I’m in Moscow this week, and seeing that my hotel had some free copies of the newspaper Kommersant lying around, I picked one up to see what was in the news. The number one story was yesterday’s meeting in Sochi between the Russian and Turkish presidents. Conveniently, Kommersant included the full text of the agreement. This included the following points:
• ‘Both sides confirm their commitment to preserving Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity.’
• ‘They underline their determination to fight terrorism in all its forms.’
• ‘Starting at 1200 hrs on 23 October 2019, units of the Russian military police and the Syria border service will be deployed to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border beyond the limits of Operation Peace Spring. They will assist the extraction of units and weapons of the YPG (i.e. Kurdish forces) to 30 km from the Syrian-Turkish border , which must be completed within 150 hours from 1200 hrs, 23 October 2019. From that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will commence up to a depth of 10 km from the border.’
The Russian government will no doubt portray this as proof of the advantages of ‘jaw-jaw over war-war.’ Through diplomacy, they have ensured that the Turkish military offensive will come to an end, and that there will be no humanitarian disaster of the type which so many in the Western press had argued would be the likely result of Turkey’s actions. They have also gotten the Turks to confirm Syria’s ‘political unity and territorial integrity, and found a way of bringing the Syrian-Turkish border back under Syrian control. These can all be seen as significant achievements.
But they come at a price. The Russian military mission in Syria at first had clear goals: destroy terrorist groups and prevent the collapse of the existing regime. These goals have the advantage that one can easily determine when they’re achieved. But now Russia has taken on a new and completely open-ended commitment – guarding the Syrian border. How will we know when its purpose is achieved? We won’t.
There’s a phrase for this sort of thing – mission creep. It’s not very desirable. In the past I’ve suggested that the Russians might have a better understanding than their American rivals of the first principle of war – selection and maintenance of the aim. Perhaps I was wrong. Russia, it seems, is just as prone to mission creep as anyone else. It looks like the Russians might well be stuck in Syria for a very long time to come.