The recent Russian steps in the Syrian file have raised questions about their significance and objective, especially that they coincide with local, regional and international developments in the Syrian file. On 25 May 2020, the Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed the Russian ambassador to Syria Alexander Yefimov as a special presidential representative for developing Russian relations with Syria. On 28 May 2020, Putin also signed a decree in which he delegated the ministries of defence and foreign affairs to start negotiations with the Syrian government with a view to handing over additional facilities to the Russian military and expanding their maritime control in Syria, provided that the new arrangements would be complementary to the agreement signed in August 2015 allowing for a military presence in Syria.
This paper sheds light on those steps and explores their dimensions and impact in the Syrian context.
Significance and reasons of the new decisions
The two decisions taken by the Russian President seemed noteworthy in terms of both their form and content. In terms of form, the Russian Ministry of Defence will not initiate negotiations with Damascus to reach a new agreement; rather, it will submit a ready-to-sign protocol that would be attached to the previous agreement.[i] It is known that the original agreement on which Putin has based his new decision had been drafted under exceptional circumstances. As a result, it was not on an equal footing between two independent countries. With the changing circumstances, it was all too natural that the effects of that agreement would cease or that it would be modified rather than used as a basis for accessing facilities that the Russian decree did not specify what they are, their number or their size. In addition, it is not diplomatically acceptable for a country’s president to issue a decree for the initiation of negotiations with another country to expand influence zones therein. This is usually announced after an agreement has been reached between both parties.[ii]
With regard to the appointment of ambassador Yefimov as a special presidential representative for developing relations between both countries, developing Russian-Syrian relations does not necessitate the promotion of the ambassador to the rank of presidential representative as this is assumed to be part of the tasks of the ambassador anyway. Besides, Russia has two presidential envoys to Syria, namely Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and the President’s special envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, who had previously held dozens of meetings with representatives of the opposition and the regime in Moscow, Damascus and Arab and western capitals, and Alexander Lavrentiev, Putin’s special envoy to Syria and the head of the Russian delegation at the Astana negotiations who tours regional capitals in search of political solutions and to discuss the issues of the return of refugees and reconstruction that have been focused on by Russia since mid-2018.[iii]
In terms of content, the Russian official quarters did not explain the real intentions behind those new moves in the Syrian file. All that was mentioned, particularly with regard to ambassador Yefimov’s mission, does not exceed the ambiguous diplomatic stereotypes. However, an analysis of the event’s context reveals a new Russian approach to the Syrian situation that seeks to adapt to the new developments, considering that the approach adopted since the beginning of the Russian intervention in late 2015 had been based on war while the shift to the stage of political and economic reconstruction requires a new approach. Many reasons stand behind those changes, namely:
a- With respect to the decision to promote the Russian ambassador to presidential envoy
1- Practical reasons as it could help the Kremlin find the right balance between the diplomatic and military segments of the Russian team overseeing Syria. This is the opinion of the military expert Anton Mardasov who thinks that Yefimov’s new position could be considered as a counterweight to the military influence in Russian foreign policy. The new envoy can bring a more economic and diplomatic component to the task of managing the situation in Syria. From this perspective, the appointment of the special representative “has to do with the task of rebuilding Syria, a topic that has been steadily rising on the Kremlin’s agenda.”[iv]
2- Technical reasons: the new capacity acquired by ambassador Yefimov entitles him in critical times to get in touch directly with the administration of the Russian President without recourse to the Department of the Middle East and North Africa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[v] It also empowers him to directly engage with the Republican Palace in Syria without recourse to the relevant department in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This lends his task the characteristic of working at the strategic level in the relationship between the two capitals and of urgent and direct communication in case of emergency.[vi]
3- Personal reasons: Yefimov maintains direct contact with Putin. He is a well-known Russian economist with full knowledge of the situation in Syria. He is also capable of re-formulating and arranging the post-political solution economic relations, restructuring debts and signing economic agreements.[vii]
