Russia’s Biggest Challenge in Syria
Russia’s Biggest Challenge in Syria
The situation in Syria seems to have recently captured some international attention, but not with news promising that the tragedy is approaching its end and rekindling the Syrian people’s hope of realizing their aspirations to live in peace, dignity, security and harmony.
Our attention is, instead, diverted to the sensational issues such as: the feud between President Assad and his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the hostile exchange in the media between Moscow and Damascus, the alleged plan involving Washington, Ankara and Moscow to remove Assad, etc..
While some consider such news of fleeting consequence, others interpret them as an indication that the Assad era is approaching its end. Those who hold the latter view base themselves on the premise that any political change in Syria has to pass through Moscow.
Regardless of the credibility of either of the two positions, Moscow maintains - at least at the official level - that it does not interfere in Syrian domestic affairs.
There is no doubt that the Russian military intervention, which took place upon the invitation of Damascus, ensured the survival of the Assad regime. Moscow, however, has made it clear, in more ways than one, that it intervened to save Syria from terrorism, not to prevent the collapse of a system of governance or save any particular individuals. Nonetheless, for some saving the country was synonymous with saving the regime.
My understanding of the Russian position is that as long as the fight against terrorism continues, Syria was in need of a supreme commander of the armed forces. This was essential to maintain the cohesiveness of an already over-stretched Syrian army. A breakdown in the chain of command would lead to the total disintegration of the army, and as a consequence, the state. The commander in chief is the president of the republic, Bashar Assad.
Although terrorism is receding in most parts in Syria, it continues to have a territorial base in Idlib. Therefore, it is understandable that combatting terrorism, at this stage, is focused on Idlib. Meanwhile, it appears that the fight against ISIS in the Syrian desert will be postponed.
This is the case despite the establishment of a de-escalation zone by the Astana process, as well as the bilateral agreement between Russia and Turkey on Idlib. Al-Nusra Front continues to be not only active and but dominant in Idlib. The challenge has always been how to separate the armed groups from al- Nusra. The US failed in the past and now Turkey has yet to deliver.
The Russian military intervention had the overwhelming support of the Russian public because it was perceived as taking the battle against terrorism outside Russian territory. In this regard, it is important to note that at the height of the fighting in Syria, Russian and former Soviet fighters were estimated to be anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000. They were also among the most effective having gained combat experience in Chechnya, Central Asia and the Balkans
Now that Russia has secured its long-term presence in Syria, and saved the Syrian state from collapse, thereby enhancing Moscow’s international stature, President Putin needs to declare that he has removed the threat of terrorism emanating from Syria. Only then can he announce that he has accomplished the goals of the military intervention. No doubt this would help in reversing the drop in Putin’s popularity, which could be partly attributed to the receding public support for Russian policy in Syria.
To achieve this objective, there is a need to the reopen the strategic highway M4 linking Aleppo to Latakia, as stipulated in the Russian-Turkish agreement in March. This would entail the removal of the Central Asian fighters from the strategic town of Jisr al-Shoghour and its surrounding heights. It is from there that terrorists are able to threaten the Russian airbase in Hmeimin.
After initial difficulties, it now appears that the joint Russian-Turkish patrols on the M4 highway have made progress. On May 20, a patrol reached the town of Ariha, some 35 km from Jisr al-Shoughour. Once the joint patrols can secure the highway and the buffer area around it, the terrorist threat to Hmeimim will be greatly reduced and commercial traffic can resume between Aleppo and the port of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. The latter is of vital importance to any future economic revival in Syria.
Once the Russians are satisfied that the terrorists no longer pose a threat to Hmeimin and, that the they are confined to a relatively small area straddling the border between Idlib and Turkey, Russia can then put the onus of eliminating what remains of those terrorists, particularly those of concern to Moscow, squarely on Turkey’s shoulders.
Once M4 is secured, it would not be surprising for Moscow to declare that its military objectives in Syria have been met. The expectation is that Russia will then need to concentrate its energies on accelerating the political process. Russia understands that to achieve success in Syria, it needs to transform its military achievements into political gains. And for that it needs to achieve a political settlement through the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254 - which it takes pride as being the result of its collaboration with the United States - starting with constitutional reform followed by free and fair elections in which all Syrians would participate.
It would then be expected that Moscow would press Damascus to be more forthcoming with regard to the work of the Constitutional Committee in particular, and the full implementation of resolution 2254 in general. The announcement on May 25 that the Russian ambassador in Damascus has been appointed also as Presidential Envoy for the development of Russian-Syrian relations can be an indication that Moscow has indeed started to take concrete steps in this regard. As presidential envoy, the ambassador will be able to transmit the Russian leaders’ messages directly and more frequently to Assad. Needless to say, Moscow would expect a cooperative Syrian leadership.
Attention will then be focused on how Assad conducts himself with respect to the full implementation of resolution 2254 as well as how Moscow will react to his actions. This may turn out to be a defining moment not only for the future of Syria, but also for Russia’s international credibility.
Insofar as Russia’s position in supporting the Syrian government regain its entire territory, this will be a goal for Moscow to achieve in future by mediating between Damascus and Ankara with the view to reach a package based on the 1998 Adana agreement which would include: the future Syrian-Turkish relationship, including the stability of the Syrian-Turkish border and a solution of the Kurdish issue in Syria. If Russia succeeds in such an endeavor it will further enhance its standing in the Middle East.
Needless to say, Russia’s ability to implement its policies in Syria depend largely on how it manages its relations not only with Turkey and the United States, but also Iran.