Russia’s multiple messages to Assad
DAMASCUS - The unexpected visit by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu to Damascus not only surprised analysts but also Syrian President Bashar Assad, who said while greeting his guest: “I did not know you are coming yourself.”
Russian and Syrian officials said very little about discussions between the two men. During the first few seconds of video aired on Russian television about the visit, Shoygu was heard telling Assad that he had reviewed issues discussed in Tehran among Defence ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran and briefed Russian President Vladimir Putin about them.
What the Russian media failed to disclose was that the practical purpose of the visit was to pressure Assad to maintain the truce and enforce a permanent ceasefire that would permit humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas. The Russians want Assad to ensure that his officers in the field do not challenge Moscow’s wishes and the “political decisions” they seem dissatisfied with.
Syrian sources, who requested anonymity, said Russia was dealing with Syria based on its “consensuses and differences” with the United States. “This conflicts with the interests of the Syrian government, which seeks a solution of the crisis along its own vision, meaning forming a national unity government in which the opposition has a share while leaving the position of the president intact,” one source said. “In that, it is mainly relying on its ally Iran, which has been providing lots of money and combatants.”
The sources put the main reason for the visit in a wider context. “The visit cannot be disassociated from Russia’s troubled relations with NATO and especially with the renewed calls in the West to revive the question of the Crimea and its annexation by Russia,” another source said, also referring to US President Barack Obama’s recent declaration that considered Russia a threat to American security “on equal footing” as the Islamic State (ISIS), the German white paper that moved Russia from the list of allies to that of adversaries and the call by 51 US diplomats to bomb forces loyal to Assad.
“All these points represent an important aspect of Shoygu’s visit and his inspection of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile base in the country,” the source said. “Russia wanted to deliver a message to the West that it has a significant military presence outside its borders and that its senior officials routinely tour such remote bases.”
Sources noted the “bitter criticism” of Russia on pro-Assad social media that accused Moscow of announcing a ceasefire “in collaboration with the Americans every time the Assad troops make progress on the field.” Some claimed Russian bombers knowingly attacked Iranian troops and their militias on the outskirts of Aleppo.
This, the sources argue, indicates that the response Shoygu carried to Damascus on the Tehran meeting was not favourable to Syria and Iran, especially with regard to their wish that Russia intensify its military operations around Aleppo and coordinate with and support Iranian forces and their militia allies.
Taha Abdul Wahid, a Moscow-based Syrian analyst, said Putin does not want to be involved in the military schemes of Assad and Iran.
“Moscow does not want the Aleppo battle nor any other. It wants to continue its air strikes against ISIS and al-Nusra, while maintaining its peace efforts with the Americans and keep on trying to attract opposition forces to engage in the peace process,” Abdul Wahid said.
“What Russia wants now is to stabilise the situation along the confrontation lines and it does not care whether Assad stays or leaves, while Iran wants to fight to the end and insists on Assad to remain in power.”
He, however, noted that “the real problem is that Damascus and Tehran consider a political settlement a declaration of defeat”.
The Shoygu visit was meant to deliver a warning to Assad. It was to remind the Syrian president about Russian parliamentarians saying Moscow is not at the service of the Syrian regime and its allies and does not support or provide air cover for any non-coordinated action, according to opposition spokesman Brigadier Ahmad Rahhal.
Rahhal referred as proof to what happened recently in Raqqa when Syrian and Iranian troops were forced — after Russia halted air cover — to retreat 70km from ground they had earlier gained, allowing ISIS back into the area.