4- Fear of future implications: the Syrian situation is experiencing accelerated socio-economic developments. There are fears of severe implications as a result of the implementation of the US Caesar Act in mid-June 2020 with the associated negative implications for the economic sector and the Syrian and foreign (including Russian) companies dealing with Syria, in addition to the collapse of the Syrian currency and markets and the possible consequent troubles in light of an economic conflict and rivalry among Syrian influence centres. All this necessitates that the Kremlin be directly aware of the situation to be able to take the appropriate decisions without passing through the institutional decision-making cycle.[viii]
b- With regard to the presidential decree addressed to the ministries of defence and foreign affairs
1- The decision is deemed a message to the Russian economic elite that the Kremlin cares for their economic interests in Syria. There are suspicions that this elite has been behind the recent media campaign against Bashar al-Assad that criticized him for his failure to “shift from the stage of war to the stage of peace” and to take control of governance and the economy. It has demanded that he consider the Russian interests and grant Russia additional economic concessions.[ix]
2- For safeguarding and expanding Russian investment in Syria. Thus, Putin wants to prevent any other foreign power from approaching the important, especially maritime, assets. Therefore, the decree is considered a message to Iran that wants to collect the price of its military intervention in economic deals. This was recently indicated in the statement by the member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament Hashmatullah Falahat Pishe that Iran has to regain the amount of 20-30 billion dollars it spent to support Assad after 2011.[x]
3- Russia’s fear of unexpected developments in Syria which drives it to squeeze as many dividends as possible with the approval of the authorities and institutions that are considered legal in the eyes of Russia.[xi]
What are the locations targeted by the presidential decree?
Russia controls more than one hundred military locations and vital and economic facilities in Syria. The locations under Russian control are spread across a map the extends from the coast and coastal mountains to the Countryside of Damascus, the Syrian Desert, Deir al-Zour and Raqqa. Those areas range from camps and military bases to oil and gas installations, the Homs Fertilizer Plant, and the port of Tartus. This raises the question about the new locations that are intended to be controlled by Russia according to the decree and directives of President Putin. Those locations could be reviewed as follows:
1- Maritime zones: it is clear that Russia has its eye on the whole of the Syrian coast, considering that in case of the initiation of reconstruction, the coast will be the area that will experience the fiercest competition between the various players, particularly China and Iran, due to the importance of Syrian ports in the regional trade traffic. Control over the Syrian coast will also give Russia the right to exploit the Syrian territorial waters, mainly the exploration for and extraction of oil in the Syrian coasts.[xii]
2- International highways: the two international highways M4 and M5 are particularly important for Russia. There is talk about the likely privatization of those two highways by Russian companies and benefitting from transit revenues worth nearly 7 billion dollars per year. Russia has made great efforts to secure control over those two highways and has offered concessions to Turkey in Idlib for the sake of the safety of traffic and passage on them.[xiii]
3- Military and civil airports in Hama, Aleppo and the Desert: these are located in the middle of or adjacent to areas of Russian economic and military influence. Considering that this influence will be long-lasting, Russia needs to secure the space of this influence.[xiv]
4- The eastern region, particularly Qamishli and Hasaka, considering the importance of those areas from the economic perspective as they house oilfields and agricultural areas in addition to border crossings with Iraq. Russia seeks to hire the Qamishli airport in the Hasaka governorate for 49 years after it had taken control of it at the end of 2019. Control over the airport means linking the Syrian coast to eastern Syria by air. Within this framework, Syrian sources confirm that Russia seeks to set up its own force from Arab tribes in the region, mainly the Jawala, Jabour, Tay, Sharabyen and Bakara, with the aim of protecting the oilfields in the region, away from combat operations and battles.[xv]
What is the impact of those steps on the Syrian regime?
The recent Russian moves directly affect the political and economic conditions in Syria. That is why many analyses have described the new post of the Russian ambassador to Damascus as the “High Commissioner” or “Russia’s Paul Bremer”, based on the belief that his mission will undermine the regime’s political role, particularly with regard to the regime’s external and internal relations that will be subject to the Kremlin’s approaches and assessments.
