Many disagreements emerged between Moscow and Damascus on the Syrian file over the past five years. However, public statements, recently issued by official media outlets in the two countries, have shed light on substantial differences that sometimes reached the point of diverging approaches to core matters.
We present below 10 points of contention between the two sides.
1- The “Turning Point”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Russian Novosti Agency a few days ago: “There are many turning points that I can mention, not one.”
He cited the liberation of many areas in 2013 before the emergence of ISIS and the arrival of the Russian forces in September 2015 when many regions were also liberated.
For his part, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said on the anniversary of his country’s army intervention at the end of September: “On September 30, 2015, the Federation Council approved the President’s request to use the armed forces in Syria… At that point, the situation in Syria became critical, and there was a risk of the Syrian army defeat, and thus the collapse of the state’s sovereignty…”
2- The duration and reasons of the Russian presence
Assad said: “The term of the agreement regarding the Hmeimim base indicates long-term plans for cooperation.”
“Russia is not a small country. It is a great power, so it has duties, and it is responsible for the whole world, and part of this responsibility is its political and military presence in different regions,” he added.
For his part, Shoygu said: “Before the beginning of the operation, a formation of the Armed Forces was secretly established at the Hmeimim Air Base, consisting of 50 modern and developed war pieces (34 aircraft and 16 helicopters), in addition to the arrival of military units for combat support and special operations.”
3 & 4- War and understandings
Is the war over? “No, definitely not,” Assad said. “As long as there are terrorists occupying some areas of our country and committing all kinds of crimes, assassinations and other crimes, the war is not over.”
As for understandings, he noted: “The Russian-Turkish agreements are not effective. If the Moscow-Ankara agreement had been efficient, we would not have had to carry out attacks recently in many areas of Aleppo and Idlib.”
For his part, Lavrov said: “There is a Russian-Turkish memorandum that is still fully implemented, and patrols on the Aleppo-Latakia road have been stopped for security reasons.”
5 – The solution in Idlib and east of the Euphrates
Assad talked about “launching a popular resistance to confront the American and Turkish occupations.” In mid-November, the Syrian president said: “The US presence in Syria will generate military resistance that will inflict losses on the Americans, and thus will force them to leave.”
Lavrov, for his part, pointed to the US illegal presence in the eastern side of the Euphrates, saying that the Americans were “playing with the Kurds in an irresponsible way.”
6 – Iran and Israel
Is there an Iranian presence in Syria? “We don’t have Iranian forces,” Assad said. “They support Syria. They send military experts and work with our forces on the ground, and they are there with the Syrian army.”
At the beginning of August 2018, Tass Russian news agency quoted the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, as saying: “The (Hezbollah) and Iranian-backed militias have all withdrawn from there.”
Russia remains silent about the Israeli raids on “Iranian sites.”
7 – The Geneva Process
Assad said: “We have changed the constitution in 2012. And now we are discussing the constitution in the Geneva talks (...). In the end, the Geneva negotiations (sponsored by the United Nations to implement UN Resolution 2254) are a political game, and it is not what most Syrians focus on. The Syrian people do not think about the constitution, and no one talks about it. Their concerns are related to the reforms that we must undertake and the policies that we need to change to ensure that their needs are met. This is what we are focusing on now. ”
Following his meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow on September 24, Lavrov said that the troika of the Astana process “is the author of the initiative of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference in Sochi, at the end of which the government and the opposition expressed their commitment to forming the constitutional committee and launching constitutional reform.”
8- The constitution and the elections
Lavrov was quoted as saying that he was “not satisfied with the pace of the commission process.” On the other hand, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said in a press conference with Lavrov in Damascus, on September 7: “There is no timetable for implementing the constitution; it has special importance… and cannot be formulated hastily.”
The two sides, however, have agreed on holding the presidential elections in mid-2021.
9- The Kurdish Administration
During his meeting with two delegations from the Syrian Democratic Council and the Popular Will Party in early September in Moscow following the signing of a memorandum of understanding, Lavrov expressed “his country’s readiness to continue working to create favorable conditions for harmonious coexistence and progress for all religious and ethnic components in Syrian society.”
In response to the MoU, Moallem said: “We do not support any agreement that contradicts the Syrian constitution.” Damascus had rejected a Russian draft of the constitution.
10 – Incentives and sanctions
Damascus and Moscow both reject the US and European sanctions. They also oppose the Syrian Democratic Forces’ control of natural resources and oil in the east of the Euphrates.
A consortium was established to circumvent the sanctions, and Russian companies obtained contracts to invest in oil and gas. But economic cooperation remains far below the Russian military cooperation.
For this purpose, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov visited Damascus on September 7 to enhance cooperation. Borisov said that the two parties have reached agreements to rehabilitate 40 Syrian installations and rebuild energy infrastructure.
He said that the two sides have discussed pushing forward the “roadmap” signed in 2018 to develop economic cooperation.
Syrian Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Azzam visited Moscow recently to speed up the signing of the “road map” next December, and to obtain loans and grants worth up to USD three billion.
Observers believe that Moscow did not rush to assist Damascus in solving the fuel and wheat crisis, pending a fresh approach by Syria on political files.