TSG IntelBrief: Russia’s Engagement with Syria
August 27, 2015

Russia’s Engagement with Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Assad hopes that his continued survival will be assured by Russia, but this is not Russia’s main concern

• Russia has courted regional support for an imposed solution to which it will now aim to get the Syrian opposition to agree

• It will also aim to win the support of third-party countries that it sees as key to forcing through an agreement

• But the Russian plan comes too late; the internal situation in Syria has seemingly created insurmountable obstacles.

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In an interview on Tuesday with al-Manar, the official Hizballah TV channel in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed his complete confidence that Russia would continue to support his regime. He described the Russian position as based on principle and as an expression of loyalty from one friend to another. But Russia, like every other nation, pursues foreign policies that reflect its interests; if its policy appears to be principled and steadfast in the case of Syria, that is an advantage, but it is not what lies behind it.

Russia has few options in the Middle East. It may have found an opportunity to get closer to Saudi Arabia in the wake of U.S. rapprochement with Iran, and it may see itself more closely aligned with Egypt following its reimposition of autocratic rule, but its relationship with Syria has for many years been the central pillar on which it has built its engagement with the region. A collapse of the regime would end this relationship and make Russia a marginal player in an area of the world that is likely to feature prominently in international politics for a long time to come. It may look like principle and loyalty, but it is more self-interest.

The U.S., being opposed to the regime but without a clear alternative to support, has allowed Russia to take the political lead on Syria—an opportunity that Russia has been pleased to take. This has led to various meetings in Russia involving the regional states and a reiteration by the Security Council on August 17 of the common ground already established by the international community in the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012 that all parties should join negotiations towards agreement on a Syrian-led transitional process.

This may sound comforting to Assad, but Russia has made clear that although it would not accept as a precondition of these negotiations that Assad should leave office, nor would it impose such a precondition that he should stay. In fact, Russia sees a solution for Syria that draws both government and opposition together in a fight against the so-called Islamic State and other ‘terrorist’ groups—not one that preserves Assad. It does not see Assad as an essential part of its counter-terrorism objectives; in fact it is far more likely that it sees him as a hindrance. Nonetheless, with or without Assad, Russia would support the maintenance of a rump Syrian state, controlled by the same forces and populated by the same people as those who now comprise the regime’s heartland.

The Russian plan is essentially to ensure that the ‘transitional period’ results in a strong central authority that can regain control over all of what was once Syria. Having had an opportunity to sell this idea to the leaders of regional states over the last few days and weeks, Russia will once again summon Syrian opposition groups to Moscow in mid-September to endorse the plan, hoping this time to get a better attendance and more unanimity than on the two previous occasions it has tried to do this. After that, it will convene a new action group comprising Russia, Iran, and Egypt on the one side, and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other, to agree the future for Syria between them. This should then lead to a new ‘Geneva’ conference at the end of the year at which all sides of the Syrian conflict would hammer out the details within the framework agreed by the action group.

There are, however, a few difficulties ahead. First, the Russian plan pushes the efforts of the United Nations to the sidelines. This in itself is not a problem, except that the Security Council has just endorsed a far less ambitious proposal put forward by the Special Envoy to hold four Syrian working groups to discuss issues of common concern, such as security and reconstruction. Second, Russia must persuade Iran to abandon its 4-point plan that proposes a framework for Syrians to decide their future during a transitional period, rather than outside powers. The Russians calculate that this plan would likely lead to Iranian gains at Russian expense—a calculation no doubt also made by the Iranians. Third, the Russians have to get the opposition to agree that Assad should remain as head of state—at least for the short-term—and Assad to agree that he will not remain as head of state in the longer term.

But another difficulty, and one that is far more problematic than any of the others, is that the Russian plan assumes that Syria can remain one country. The likelihood of this is now so remote that any action plan that has it as an objective is almost guaranteed to fail. Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which rates as one of the strongest elements of the opposition and will be a key guardian of the Turkey-U.S. backed Islamic State-free-zone; the Kurdish militia, which controls a large chunk of territory along the Turkish border; Jabhat al-Nusra, which controls Idlib and has begun to look for legitimacy despite its affiliation with al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, which shows no sign of disintegration; are all excluded from these discussions and plans. None of them will quietly concede defeat and give up their territory and influence without a fight; and no Syrian regime as envisaged by the Russian plan could possibly hope to win it.

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