday, when Putin will be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
But the United States has given no indication that it is interested in striking deals with Russia. Moreover, Washington has indicated it could extend financial support to Ukraine and is pressuring the Europeans to maintain sanctions on Russia through the coming year. Moscow has been able to inch Washington closer to talks by using its leverage in Syria, but that doesn't mean the United States is ready to deal with Russia on issues that matter much more to Moscow.