Putin may be rethinking why Russia is in Syria
Parts of the world are cautiously easing lockdown restrictions and attempting a return to some sort of normality, having overcome the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, in some of the world’s more unstable regions, a return to pre-pandemic days comes with a resumption of violent conflict, because cease-fires often afford belligerents crucial opportunities for rest, regrouping, re-arming, re-positioning forces and revising strategies.
In Syria, in particular, skirmishes will inevitably intensify as Bashar Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, seeks to rout Turkish-backed opposition forces, consolidate power and force an end to the war that would be favorable to Damascus. However, the strange coalition of Tehran, Moscow and Damascus appears to be falling apart.
For the past five years, Russia has shielded the Assad regime by vetoing UN Security Council Resolutions or blunting any meaningful attempts at armed intervention. In turn, Syria became a proving ground for Russian weaponry, technology and combat tactics.
Moscow deployed about 5,000 troops (similar to Operation Barkhane by France in the Sahel), supplied weapons, launched airstrikes, boosted its naval presence and built military encampments in Syria. Russian petroleum engineering-construction company Stroytransgaz has become a dominant player in Syria’s energy industry, securing precious income for Damascus that is key to maintaining loyalty in the loose domestic coalition keeping Assad in power. This limited intervention is in stark contrast to the full-scale Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, which ended in humiliating defeat and, shortly afterwards, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Until the end of last year, Moscow appeared on track to securing an elusive geopolitical victory that would have achieved the 2018 “Putin Doctrine” goals of eroding American influence globally and boosting Moscow’s ability to project power. The 2008 doctrine has so far only made a mess in Ukraine, provoked a raft of EU sanctions and irritated the Western alliance with anti-NATO measures; these include preventing Montenegro and North Macedonia from joining, and inflaming tensions between NATO and one of its own members, Turkey.
However, Russia's idea of “mission accomplished” in Syria is no longer to keep Assad in power, but to pave the way for a legitimate, internationally recognized government. That is markedly different from Moscow’s initial objectives, which were to maintain existing power structures to focus on the threat posed by Daesh and other extremist groups. The shift can be attributed to changing domestic circumstances from the coronavirus pandemic to plunging oil prices, dealing major blows to an already stagnant Russian economy. The biggest external factor that has recently prompted Russian authorities to make cryptic statements about Syria is Iran.
Russia's idea of “mission accomplished” in Syria is no longer to keep Assad in power, but to pave the way for a legitimate, internationally recognized government.
With Daesh largely defeated and opposition forces losing ground, it is becoming evident that Tehran has plans for Damascus — and none of them involve Assad acceding to Moscow goals such as the withdrawal of foreign troops, a new constitution and a coalition government.
Despite assertions that Iran would have no qualms about Assad stepping down, such a scenario is implausible given the strong historical links between the Assad family and Tehran dating back to the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Syria was the only Arab nation to back Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War and has since become part of the so-called Shiite crescent, a sphere of influence that Iran has carved from as far east as Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Tehran is unlikely to accept any outcome that would oust Assad or empower his political rivals, since it would endanger a vital link to Lebanon’s Hezbollah — itself actively involved in Syria, and occasionally lobbing missiles at Israel.
Additionally, a belligerent Tehran, seeking to frustrate US and Israeli interests, views Syria as just another battleground in a perpetually frosty relationship, which necessitates maintaining the status quo — far from Moscow’s ideals. Worse yet, even though Russia’s assistance has been invaluable, Damascus still prefers to take its cues from Tehran.
There is a growing realization inn Moscow that Russia has expended significant diplomatic and military capital to achieve what is amounting to a fleeting geopolitical victory because of Tehran’s massive political clout and growing influence. Russia is now, uncharacteristically, telegraphing its maneuvers, as if to signal Moscow’s exasperation.
To that end, Russian operatives have begun conducting opinion polls to gauge the appetite of Syrians for Assad remaining in power, during and after any transition period. In addition, Russian media has not been reluctant to criticize the Assad regime; one outlet went so far as to suggest that the failure of Damascus to meet Russia’s objectives portends a repeat of the decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — an unthinkable prospect.
If Moscow is intent on maintaining its ties with Damascus, despite the growing challenges, the only reprieve lies in exploiting the loose coalition keeping Assad in power to pressure the regime for outcomes favorable to Russian objectives. In addition, the sanctions, isolation, the absence of international aid and rampant corruption have whittled down Syria's finances, crippling any plans for the massive reconstruction efforts the country will need after nine years of civil war. So far, only Russia has committed to mobilize such an undertaking, provided an international coalition forms around that goal.
However, without a constitution and guarantees for opposition forces or political rivals, there is little chance that most countries across the globe will be interested in joining such a coalition if conditions stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 are not met satisfactorily.
It is unclear whether the flurry of Russian news reports critical of Assad, along with analyses from Moscow think tanks with close ties to the Kremlin, will suffice to remind Damascus that it needs to begin fulfilling the Kremlin’s demands or face an abrupt Russian departure.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell