In the face of international confusion, Russia maintains Syria policy

Senior officials in the Foreign Ministry said Russia is preparing for a prolonged rivalry in Syria with the United States.
Sunday 29/04/2018
A missile of an  anti-aircraft defence mobile missile system is seen in front of a missile launched from the S-300 system. (Reuters)
The S-300, my brother’s keeper. A missile of an anti-aircraft defence mobile missile system. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Comments on the future of the Syrian conflict from senior Russian Foreign Ministry figures provide clear indicators of both the war the Kremlin is prepared to wage and the peace it intends to impose on the country. However, like so much in Syria’s war, appearances deceive and true meanings remain opaque.

Senior officials in the Foreign Ministry said Russia is preparing for a prolonged rivalry in Syria with the United States. The Kremlin, meanwhile, is apparently ready to barter its ally’s territory in return for a lasting settlement while simultaneously shoring up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on Damascus by providing his forces with the Russian S300 missile defence system.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking April 24 in Beijing, contradicted US President Donald Trump’s claim that US troops would be returning from Syria “soon.” Instead, he suggested, US forces were digging into position east of the Euphrates River and preparing for the long-term occupation of that terrain in conjunction with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as the newly arrived French special forces.

Perhaps reflecting that thinking, Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, told Deutsche Welle on April 19: “We don’t know how the situation is going to develop on the question of whether it is possible to keep Syria as a single country.”

Rather than signal the pragmatic acceptance of a changed reality on the ground, both comments suggest that little in the Kremlin’s outlook has undergone significant change.

“Russian policy in Syria is driven by two principal considerations,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. “First, they’re looking to maintain their foothold within the region and secondly they’re determined to use Syria as leverage against the West.”

As such, Lavrov’s assertion that the United States is preparing for a prolonged occupation of eastern Syria may not reflect the Kremlin’s thinking so much as it is an effort to force Washington’s hand.

“It really could just be as simple as Lavrov calling the [United States’] bluff,” Galeotti said. “Moreover, there’s not really a great deal that Russia can do about the American presence. Just a few months ago, we saw the US wipe out Russian mercenaries in a major display of firepower and there wasn’t really much of a response.”

Likewise, Ryabkov’s apparent flexibility over Syria’s frontiers represents little that has not already been mooted in the Kremlin-sponsored Astana peace talks. “Much of this is already implicit with the Astana process.” Galeotti said. “Either autonomy or a high degree of self-rule has already been discussed for various regions of Syria. This doesn’t really seem to be too radical a departure from that.”

As the dust from the Western air strikes still hangs in the air and French troops bolster Paris’s existing presence, “the Kremlin’s ready to put anything on the table that’ll move its own agenda forward,” Galeotti noted.

Likewise, Russia’s suggestion that it may provide Damascus with the S300 missile defence system as a response to the Western air strikes on Syria is less than straightforward. Lavrov told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti: “Now, we have no moral obligations. We had the moral obligations, we had promised not to do it some 10 years ago, I think, upon the request of our known partners.”

However, while the S300 system may be deployed at Syrian bases, the extent that it would be under Syrian control is open to question.

“Russia enjoys a pretty good relationship with Israel, which has been striking at targets within Syria for some time and is going to be unwilling to have its own missile defence system used against its ally,” Galeotti noted. “So, while [the Russians] may deploy it, they’re going to make sure that it’s either entirely reliant upon Russian radar systems or that, at the least, it’s Russian fingers on the trigger.”