Russia sees ‘strategic’ value in Syria, not regime
There is little doubt Russia’s bombardment of northern and western Syria has changed the broader dynamics of the war. Instead of pursuing its stated aim of degrading the Islamic State (ISIS), Moscow has gone after the Syrian regime’s de facto chief threat: rebel groups operating close to Latakia province and north of Aleppo. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have their tails up.
At first glance this suggests Russia has never been more serious in its support for Assad. Yet there are several counterpoints observers can pick apart as to where Moscow’s support for Assad may be aiming.
The fact that Russia appears nowhere on lists of leading international donors of humanitarian assistance for Syrians, nor has any interest in taking in Syrian refugees, tells us that winning the hearts and minds of Syrians is not a priority. It sees the Syrian regime as a short-term strategic partner.
Unlike Iran, Russia has not offered Assad a blank cheque nor is it investing in long-term civilian projects, such as building banks or hotels; Russian oligarchs are not buying property in Syria and Russia has not based large numbers of troops or military hardware in or around Damascus, the obvious centre of power in a post-war Syria.
The announcement on March 15th that Russian forces currently engaged in the conflict in Syria are to begin withdrawing came as a surprise to the international community. But it may also be an indication that while Moscow will continue to support the regime in Damascus, it does not necessarily mean that it will blindly support the president.
When the Russians first entered the fight in Syria to help the beleaguered Assad, he must have thought that he and his regime were saved. This latest move by the Russians, however, may well be an indication that the regime may be saved but no such assurances can be made concerning the president.
The regime may remain the chief actor in Syria through its control of Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, but we must not forget that millions of Syrians still support the regime either through blind faith or a palpable fear of any alternative. Alongside it, Iranian military and civilian officials, who enjoyed a strong presence in the city even before 2011, can be expected to stay on.
Recent statements from Russian diplomats and leaders suggest that the relationship is not as watertight as a cursory look gives.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, went out of his way on February 19th to play down Assad’s comments vowing to retake all of Syria.
“I heard President Assad’s remarks on television… Of course they do not chime with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is undertaking,” he said in an interview with Kommersant, adding that “the Syrian president is acting according to a certain political framework. And here I think we should take into consideration not what he says, with all the respect to the statements of such a high-ranking individual, but what in the end he will do.”
In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a German newspaper how Russia's granting asylum to Edward Snowden “was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr Assad”. He has also made it clear how he thinks Assad has “made many mistakes in the course of the Syrian conflict”.
Arguably, the reason for these apparently contradictory positions is that Russia does not see Assad as an integral, long-term partner in Syria but it does see Syria’s strategic territorial position in the Middle East as something it wants to be part of.
Just how dependent is Damascus on Russia? While the Assad regime has been known for decades to be as conniving and ruthless as just about any other political or military force in the region, it increasingly appears to be placing its eggs in one basket vis-à-vis its relations with Russia. Certainly Hezbollah and Iran have deeply established ties with Damascus but with a negotiated settlement that would involve the United States and others the only way of ending the war, neither has any real political capital at that level.
All this points to the fact that Russia is fighting in Syria to secure Russian, not Assad’s, interests. Remarkably, Russia’s tiny, rented naval base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast is its only military facility outside the former Soviet Union.
The former superpower has seen its star decline since 1989 and today in Syria it sees Washington’s disinterest as an open door on the path to the head of the international diplomatic table.
The advances Russia can secure in the coming months will be critical because Moscow will want to nail down its and Assad’s positions before a new US president — perhaps the hawkish Hillary Clinton — is elected.
That means 2016 will very probably see an upturn in violence before a breakthrough to peace transpires. Then and only then, when all international actors are serious about ending the war, will Russia’s real intentions for Assad become apparent.