Those effects can be explained as follows:
1- The new post of the Russian ambassador to Damascus enables him to make direct contact with the domestic opposition, especially the one involved in the Cairo and Moscow platforms and the National Coordination Committee, and follow the details of their positions on the Russian moves in the settlement file. While the settlement file remains in the hand of President Putin’s envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, who coordinates with the UN envoy Geir Pedersen and with the partners in the Astana Process, namely Turkey and Iran, the ambassador’s new mission will be complementary to Lavrentiev’s work. This would increase the pressure on the Assad regime which is accused by Russian sources of attempting to evade the requirements of Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) and the work of the Constitutional Committee.[xvi]
2- Weakening the margin of manoeuvrability of Assad who always had benefited from playing on the Iranian and Russian influences. The appointment of Putin’s presidential representative will put Assad under the Kremlin’s direct surveillance. Besides, Russia’s attempts to control strategic and economic assets in Syria will limit Assad’s capability to use those assets to satisfy and silence the Iranians after they have started to put pressure for the collection of their debts which they estimate at nearly 30 billion dollars.
3- The Russian moves reveal the size and extent of weakness of Assad’s authority in font of his supporters, especially that Russia has limited his role to legitimizing its military presence and covering up its economic designs. This picture will have its implications in light of the deteriorating conditions that provide an impetus for the emergence of trends within the regime that are opposed to the Russian political and economic hegemony in this way. It is known that Russia has dismissed hundreds of workers at the port of Tartus and the fertilizer factory in Homs after it took over the management and investment of those facilities. This has produced a state of congestion among pro-regime Syrians towards the Russian behaviour.
Impact of the Russian steps on the other players
Iran seems to be the main target of the new Russian moves. The appointment of the presidential envoy aims to put pressure on Assad and reduce the Iranian influence on the Syrian policy by monitoring Assad’s daily behaviour and informing the Kremlin of all his steps. Putin will not have to send as his representative the minister of defence or the minister of foreign affairs to raise issues with Assad and adjust his positions. Besides, Iran will be the side most affected by Russia’s trend to control Syria’s economic assets, particularly the Syrian coast that has come to be associated with the Iranian project in the region, in addition to Russia’s intensified efforts to enhance its control in northeastern Syria, which are the areas through which Iran wants to pass its route to the Mediterranean.
These developments coincide with the intensification by Israel of its strikes against Iranian positions throughout Syrian territories and Russia’s disregard of Israeli actions. This implies that there is a link between the Russian moves at this timing and the announcement by Israel that it will go after Iranian targets all over Syrian territories pending Iran’s ultimate exit from Syria.
Obviously, Russia, which observes the Iranian regression in Syria, is aware of the extent of weakness reached by Iran’s power and seeks to utilize that weakness by enhancing its influence and collecting the largest gains possible, being aware that Iran cannot resist the Russian expansion under the circumstances.
On the other hand, the Russian developments target Turkey as well. The areas controlled by Turkey in Syria are of strategic importance for Russia, whether due to their proximity to the military bases in the countryside of Latakia and Hama, or areas east of the Euphrates that overlook the main Syrian economic zones in terms of agricultural and oil wealth.
Syrian sources confirm that Russia, based on the decree issued by Putin with regard to negotiation with the Syrian government regarding the handover of new installations to the Russian military, will take over military sites and airports along the separation line with the areas in which the Turkish troops have recently been stationed. This indicates that Russia is preparing the infrastructure for a potentially long battle against Turkish troops after Turkey has mobilized its forces and built defence lines and fortifications in the areas of Idlib and east Euphrates.[xvii]
On the other hand, the Russian developments aim to surround the US presence in the Hasaka and Qamishli provinces only to replace it at a later stage. Russia has always bet on a US withdrawal from Syria and that Russia is the party that should benefit from the upcoming vacuum. The areas of current US presence boast an important wealth and investment opportunities for Russian firms.
