Syrian card is turning into a liability for Russia

In the absence of anyone willing to consider Syria as a bargaining chip, Russia is stuck in the country.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A Russian soldier guards a checkpoint as displaced Syrians return to their hometown in south-western Syria, last July. (AFP)
A quagmire far from resolved. A Russian soldier guards a checkpoint as displaced Syrians return to their hometown in south-western Syria, last July. (AFP)

At about this time in 2015, the Russian Air Force began its direct involvement in the war against the Syrian people. On the last day of September 2015, Russian bombers took off from the Hmeimim base near Latakia and targeted anti-Syrian regime organisations. Schools and hospitals were bombed.

To be fair to the Russians, there were terrorist elements among the extremist religious groups targeted but this cannot answer the nagging question: Were the extremist groups more dangerous than the Iran-backed sectarian militias in Syrian territory and that, overnight, turned into an ally to Moscow?

From the beginning, Russia’s problem in Syria was that it supported an illegitimate minority regime that relied primarily on its security apparatus to govern. This apparatus proved ineffective at the outbreak of the popular revolution in March 2011. So Iran rushed in to help the regime out of two concerns.

The first Iranian concern was that the regime represented the Alawite minority in Syria and the second was that the post-revolution chaos in Syria presented Iran with the opportunity to change the nature of Syrian society’s demographic structure.

Above all, the Syrian revolution was an irreplaceable opportunity for Iran to destroy major Syrian cities, such as Aleppo, Homs and Hama, that the ruling Assads had hated for so long.

As for Damascus, it was surrounded by Iran and the Syrian regime to isolate it from its Sunni roots — the Syrian society and deep Syria. Three-quarters of Syria’s population is Sunni, the majority of whom follow a moderate version.

How can a sane person engage in a war against an entire people unaware of the consequences of such a war? It is certain that Russia has its own narrow agendas based on the idea that Syria can be used as a playing card in its game with the United States and Europe but does anyone really want to enter a deal with Russia because it owns the Syrian card?

In any case, it doesn’t look like the United States intends to enter a bargaining game with Russia. What applies to America applies to Germany, which does not seem interested in any deal with Russia just because it owns the Syrian card. It seems that Russia’s control of Syria is one thing and the possibility of employing this control in a deal that would include Ukraine, for example, is another.

In the absence of anyone willing to consider Syria as a bargaining chip, Russia is stuck in the country. What can Russia do in Syria? Can it restore life to a regime that has been in the dustbin of history for a long time? This regime has found nothing better to do than to use the presence of Islamic State fighters in the Druze region to blackmail it into sending its young people to serve in the regime’s army.

I guess the Syrian regime did not have enough sense to see there are enough wise people among the Druze to think of allowing their sons to take part in battles against other Syrians, especially the Sunnis. Why should they do it?

A victory for the Syrian regime in this dirty war is insignificant considering that Syria is disintegrating and its territory divided under several guardianships. You’ve got the Americans east of the Euphrates, the Russians and Turks in the north and on the coast and in Aleppo and the Iranians in several pockets.

There are also the Israelis, who have forced the Iranians, at least theoretically, to move 100km from the occupied Golan Heights. Is Israel a player in Syria?

Each day brings new problems to the Russians in Syria. This is because Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot get past the imperialist mentality of Kremlin leaders during the days of the communist Soviet Union.

Putin, who wants to portray the image of a strong leader capable of restoring the glory of the Soviet Union, has not stopped for a moment and asked himself: What’s the point of being militarily involved in Syria when Russia must rely on Iran when it comes to having troops on the ground?

Most important, hasn’t Putin considered how to get Iran and Israel to coordinate their interests? Is it possible for Russia to be with Iran and with Israel at the same time, especially when it knows that Iran cannot withdraw militarily from Syria?

The Iranian regime is playing its fate in Syria. In addition to its intractable internal crisis, which is primarily economic brought about by its almost exclusive reliance on oil revenues, there is the crisis of being militarily bogged down deep in Syria. A military withdrawal of the Iranian regime from Syria would spell its removal from Tehran. The Iranian regime also stands to lose its guardianship over Lebanon via Hezbollah.

Russia’s dilemma in Syria is multifaceted. It can’t find the funds needed for reconstruction because it doesn’t have any and the United States and Europe have it all. Perhaps China has some but, in the end, who wants to buy the Syrian card? Nobody.

With no buyer in sight, the Syrian card will turn into a heavy burden for Russia. What Russia needs to do is reconsider its Syrian policies. The United States was smart enough to encourage Russia to get caught in the quicksand of the Syrian card and now Russia is realising that it is holding a mirage.