Developments of the Russian Position in the Syrian Crisis: A New Approach or Redevelopment of Old Policies?

EPC | 22 Sep 2020

The visit of the Russian delegation to Damascus on 7 September 2020, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, and the meetings it held with regime officials, are of particular importance given the current pace of regional and international interactions on the Syrian issue. In addition, this visit is expected to constitute a turning point in the Russian policy towards the Syrian crisis, and to give indications of the directions of Russia’s policy towards the region, and the form of its relations with the international actors therein. This paper attempts to explore the nature of the changes in the Russian policy against the background of this visit, and the new elements in this policy.

Towards a new stage

The timing of the visit and the composition of the Russian delegation that visited Damascus indicate that Moscow wants to launch a new phase in dealing with the Syrian issue, by paving the way for a strategy that deals with the Syrian scene in a realistic and modern manner, given that the disruption of the political process has an obvious impact on Russia’s plans to invest its military victory and turn it into diplomatic and economic returns.

Nature and limits of the Russian change

  • The statements of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed the nature and limits of the change in the Russian position which continues to be linked to the Russian vision for a solution in Syria and Russia’s interests in this country. Despite the statement by some Russian sources that the delegation has delivered a specific message to the Assad regime that if the regime does not implement reforms, it would remain without funding and would remain present in only a part of Syria,[1] leaks close to sources in Russia revealed the limits of the Russian change through the programme presented by the delegation to the Syrian leadership, which includes:
  • Carrying out a constitutional amendment, followed by a referendum thereon, which can roughly be accomplished by March 2021.
  • Holding parliamentary elections in May 2021.
  • Holding presidential elections in July 2021.
    • Superficially these procedures are in conformity with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254.[2] It is clear that the reform intended by Russia is different from the one internationally required from the regime. This is evidenced by the following:
  • Russia’s agreement with the Syrian regime on refraining from setting a time limit for the work of the Constitutional Committee. This is consistent with the regime’s plan that was implemented by the delegation representing it in the meetings of the Constitutional Committee. The delegation refused to delve into the essence of the Constitution due to an implicit decision to postpone any constitutional reform until after the presidential elections in mid-2021, so that they would be held according to the 2012 Constitution which gives broad powers to the President of the Republic, paves the way for a third term for President Assad, and sets the criteria for running for the presidential elections.
  • Russia supports holding the presidential elections as scheduled in 2021, even if no progress is made in the work of the Constitutional Committee.
  • Reiteration of Russia’s disagreement with the formation of an interim transitional governing body according to the requirements of UNSC Resolution 2254, which was eventually considered by Lavrov as a substitute for the Constitutional Committee, and based on the absence of the need for it, because this type of council is formed in emergency situations, while the situation in Syria is almost stable, where an armistice and a ceasefire prevail in all regions.[3]

Russia’s preferences and bets

These facts are consistent with Russia’s trends that are based on the absence of an alternative to President Assad. Russia is aware of the difficulty of finding an alternative to Assad from the Alawite community, as this would raise problems that affect Russia’s influence and interests, most of which are concentrated in the coast.

Russia also does not want to give real power and influence to the Syrian opposition, which it considers pro-Western and would undermine Russia’s interests in Syria.

What Russia wants is for the regime to give up absolute hard line towards the various topics and to create a kind of flexibility that would influence the international situation, by achieving some achievements at the level of the Constitutional Committee (a constitutional amendment), and then gradually resolving the other issues, such as the parliamentary and presidential elections.[4] As for what Russia is betting on to impose this agenda on the actors in a way that leads them to accept this formula and lift the sanctions or break the blockade on the Assad regime, this can be explained as follows:

  • The first bet is on the victory of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the US elections and the possibility of his withdrawal from the Middle East, as he thinks that staying there would not bring any benefit to the US, according to an article in Foreign Affairs magazine.[5]
  • Russia’s assessment of its capability to split the international ranks with regard to the sanctions against and the blockade on Syria, at least on the part of countries punished by the US or that have no interest. A media source close to the decision-making circles confirmed Russia’s contribution to the formation of an international coalition in the coming days to provide large unconditional aid to Syria, affirming that this initiative is actually accepted by a number of countries.[6]
  • The bet on penetrating the opposition components in order to make them accept the introduction of constitutional amendments that would allow Assad to remain in power. This is evident, for example, in Russia’s attempts to include the Kurdish component, represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its political arm (the Syrian Democratic Council, MSD), in the Constitutional Committee, and sponsoring the agreement reached between MSD and the Moscow Platform headed by Qadri Jamil.

