Superimposed on the regional conflicts are the agendas of the different world powers which amplify the complexity of the crisis.
III. From regional confrontation to international conflict
What is Russia’s position?
Russia has been an ally of Syria since the 1950s. A first arms deal was signed between the two countries at the height of the Cold war in 1956, establishing a strong economic and political cooperation. After the dismantling of the Soviet bloc, Russian support to Syria declined but when Putin came to power, the relationship regained impetus because the Russian leader sought to assert his country’s presence in the Middle East. Moscow has supported Assad since the outbreak of the revolution, as Syria is its last ally and main client in the region. As a member of the Security Council of the UN, the Russians vetoed any punitive action against the Assad regime, paralyzing all international initiative to resolve the crisis. Taking advantage of American indifference, Moscow has organized meetings with some Damascus-approved “opponents”, in order to try to find a political solution, but they have never given any results because the members of these delegations are not representative of the opposition and lack legitimacy.
The emergence of radical groups and of the Islamic State has reinforced and facilitated Russian support to the Syrian regime, because Russia so fears radical Islam will attain the Central Asian republics : the memory of Chechnya is still fresh. Moscow has recently shown a certain lassitude towards Assad, but nevertheless remains closely attached to he who seems to incarnate the vestiges of a declining state.
In September 2015, Russian implication in the Syrian conflict crossed a new threshold when Moscow decided to bomb certain sites on the ground directly, officially as part of the war against terrorism. In reality, the majority of these attacks concern moderate rebel groups opposed to the regime, including those backed by the Americans.It used its air force to bomb civilian areas (Aleppo in particular), not hesitating to target the hospitals though denying it, and to back up regime troops its allies (Hezbollah, Shiite militias Iraqi and Afghan Hazaras). Next to its ancient base in Tartous, it opened an air base in Hmemim. This growing commitment greatly strengthens Bashar al-Assad – who was in difficulty – but fails to secure his victory.
In modifying the power relations on the ground, the Russian attacks were also the prelude to future negotiations. The marking of victories before coming back to the conference table was calculated to permit the Syrian regime to impose its conditions, which proved clearly to be the case during the negotiations in Vienna which resulted in the UN resolution 2254 : the question of maintaining in power Bachar Al-Assad – responsible for general instability and the massacre of civilians and the flight of refugees – was scrupulously avoided.
Moscow also seeks now to instrumentalize the general preoccupation with the war against terrorism, at its apogee after the attacks in Paris, to rehabilitate Al-Assad and associate him with the coalition against the IS, thus exonerating the regime of its responsibility in the development of jihadism in the country.
In fact, the determination of Vladimir Putin has met no opposition. He occupies the void left by the lack of Western implication in the Syrian crisis. Thus, on the 19th of December, he declared his intention to augment his military engagement in Syria without arousing any real attention.
On March 14th 2016, Russia annonced its withdrawal from Syria. In fact, this “withdrawal” proved to be no more than a limited reduction of forces, which did not significantly diminish the overall strike force. One can deduce that this announcement was the result of political considerations, either interior – to avoid giving the Russian people the impression that Poutine was embarking on a second campaign like in Afghanistan – or exterior – to pressure Bachar Al-Assad into accepting to negotiate at “Geneva III”.
In any case, Russia is still present in Syria. There is no doubt that Russain intervention saved the regime, which, in spite of aid from Iran, was losing ground. Vladimir Poutine, while declaring, like Barack Obama, that the only possible solution was a political one, was clearly counting on a military solution in order to obtain the political solution it favored. The Russians forced the United States into accepting them as an indispensable partner in Syria.
During the summer of 2016, Vladimir Poutine and Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, sealed their reconciliation ( the falling out was over the fact that the Turks had shot down a Russian plane on mission in Syria). Russia called for the entry of Turkey in Syria and in so doing abandonnned the Kurdish forces of the PYD.
By the end of 2016, Russian bombardments had largely contributed to the fall of East Aleppo. Then it was Russia itself, together with Turkey, who negotiated a truce (extended to Iran during the Astana negotiations in January). Finally, Russia and the UN (via Staffan de Mistura) led negotiations in Geneva once again in February 2017, taking advantage of the US withdrawal after the election of Donald Trump.
Since then, Vladimir Putin intends to capitalize on the fall of East Aleppo, which he considers as a great victory. Unlike the Assad regime and Iran, his priority is not a total takeover of Syria, but the negotiation of a political solution. This would allow him to consolidate what he has acquired since Russia’s intervention in September 2015 at a moderate human (albeit undoubtedly underestimated) and material cost.
Putin’s aims were: (1) to stabilize the Assad regime which was about to collapse before its intervention (2) to restore Russia to its former position as a major player in the international arena (3) to break with the isolation resulting from sanctions which followed the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. The first two objectives were achieved. Putin, who is preparing for a presidential election next year, knows that any prolongation of the war in Syria is likely to be perceived badly by the Russian population. (20% of Russians today think that the military engagement of their country in Syria makes no sense: see this article, US Attack on Syria Cements Kremlin’s Embrace of Assad.
Despite this political objective, Russia continued to help the regime militarily by bombing rebel positions in the region of Idlib and also in the suburbs of Damascus, southern Syria and the region of Hama.
This is what makes some Russian analysts say that the more Russia supports Assad, the more it depends on the Syrian regime. It is clear that Russia is not in a position to impose its will on the Assad regime, in particular because it runs up against Iran whose objectives are not the same. In Geneva, Russia has not obtained any concessions from Bashar Al-Assad, who does not intend to leave power after the transition period. Russia, which had been thought to be more flexible a few months ago, now seems to defend this line.
The chemical attacks by Assad in Khan Cheikhoun incontestably weakened Russia’s position. Firstly, because the Russians, who were present on the base of Chayrat, were then suspected of having dissimulated the fact that regime had maintained stocks of sarin gas there in violation of the agreement forbidding the stocking of chemical weapons. Russia was also held liable because it had signed the agreement of 2013 which decreed the destruction of all stocks of chemical weapons. Secondly, the Americn intervention on April 6th, though limited, signalled that Russia would no longer be free to intervene in Syria as it wished, but must henceforth take into account the Americans’ position.
In addition, Russia must deal with two countries it believed to have rallied to its cause: Turkey and Israël. The first had accepted to overlook the fall of East Aleppo in exchange for the intervention which prevented the Kurdish PYD from controlling the liaison between the three Kurdish “cantons” in Syria. However, the entry of the Russians in Afrin (the most eastern canton, near Aleppo) on March 21st prevented Turkey from extending its positions towards the West. Israël seemes to have concluded a tacit agreement with the Russians since the beginning of their intervention, allowing them to bomb Syrian convoys protecting the Hezbollah. However, on March 17th, Damascus responded to an Israëli attack by lancing three missiles. Russia showed it’s discontent by summoning the Israëli ambassador in Moscow. One also wonders whether Turkey and Israël are not both rejoicing at the prospect of the return of the Americans in the Syrian conflict.