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 rebel groups opposed to the regime. This increased implication helped Assad considerably, as he was in difficulty, but was not sufficient enough to assure him 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 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.