Priorities of the stage ahead

The statements made by the Russian officials on the sidelines of the visit revealed the existence of four priorities at this stage. These seem to have formed the core of the message that Russia wanted to convey to the Syrian regime during this visit.

First: emphasising that the war is over. There is no "military solution" for the parts that are still outside the Syrian government’s control, especially east of the Euphrates and the areas controlled by Turkey. Resolving this issue must be part of the final settlement, and this stage is the stage of political action.

Second: respecting the Russian arrangements with Turkey and the US. This was clearly evident through the indication by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that the agreements between Russia and Turkey have contributed to improving the situation and returning important parts of the territories to the control of the Syrian government, affirming the continued commitment by the Russian and Turkish sides to those agreements. As for the US, despite the Russian media campaign against the US presence in the east of the Euphrates, the signal came clear from Borisov that there was no intention to act against the US presence, through his remarks on "depriving Syria of the greater part of its wealth", which is interpreted as a Russian recognition of an economic reality that is hard to change at the present time. Russia is likely awaiting the end of the US elections to agree on new mechanisms and understandings to manage relations between the two sides in Syria.

Third: the need for the regime to improve its relations with the Kurds. This comes within the context of Russia’s endeavour to involve the Kurds in the political process within the framework of a Russian plan aimed at pulling the rug from under the feet of the US influence in eastern Syria, through specific mechanisms based on penetrating the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and deepening the division between a pro-US trend and another trend loyal to Russia and the Syrian regime.[7]

Fourth: Reconstruction. This comes through Lavrov’s assertion that the situation in Syria is gradually heading towards calm, which means that the top priority in light of the calm is reconstruction and the mobilisation of international aid.

The Russians seem to have come up with a two-pronged plan:

  • Part one: launching an international initiative to finance the reconstruction in Syria, although Russia had previously made a similar attempt at the end of 2018, but its initiative failed. Perhaps Russia is this time reassured that its initiative may be successful.
  • Part two: providing urgent economic assistance to the Syrian regime and saving it from the crisis it is going through by pumping an amount of money into the Syrian market within the framework of operating Russian investments in many economic sectors.

Variations between the two sides

It was clear that the Syrian regime did not accept some Russian requests on military and political issues. Through its Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, Syria insisted on not recognizing the Russian-Turkish arrangements. Muallem emphasised that the Turkish presence is an occupation of Syrian territories. This prompted Lavrov to recall that the agreement with Turkey and work within the framework of the Astana Process contributed to restoring part of the territories to the regime’s control.[8]

Interestingly, the regime forces delivered strikes on a site under opposition control in the period that followed the Russian delegation’s visit. Russian planes took part with raids on those areas, especially the northern countryside of Latakia. Russia also deployed the Germis missile system that is capable of destroying tanks at a distance of a hundred kilometres, according to the US National Interest magazine,[9] which poses a serious threat to Turkish armour in northern Syria. This means that Russia wanted to reassure the Syrian regime on the one hand, and deter Turkey from any attempt to change the field conditions in northern Syria on the other.

There is another difference that emerged in the position on the Kurds. This was expressed  by the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem who reiterated rejection of everything that contradicts the Constitution. This means that the Russian delegation reintroduced the idea of ​​federalism, or the acceptance by the regime to grant the Kurds a special status in terms of running their regions.

Despite the Russian delegation’s attempts to pressure the regime in this respect, based on Moscow’s plan to win over the Kurds, no breakthrough has apparently been achieved in the regime’s position, which stems from the conviction that granting the Kurds the right to autonomy in their regions would be followed by a demand by many regions, especially southern Syria, namely As-Suwayda and Daraa, to obtain this right, which would mean weakening the grip of the regime’s rule in Syria.

