A decade ago, civilian protests broke out across Syria. The regime has met the demands of civilians with excessive violence, which led to militarizing these protests and made Syria an arena for proxy wars and battles waged by many countries. Russia has emerged as one of the more significant, and even the most significant actors, in the Syrian arena, especially at the military and political levels.
Several analysts wrote about the Russian military role in Syria. But none of them paid sufficient attention to the Russian role in ending the conflict and shaping the future of Syria.
A host of reports on political projects and proposals have resurfaced, which the Syrian opposition groups introduced to the Russian side.
Some rumors also surfaced about new proposals introduced to Russia to end the conflict in Syria, which stirred up controversy on the Syrian street.
With the aim of clarifying the Russian role in Syria, the Syrian Initiative, at the American University Washington College of Law, hosted a symposium on the Western-Russian relations regarding the Syrian file.
Dr. Andrey Kortunov, Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), and Yost Hiltermann, Director of Middle East Programs at the International Crisis Group, participated in this symposium. The dialogue in the seminar provided a somewhat precise analysis of the Russian position.
Kortunov pointed out that the Russian intervention in Syria was a well-considered adventure to achieve several objectives, foremost of which is restoring Russia’s role as a main actor in the international arena and asserting its recovery from the economic and political crises that gripped it in the past.
The intervention also sought to reiterate Russia’s refusal to change regimes via the power of street protests and nongovernment organizations as they are a continuation of the Western project hostile to the Russian clout.
This is in addition to reiterating the assertion that elections are the only acceptable mechanisms for the rotation of power. Russia also has a desire to restore its prestige in the face of the Western camp regarding what is considered the deception of passing the resolution to change the Libyan regime at the UN Security Council and competing with the US in the Middle East. Especially in light of the frustration suffered by Washington’s allies after the US administration distanced itself from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Then came the signing of the nuke deal with Iran at the expense of the interest of Arab countries who had always considered themselves powerful allies of the US in the region. Hence, Russia introduced itself as a faithful partner to its allies unlike the US, which abandoned allies according to the shifts in its interests.
The Russian speaker expressed a host of military objectives, including piloting and marketing sophisticated Russian military hardware and technology and harnessing the Russian private security firms to be the country’s unofficial arm for intervention in other regions. Russia intends to solidify its policy and clout in considering its new Russian model, which it claims is worth monitoring, especially after the successes it made in Libya.
Russia has moved ahead with its intervention in a way that ensures achieving these objectives, taking into account the lessons learned from its intervention in Afghanistan and its disastrous consequences.
For example, the annual cost of the Russian intervention in Syria did not exceed 2 billion dollars, which is a small budget compared to its overall defense budget. Its fatalities throughout six years did not surpass 300 deaths, according to official tallies.
The impact of this figure remains limited on the Russian street compared to the constant ambition of Russia restoring its stature as a main international actor.
Russia also succeeded in introducing itself as a mediator between regional and international foes on the Syrian cause, including Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Gulf states, Egypt, Iraq, and the European Union. Its intervention in Syria helped it play a role in Libya and Sudan.
The lack of solutions: From the military to the political phase
After achieving the desired military triumph, Russia is now experiencing uncertainty since it is hard to maintain equilibrium among all parties.
The Syrian regime has bigger confidence in itself as it believes that the Syrian army played the biggest role in achieving victory and has the ability to return and restore control over the whole of Syria without Russia. More accurately, the regime considered that Russia is waging the battle in Syria to achieve its interests and the regime gave it the legitimacy to achieve this. Hence, the regime engages in a foolish head-to-head competition with the Russians. This clearly appeared in the behavior of the Syrian regime in dealing with the Syrian constitutional committee file. The government-backed delegation exercised procrastination and delay, showing complete heedlessness to the Russian desire to achieve progress on this file.
After the end of the military phase, though temporarily, the Russians ushered in changing the approach of dealing with the Bashar al-Assad regime. This approach was mainly outlined by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The ministry is considered the number one ally of Assad who promotes his role before the Russian leadership. At the same time, Assad doesn’t enjoy the same appeal in the political corridors, and even before Putin himself. Maybe what explains the reason why Russia didn’t put the Syrian regime under bigger political pressures is the theory that suggests that putting Assad under bigger pressure will push him to totally rely on Iran and undermines the Russian role.
But following the economic deterioration in Iran, Putin embarked on reducing the role of the Ministry of Defense for the sake of political representation through naming political envoys to Syria. The move seeks to enhance Russia’s ability to impose its political vision.
The future of Syria
According to what was mentioned by Dr. Andrey at the symposium, it seems that Putin has decided to grant Assad an additional opportunity and perhaps it will be the last one, which is represented in holding the coming presidential election as scheduled.
It goes without saying that Assad will win this election, which will not obtain international political legitimacy and won’t involve any transparency, nor will it meet any of the international criteria on election integrity.
But at the same time, Assad will be required to enforce economic, social, and administrative reforms such as combating corruption and working on bringing home immigrants. The political and legal affairs will remain deadlocked. For example, there will be no progress on the file of the detainees since it’s unclear whether Assad has intentions to change the doctrine of the security apparatuses and redistribute the power centers within the security and military system showing stubbornness towards any change.
In order to push for this change, the Russians hope some UN and European assistance would arrive for renovating schools, hospitals, and power networks although they know the US opposes this proposal as it means moving from the crisis phase to the post-crisis phase.
The Western camp refuses this matter and deems it a coalescence to the fait accompli and recognition of the post-crisis phase. But the Russians hope there will be European-Russian cooperation to bring home refugees that would open financial doors.
The Russian spokesman responded to a hypothetical question about the Russian withdrawal from Syria by saying that Putin’s decision to withdraw from Syria and declare military and political victory depends on the existence of a friendly government in Damascus, which maintains the unity of the Syrian territory, prefers to be secular, and respects the economic and military agreements signed between the two countries.
Given the lack of the alternative deemed appropriate by the Russians to fulfill these requirements and the distrust between them and the Americans, it is difficult to see cooperation between them, which leads to a transition that ensures the Russians’ interest. Maybe Iran is the only guarantor for achieving this Russian aspiration, but this seems far-fetched. None of the countries involved in the Syrian file will agree to make Syria entirely controlled by Iran.
Dr. Kortunov reiterated that Putin does not pay attention to Assad nor does he respect him. In case the regime in Syria changes in an organized manner, without plunging into chaos and bringing a new personality with more credibility than Assad — accepted by the West and fulfills the Russian requirements — Russia won’t impede such change. While it is certain that Russia doesn’t favor moving ahead with this change, it seems that it won’t prevent realizing it, provided it is accepted by the West and Iran.
What Kortunov mentioned clarifies some aspects of the Russian view of Syria and the possible concessions which Russia could proceed with to end the crisis in Syria.
The Russian aim behind the presence in Syria is far bigger and deeper than the crisis itself. For Russia, the resolution mainly depends on its talks with the US and the Western recognition of it, and its constructive international role. This shall be unattainable in the short run. Russia’s communication with different entities, including the political opposition, the relief bodies, and the Syrian civil society aims solely to strengthen its position within the international community more than its desire or ability to resolve the crisis.