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The Russian Thread and the Syrian Carpet

The Russian Thread and the Syrian Carpet

Monday, 15 March, 2021 - 10:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The “Arab Spring” did not bear fruit. We talk about it as if we were reading a painful old novel. We have the feeling that those events took place a long time ago and that layers of dirt and ash covered blood stains that were scattered in capitals and squares.

One has the right to ask whether this spring came early or late and whether our societies are vaccinated against spring and change. Of course, the spring found an international community ready to give a round of applause and incite the revolutionaries to dream more, but without providing political, legal and human solidarity at the crucial moment.

In fact, spring can be punished through several means, especially when militants take over the podiums and squares, as terror grips society, and the security forces move to dispel fear and the spring altogether. Spring can be rebuked in many ways in the terrible Middle East, but the punishment in Syria was the most severe, and the outcome was a victorious regime in a devastated country.

A decade after the first spark, Syria seems confused amid interventions, flags, losses and numbers. One can say that the Syrian regime was lucky. Iran, which adopts the language of defending the oppressed and the troubled, had chosen, from the first moment, to prevent the Syrian Spring from achieving any change in the regime’s status and regional standing. A regime change in Syria simply meant cutting off the line of communication with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is Iran’s greatest regional investment. The proof is the role the party plays in wars in the region.

Interventions multiplied on the Syrian arena. Weapons and convoys of fighters poured in to join a confrontation that was marked by its brutality, especially after their only method became the “scorched earth.”

But experience has shown that pro-Iranian militias alone are unable to prevent the fall of the regime, after the opposition attacks neared the heart of Damascus. It was necessary to search for an umbrella that would save the regime from falling, and later give it the opportunity to restore its capabilities and regain vital areas. If Tehran hated spring when it loomed over Damascus, the Kremlin master despised it even more.

Many reasons encouraged Vladimir Putin to deal a fatal blow to the Syrian Spring. Putin does not like color revolutions, civil society statements and international human rights organizations. He considers them mere masks of a Western desire to violate state sovereignty.

Another more relevant motive: The Syrian revolution became militarized and its front ranks were seized by the wandering fighters, whose infiltration into Syrian territories was facilitated by Turkey. They raised the slogans of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Among them were a large number of expatriates from countries emerging from the Soviet rubble, and Putin saw an opportunity to crack down on them in Syria, instead of hunting for them on the outskirts of Russia or inside it.

The Russian intervention turned the tide, and the Syrian Spring turned into mere memories.

Ousting the regime is no longer on the table. Now the most Western countries can aspire to is hope that President Bashar al-Assad - who is close to winning a new presidential term - agrees to show flexibility towards a political solution, albeit less than what is stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

When Syria was seen as an open arena for interference, Turkey stepped forward in its turn to undermine the Kurdish strip near its borders and to reserve, like Iran, a position in any future negotiations.

The map is very complex. The Russian victory is clear, but incomplete. Iran is a difficult partner, and its forces infiltrated the Syrian military and security services, and some segments of society. Israel is waging a relentless war against the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, as Putin describes Netanyahu as a partner and friend. Turkey is a recognized partner since the launch of the Astana process with Russia and Iran. As for the US military presence on Syrian soil, it raises the banner of confronting ISIS, but hopes to cut the Tehran-Beirut route, or at least keep an eye it.

The Russian victory is lacking because Moscow is neither able to lead the reconstruction process in Syria, nor ready to rehabilitate the regime and reintegrate it into the Arab and international groups. The regime’s victory is also incomplete. It is not likely to fall militarily, but the terrible economic deterioration is an evil enemy. Moreover, the long stay amid the rubble and staggering numbers of dead and wounded, refugees and displaced persons, is fraught with isolation and erosion.

In light of these facts, and with the presence of an American administration groping its way in the Middle East, Sergei Lavrov carried out a Gulf tour, which included Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The Russian-Qatari-Turkish meeting in Doha resulted in the launch of a “political path parallel to the Astana process.”

It is clear that Russia, which is currently engaged in Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, does not have the ability to generate solutions by itself. It needs an understanding with America and the support of the Gulf states. The Syrian regime knows that it is unable to change its current reality without taking steps that reassure the Arabs and encourage the West to soften the obstacles that prevent it from catching its breath.

Russia is the top in present-day Syria, but not the only one. Russian threads are necessary to weave the solution carpet in Syria, to remove it from the rubble and economic decline, and to open the door for reconstruction and the return of refugees. The Russian weaver also needs American, European, Gulf, Turkish and Iranian threads.

The solution in Syria is not simple. Russia and Syria know that the Biden administration, which is interested in the nuclear agreement with Iran and containing the “Chinese rise,” may not be seeking to allow Putin to achieve such success in Syria without a price. Can Assad facilitate the task of the Russian weaver?

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