Centrality of the economic dimension

The economic dimension was a mainstay in the course of the Russian delegation’s visit, on the grounds that the reason for the visit was the meetings of the twelfth session of the Russian-Syrian Supreme Committee. It was noted that most of the agreements focused on reviving the infrastructure of the electric power industry, given that this is the main driver of economic recovery. Russia plans to rebuild nearly 40 infrastructure facilities in Syria, including repairing hydroelectric power plants built by Soviet specialists. Some sources indicate that the Syrian regime submitted two urgent requests to the Russian delegation:

  • Supplying energy to Syria as it is witnessing a large deficit in this field ahead of a winter that is expected to be harsh, in light of the suspension of Iranian supplies due to the suspension of the credit line with Syria.
  • Opening credit lines with Moscow to compensate for Iranian financing that has long helped the regime conduct its internal affairs.[10]

Domination of the economy

The Russian side is aware of the Syrian regime’s need for funds at this stage, and that funds constitute the main key to controlling Syrian assets and placing them under Russia’s control. In this context, information indicates that the Russian side has provided the regime with financial and economic incentives, including loans and grants to alleviate the economic crisis and improve the exchange rate of the Syrian pound (lira).[11]

In return, of course, the control of Russian companies would be consolidated over the joints of the Syrian economy. Reports tracing the Russian activity in the last two years reveal that Russian companies have controlled a large portion of ​​the Syrian economy, so that the proceeds of the upcoming reconstruction would be in their favour, regardless of the investing party.[12]

In addition to electric power, ports, oil and gas, and fertiliser plants, Russia aspires to gain control of the telecommunications, cement, construction steel and other profitable industries.

Complex negotiations

The reciprocal policies of Russia and the Assad regime at the economic level reveal the two sides’ pursuit of an open game of blackmail, whereby Russia pressures the Assad regime through the media and militarily, always reminding it of Russia’s pivotal role in saving it from fall, in order to force it to grant Russia more economic privileges in Syria. In return, the Syrian regime tries to keep some of the cards and not give the Russians everything they want at once. This is evidenced by Borisov’s disclosure that in July 2020, “Moscow proposed an agreement to expand economic relations which Damascus continues to study”. He expected the agreement to be concluded in December 2020 during his next visit to the Syrian capital.

Interestingly, President Bashar al-Assad publicly admitted the existence of a disagreement at the economic level by asserting, upon receiving the Russian delegation, that progress had been made in finding acceptable solutions on a number of issues.

Iran’s condition in Syria

No mention was made of Russia’s position on the Iranian presence, with the exception of what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in his answer to a journalist’s question that “the Iranian presence in Syria does not concern Russia. Rather it is a sovereign decision of the Syrian regime”. Since the press questions were prepared and studied in advance, according to the assurances of informed sources in Syria, Lavrov wanted to put the ball in the Syrian regime’s court.

Sources familiar with the course of the negotiations conducted by the Russian delegation in Damascus confirmed that the delegation requested the Syrian regime to carry out a geopolitical repositioning with regard to the relationship with Iran and reduce Syria’s role in the "Iranian crescent" to ensure the implementation of the Russian-US agreement that ensures Iran’s removal from southern Syria, and to pave the way for Arab and European countries to normalise relations and contribute to the reconstruction of Syria.[13]

However, leaks hinted at Lavrov’s request for the withdrawal of all of the Iranian axis from southern Syria, in implementation of the agreements previously concluded with the US and Israel, in which it was stipulated that Iran should retreat to a depth of 80 kilometres away from the border with Israel. The leaks also spoke of Russia’s unease at the presence of Afghan and Pakistani militias inside the Syrian territories, and of the need for those militias to leave.[14]

Media sources close to Iran confirmed, based on Russian sources, that Lavrov “asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to sacrifice the presence of Iranian advisers and their allies on Syrian territory in exchange for the restoration of the Syrian state’s authority over the Syrian east, based on an understanding with the Kurds under Russian auspices. At the same time, Moscow could ensure a gradual and quiet withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria".[15]

This comes at a time when the conflict is intensifying between Russia’s proxies in southern Syria (the Fifth Corps) and Iran’s proxies (the Fourth Division), over the acquisition of influence in the regions of Daraa and Quneitra, and Iran is re-arming the National Defence operatives in As-Suwayda to retaliate against the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Corps, led by Ahmed al-Awda, whose forces took control of parts of As-Suwayda territories close to the administrative borders of Daraa and killed a number of Druze fighters.

Conclusion

After the visit was announced, and before the arrival of the Russian delegation to Damascus, many quarters expected Russia to announce a new approach to dealing with the Syrian issue. Those quarters raised their expectations for the possible results of the visit, and many of the estimations were that the Russian delegation would impose difficult choices on the Syrian regime, especially with regard to the political process and the political transition, based on Russia’s realisation that its policy in Syria has reached a dead end. This is evidenced by the failure to convert military successes into marketable political contracts, which requires the search for a political solution to the crisis, given that the alternatives would be continued military and economic attrition of Russia.

