On September 8, 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Damascus for the first time since 2012, accompanied by a high-level delegation. His visit reconfirmed Moscow’s desire to consolidate its gains and its military superiority in Syria and overcome the current deadlock in the quest for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, at a time when the Assad regime is facing increasing economic restrictions in light of Washington’s recent announcement that it would be increasing the sanctions imposed against the regime under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (known as the Caesar Act).

Implications and aims of timing of visit

The timing of Lavrov’s visit is a reflection of the priority that Russia accords to various matters discussed with Syria during the latest round of negotiations between Russian and Turkish delegations in Moscow. The delegations are assumed to have primarily discussed various aspects of the situation in northwest Syria, in which Russia is heavily involved, especially given its recent attempts to establish effective control over international trade routes and the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which Russia – wielding its power on the UN Security Council – has designated as the only border crossing through which humanitarian aid can enter Syria.

At the Russia–Turkey meeting, held on September 1, the delegations also discussed the Syrian political scene, especially following the end of the third session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva in late August. Russia has been keen to see progress in this area and is working with the USA – which confirmed its support for the negotiations process during the most recent round – to achieve progress in this regard. Before arriving in Damascus, Lavrov voiced his country’s satisfaction with how the negotiations were going, describing the most recent session as “largely” positive and fruitful. During his visit, Lavrov is thought to have encouraged the Assad regime to engage seriously with the constitutional deliberations and to meet the USA’s demands regarding Syria’s commitment to the political track provided for in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).

The visit was also an attempt by Moscow to discourage Washington from postponing the fourth package of sanctions under the Caesar Act. Russia is keen not to stray from the middle ground, however; despite announcing that it would be signing investment agreements with Syria in order to combat the impact of such sanctions, the latest round of which was introduced in late August, Moscow is unwilling to abandon its understanding with Washington in the face of sanctions pressure and the obstacles to Syria’s reconstruction efforts. Moscow may therefore have sought to exert its political pressure during the visit to dissuade Damascus from linking its fate to that of Tehran and to encourage it make a serious return to a political solution and put an end to the military escalation; in doing so, Moscow could appease Washington and coax it into reconsidering its sanctions policy.

Notably, Lavrov’s visit took place a mere few days after a visit by a delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – which represents the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria – to Moscow, during which the delegation and the Russian government discussed political and economic matters related to Kurdish participation in the current Syrian diplomatic process. They also discussed granting Moscow a share of oil investments in areas under the Administration’s control in exchange for Moscow facilitating the Administration’s inclusion in the negotiations and the Constitutional Committee and supporting its rapprochement with Ankara, in parallel with the Administration’s ever-growing relationship with Damascus. This desire for rapprochement will require urgent consultations to be held between the parties concerned, especially Damascus.

Reconstruction and a political solution 

In statements during the visit, the Russian delegation referred to the economic aspects of the visit and the efforts being made to mitigate the harsh economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, sending Washington the message that Moscow was keen to put an end to the military operations. President Putin drafted Russia’s most recent military plans for Syria in Damascus at the beginning of the year, as a result of which the nature of the Russian presence in northern Syria has changed, with the establishment of control over the M4 and M5 international trade routes in the northwest and the renewed military presence in the northeast.

Moscow is aware that, whatever the result of the US presidential elections in November, the USA will continue to impose sanctions on Damascus under the Caesar Act; US–European funding for any reconstruction agreements signed between Damascus and Moscow will therefore remain inaccessible until agreement is reached on how to address the main obstacle to a political solution in Syria, namely the Iranian presence. In a clear signal to Washington, Moscow responded positively to statements by the US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey in May, in which he stated that the USA had no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria, but rather was much more concerned with achieving the withdrawal of Iran and the forces under its control from the region.

Russia appears to have left the door open to cooperation with the West, with Lavrov asserting that Iran is active in Syria only at the request of the Assad regime and that Russia had no desire to support Iranian involvement in the country. On the contrary, Russia believes that economic rapprochement with the Syrian regime and support for reconstruction – estimated to cost $400 billion – especially by the international powers that are imposing sanctions on Damascus (namely the USA and the EU), will help pull the regime away from Iran and dismantle some of the obstacles to a political solution.

Conclusion

The visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Damascus was conducted against a background of numerous internal and external variables, which, in the near future, are likely to lead to a gradual end to military action and the current political deadlock, provided that the Constitutional Committee is able to fulfil its mandate and that preparations continue for the upcoming Syrian presidential elections, which Russia does not want to see postponed. This is part of Russian efforts to achieve greater agreement with both Washington and Ankara in exchange for reshaping the Syrian regime’s relationship with Iran and reducing its role within the Iranian axis, which may pave the way for other Arab States to normalize their relations with Damascus and subsequently contribute to the reconstruction process.

Russia has clearly demonstrated its determination to improve the economic situation in Syria and to make progress in the reconstruction process. The collapse of the Syrian economy would have a major impact on Russia’s current and future interests. Furthermore, it is in Russia’s interest to restore Damascus’s authority over the oil and gas fields in eastern Syria, as well as over its offshore oil investments and other resources and sources of wealth.

If efforts to stabilize the ceasefire succeed, northeastern Syria will see a new wave of de-escalation; this may be difficult to achieve, however, without first containing the Kurds and blocking potential Turkish military operations in the area. Greater decentralization as provided for in the 2017 draft constitution will also have to be implemented, which Russia is in favor of, and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces will need to be integrated into the regular army. If stability can be achieved in northwestern Syria, it will also strengthen the Moscow Agreement signed between Russia and Turkey in March.

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