The ‘Russian Patent’ offers solutions to Syrian conflict zones

The central elements of the Russia Patent for north-eastern Syria are rooted in Syria’s turbulent history, with a life and logic independent of Washington’s preferences.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Shifting sands. A Russian military vehicle patrols as it follows a local vehicle in the area of Arimah, west of Manbij, January 17. (AFP)
Shifting sands. A Russian military vehicle patrols as it follows a local vehicle in the area of Arimah, west of Manbij, January 17. (AFP)

Syria and its allies are winning their war the old-fashioned way: Regime forces are defeating adversaries both on the battlefield and in the political-diplomatic arena and progressively re-establishing Damascus’s authority throughout the country.

This victory is a result not only of the successful Russia-directed warfighting strategy but also, in stark contrast to the US-led coalition opposing them, the victors’ ability to correctly read and exploit the balance of forces.

The casualties suffered by US forces in Manbij after US President Donald Trump’s premature and ill-considered “Mission Accomplished” tweet highlight the instability along Syria’s northern frontier.

While there is no shortage of proposals for pacifying Syria’s border with Turkey, the “Russian Patent” — first implemented on the Golan Heights — offers a workable, tested model for restoring the border to sovereign Syrian control in a manner that meets both Syria’s and Turkey’s essential national security requirements.

The UN Security Council voted December 21 to extend for six months the mandate of the UN forces observing the Golan ceasefire. This vote, in itself, is unremarkable. Even during the worst days of Syria’s war, when the United Nations had to abandon some of its observer posts, the mission was regularly renewed.

During the past six months, however, a new post-war border regime with Israel has been constructed that essentially re-established the pre-war regime, with the Damascus government once again the uncontested source of authority opposite the occupying Israeli forces and meaningful constraints on the deployment of “resistance” forces along the Golan frontier, a key Israeli demand that both Moscow and Damascus view favourably.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has returned to the Syrian side of the separation zone and the Quneitra checkpoint has reopened. All opposition military formations have been disbanded, with some armed elements rebranded under Syrian command.

The most significant development in the post-war balance of forces, however, is what the United Nations modestly calls “the occasional temporary presence of Russian military police in the area of separation” alongside the internationally recognised UNDOF, a strategic advance for Russia that was unimaginable during the Cold War.

As the saying goes, that was then and this is now. All parties to the conflict have had to swallow Russia’s central role — Syrian President Bashar Assad did so gladly; Iran, Israel and Washington did so with far less enthusiasm and considerable trepidation.

While the Golan is once again quiet, the attack on US forces in Manbij highlights Washington’s continuing difficulties creating diplomatic and security frameworks after its announced retreat from Syria.

In contrast to the confusion that characterises Washington’s proposals for north-eastern Syria, Russia — with the Golan system in mind — advanced a clearer set of policy objectives and created a working mechanism to reconcile the clashing interests of Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Iran.

“We believe it important that the territories vacated by the Americans should come under the control of the government of Syria,” noted a January 11 statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry. “The establishment of a dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus is of particular importance. The Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society. The return of official authorities’ control over the territories populated by the Kurds should also neutralise the security risks for Syria’s neighbours.”

The deployment of Russian forces is one element of an effort to profit from the US retreat and create a mechanism for meeting the strategic requirements outlined by Moscow.

The ground is being prepared for application of the Golan system, by which: Syrian authority and responsibility would be restored along the border with Turkey in coordination with the SDF; the SDF would reintegrate into the Syrian military command structure; and Russian military police — “peacekeepers” — would deploy to restore a “hard” border designed to contain the Kurds and meet Turkish demands for a peaceful frontier.

There may be room in this mechanism to accommodate a “temporary” Turkish presence in Syria, as in Idlib.

Within days of Trump’s announced withdrawal of US forces, a new Russian-Syrian Coordination Centre in Manbij was operating. Russian military police units patrol a 5km wide and 27km long security zone near Manbij. Joint Russian-SDF patrols are in place, putting Russian soldiers in spitting distance of US forces deployed in the city and its environs.

Syrian military forces are stationed alongside the SDF — and in some sectors in place of the SDF — as part of the strategy to reconcile Damascus and the SDF and deter a Turkish assault across the border.

Trump’s December withdrawal announcement unleashed a frenzy of diplomatic activity aimed at establishing new rules of the game but the central elements of the Russia Patent for north-eastern Syria are rooted in Syria’s turbulent history, with a life and logic independent of Washington’s preferences.

Russia’s successful military and diplomatic intervention created opportunities — as well as risks — for Russia’s central role, both in making war and in securing the peace.

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