However, the visit’s announced results contradicted those expectations, in light of Russia’s support for the Syrian regime in two critical issues, namely failure to set a time limit for the work of the Constitutional Committee, after Lavrov confirmed the impossibility of this matter, and then Russia’s support for the Syrian regime’s right to hold presidential elections on time, even if no progress has been made in the work of the Constitutional Committee. This undermines any possibility of bringing about a change in the Syrian situation that would drive external actors to change their positions.

Russia is apparently aware of the fragility of the balances it is seeking to manage in Syria, which requires great flexibility in its dealings with the various players, and the use of manoeuvres between those actors to achieve its goals. Russia cannot get along with the Americans in bringing about a major change in the regime’s structure and behavior. This is because Russia is aware of the fragility of the regime that cannot tolerate changes of this kind, and because this matter also constitutes a dangerous adventure for Russia’s presence in Syria. In addition, Russia cannot remove Iran and Turkey from Syria, given the repercussions that such a move might have, in light of the penetration of those two powers into the Syrian social structures. At the same time, Russia cannot meet all the economic and military demands of the Assad regime because that is beyond its capacity. That is why the new Russian approach to the Syrian issue pursues a new pattern based on a combination of several elements, as follows:

  • Freezing the military phase and moving to a political process that does not necessarily comply with international requirements.
  • Fragmentation of the solution to the Syrian crisis by dismantling its nodes. While this may be an old strategy that has been tried by Russia since the agreements on the de-escalation zones, that strategy focused on the military aspects, and today it is being transferred to the political front.
  • Focusing on some details, specifically the Kurdish issue, and involving the "Autonomous Administration" in the settlement file to give Russia the capability to act politically at the international level which it has recently lost after the Astana track has practically ended and its meetings have become a mere formal protocol and an attempt to appease the Americans by making their ally part of the political game.
  • Ensuring Russia’s interests and establishing its share of the Syrian economy and placing Russia in a position where it becomes the primary beneficiary in the reconstruction process.
  • The most prominent element in the new Russian approach is the assertion that there is no alternative to the Assad regime, or to Bashar al-Assad personally, in the short and medium terms because Assad and his regime constitute the most important guarantee for Russia to achieve its interests in Syria.

Accordingly, Russia has drawn up its options and defined its preferences for the next stage, which would most likely be based on penetrating the international situation and betting on the fatigue of the other parties, although this strategy may require a long time to achieve its results.

References

[1] Raed Jabr, “Russia develops a ‘new strategy’ in dealing with the Syrian file”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 11 September 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rami al-Shaer, “The Syrian Constitution between al-Mouallem’s summarisation and Lavrov’s elaboration”, Russian Zavtra, translated by raialyoum, 11 September 2020.

[4] Rola Youssef, “The surprise of the Russian delegation to Damascus: “Lifting the blockade on Syria”, independentarabia, 8 September 2020.

[5] “The Middle East in the Biden era: not a priority .. because of no importance”, almodon website, 10 September 2020.

[6] “The Syrian Constitution between al-Mouallem’s summarisation and Lavrov’s elaboration”, op. cit.

[7] Yaman Ne’mah, “These are the economic goals of the Russian delegation’s visit to Damascus”, arabi21, 8 September 2020.

[8] Ameen al-Assi, “Lavrov in Damascus after an eight-year absence”, alaraby, 6 September 2020.

[9] “A US magazine: Russian ‘Germis’ missiles in Syria carry a clear message”, Russia Today website, 11 September 2020.

[10] Falih al-Hamrani, “Moscow and renewed options in the Syrian file”, alquds alarabi, 12 September 2020.

[11] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Four Russian advice to ‘the difficult Syrian ally’", Asharq Al-Awsat, 7 September 2020.

[12] Tariq Subeh, “Syria is losing its economic resources to Russian companies”, Syria TV, 11 September 2020.

[13] “Four Russian advice”, op. cit.

[14] Taim al-Haj, “The visit to Damascus .. Russia puts the Assad regime’s home in order for supporting its strategy in Syria”, Syria TV, 9 September 2020.

[15] “Did Lavrov ask Assad for the withdrawal of the Iranians?”, 180post, 12 September 2020.

 

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