It is very contradictory what political signals Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his diplomats are currently broadcasting. Because since the US withdraw their forces from Syria and the Turkish military in the northeast of the country advances, suddenly changed much in the tricky Syria conflict. From a Russian perspective, there is now a chance to make the most of the chaotic situation in northern Syria. And so Putin is currently brushing back and forth between his partners Syria and Turkey, who are now facing each other since the Kurdish militia YPG has allied itself with the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
In order not to baffle either country and to secure its influence in Syria, Russia expresses itself very differently. Putin, for example, expresses concern that fighters of the so-called "Islamic State" may be released in northern Syria and publicly voices doubts that Turkey is in control of the situation. Shortly before a state visit to Saudi Arabia, the Russian President even said that all foreign forces would have to leave Syria, which would be there without government approval.
At the same time, however, Russia blocked a UN resolution condemning the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed understanding for Turkish security interests. Then again, the Russian military warns of a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of the Turkish invasion, while Russian state media call the Turkish military operation a threat to the Syrian peace.
Erdoğan - an important and difficult partner
At first, in the past few days, it had looked like Russia and its Syrian-based forces would not be pleased about the Turkish invasion. Because Putin's plan for Syria provides that as far as possible all renegade areas under the rule of Assad and the central government in Damascus return. The more land Turkey controls in Syria, the farther away is this destination. And while Turkey is an important partner of Russia, President Erdogan has proved to be a difficult friend in Syria.
Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly criticized the fact that the Turkish government is not doing enough against Islamists in its controlled Idlib region in northwestern Syria. Putin recently backed Assad in August when the Syrian Air Force attacked a Turkish convoy. There was also a dispute over the occupied Afrin of Turkey, because Turkey had recently stressed several times that they do not want to hand over the city to the Assad regime.
Although many Russian foreign policy experts are aware of the risks in Syria, they are above all stressing the opportunities for Russia in northern Syria. It was no coincidence that Russian military officials had provided their base in Hmeimim for negotiations between the Assad regime and the Kurdish militias. Russia had long urged the Kurds to reach a deal with the Syrian central government. The fact that this has now come out of Kurdish need out, Moscow's strategists should be happy. The Syrian army, which has now moved to the north of the country in order to join the Kurdish militia YPG, will not be able to oppose the Turkish supremacy. Their main goal should therefore be to occupy as quickly as possible the areas that are renegotiated by Assad, which in turn is in the interests of Russia.
The Russian forces, most notably the Air Force, are likely to endure fighting in northern Syria. Putin's spokesman said that they did not want to think about a direct confrontation between Turkey and Assad's army. For Russia, Turkey is above all an important international partner - in economic and political terms. For example, Russia has recently delivered modern air defense systems to Turkey in a demonstrative manner and to the annoyance of its NATO allies. And Russia's energy companies are currently building gas pipes over Turkish territory in Europe.
Putin will have to make concessions
The Turkish military has far more clout in northern Syria than the Syrian government army, even if supported by the Russian Air Force. This was shown by the shooting down of a Russian military machine by Turkey in 2015, for which Erdoğan later apologized. At that time, however, Russia was left with only economic sanctions against Turkey. And in Idlib Putin and Assad had to stop their planned ground offensive at the request of Erdoğan - they fly since air raids. This balance of power is the reason why Russian diplomacy is currently no longer practiced.
Russia relies on the fact that the highly contradictory alliance with actually hostile parties, each of which, however, understand themselves as Russia's partner, does not collapse. At the moment, this effort seems to be successful. According to media reports, Russian units have taken patrols following the withdrawal of the US military from Manbij. The Washington Post newspaper writes that the Russian leadership is trying to fill the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of US troops.
Sooner or later, Moscow will have to accept Erdoğan's interests in the region, Putin's advisors know. Moscow should not be under any illusions that Turkey will easily evacuate once occupied Syrian territory. Russia has kept it that way in the past. And besides, Turkey in northern Syria can not force anyone at present.