The Syrian file setting is experiencing important structural changes, such as the worsening relationship between the ruling components in Syria, the entry into force of the Caesar Act, the deteriorating economic conditions after the rapid collapse of the Syrian currency, and the growing inflationary wave hitting the country. Russia seeks to respond to those changes. It is no secret that disagreements exist in Moscow over the way of running the Syrian file between powers, such as the Russian army and intelligence services, that consider the long-term geopolitical returns for Russia, and powers that care for the economic returns, namely the Russian economic elite. This drives President Vladimir Putin to find new approaches in running the Syrian file that would achieve a balance between both sides and ensure Russia’s continued grip on the Syrian file amidst complicated regional and international engagements.
However, the Russian moves are characterized by a Syrian component that relates to a reduced confidence in the Syrian decision maker, in addition to Putin’s unease at the direction of Syrian events. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that Putin seeks, through the task of his ambassador to Syria, to place the ruling regime under surveillance, monitor its policies and directly rectify or orientate them, to adjust its behaviour towards allies and foes and ensure the implementation of the planned Russian agenda through which Russia aims to materialize the benefits of its military intervention. At the top of Russia’s priorities at this stage comes the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 which Russia believes would open a new door for its influence in Syria and become a gateway to transform its military victory into a political victory that would generate for it the envisaged economic benefits.
The Russian moves are not likely to proceed smoothly in view of their expected impact on internal and external players that will seek to obstruct those moves via different means. Those moves could reflect on the Syrian reality in the form of tensions and maybe clashes within the authority and among the allies of the powers involved in the Syrian conflict. Neither is Russia likely to be able to activate the pending files and finalize the political settlement at this stage in light of indications of potential clashes with Turkey in the north and the US forces in the east.
[i] Raed Jabr, “Putin initiates steps to expand military presence in Syria: the first output of his appointment of a “presidential envoy” in Damascus”, Asharq al-Awsat, 30 May 2020.
[ii] Sateh Noureddine, “Putin controls Rami Makhlouf, the al-Modon website, 31 May 2020.
[iii] Samer Elias, “Putin appoints an envoy in Damascus: preparation for different scenarios”, al-Araby al-Jadeed, 28 May 2020.
[iv] “Putin tightens his grip: hastening to collect the fruit of the Syrian developments”, alsouria.net, 31 May 2020. The Russian expert’s statements appeared in an article he wrote in Al-Monitor newspaper.
[vi] Marah Bukai, “Alexander Yefimov: he is not the like of Bremer!”, London-based al-Arab newspaper, 3 May 2020.
[vii] “What is the Russian “High Commissioner” doing in Damascus?”, eqtsad.net, 29 May 2020.
[viii] Sateh Noureddine, op. cit.
[ix] Samer Elias, op. cit.
[x] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Damascus and Caesar’s persistent shadow”, Asharq al-Awsat, 28 May 2020.
[xi] “Putin tightens his grip”, op. cit.
[xii] “Putin’s decree to acquire Syrian facilities: expanding bases and collecting fees”, as quoted from former Syrian ambassador to Sweden Bassam Barabandi, al-Araby al-Jadeed, 30 May 2020.
[xiii] “Race against time: that is how Russia seeks to bypass the Caesar Act”, Orient net, 3 May 2020.
[xiv] A report by the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya. Available at: http://www.ng.ru/armies/2020-06-01/100_syr01062020.html
[xv] “News of a Russian trend to control the Qamishli airport in Syria”, al-Quds al-Arabi, 1 June 2020.
[xvi] Rami al-Shaer, who is close to the Kremlin, wrote several articles in Russian newspapers criticizing the Syrian regime for attempts to evade the implementation of the provisions of Resolution 2254.
[xvii] A report by the Step News Agency dated 16 April 2020 indicated that Russia is building a landing strip for helicopters in Madan village in the countryside of Raqqa and that attempts are made to transfer the airports of Kuweires in the Aleppo countryside and Tayfour in the Desert to Russian proprietorship. See: https://bit.ly/30mced1
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