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Assad and Putin meet in Sochi

In the Chaos of Syrian Geopolitics, Russia Remains Dominant

Kamal Alam
Commentary, 15 May 2020
Turkey, Iran, The Gulf Region, Russia, Syria
The Russians appear to be expressing dissatisfaction with the Syrian president. But these are mere rumblings; the Syrian government is consolidating, and Russia is there to stay.

Much attention has been drawn recently to the rather unusual sight of pro-Russian media criticising the handling of the Syrian war by Russia’s own ally, President Bashar Al-Assad. Alexander Aksenyonok, a former Russian Ambassador to Syria, was also more specific in articulating Moscow’s apparent misgivings, when he said that there are multiple reasons to be frustrated with how the Syrian government is stalling progress on questions such as national reconciliation, governance and financial corruption, as the war winds down.

Still, and notwithstanding these frustrations, Russia remains in the driving seat with regard to rehabilitating the Syrian state. It now has new allies in the shape of the UAE, Bahrain and increasing Chinese involvement in assisting Damascus. There are also increasing signs that relentless Israeli pressure is finally taking its toll on Iranian military presence in Syria. Furthermore, Russia and the UAE are now on opposite sides to Turkey both in Libya and Syria. This has meant that Turkey will have to perform a careful balancing act with Russia given that it seems to be further isolated in the Mediterranean. And, with both Greece and Cyprus reaching out to Damascus, this further increases the pressure on Ankara. The Russians will look to capitalise on the UAE’s fresh engagement in Syria, as UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed looks to support Assad as a counterbalance against Turkish influence in Northern Syria.

Russia is Here to Stay

Although last month’s criticism of Syria in the Russian press was surprising, Moscow rushed to deny any rift. In fact, the Russian Federal News Agency put out a bulletin saying they had been hacked, and the negative stories against Assad were not genuine.

The talk of a Russian rift or frustration with Damascus fundamentally overlooks Russia’s historic role in Syria. It far predates President Vladimir Putin, and is a continuation of over 60 years of unbroken participation in Syrian defence affairs. This relationship formed a key part of Soviet policy in the Arab world.

At the start of this year, Russia also showed Turkey that despite growing energy and defence cooperation, Moscow was firmly in Assad’s corner. This was demonstrated by Russian-backed air strikes that killed dozens of Turkish troops. In January and February, on at least three occasions, the Russians let the Syrians strike at will, taking out Turkish positions and thereby violating the 2017 Astana accords, which aimed to disentangle spheres of influence in north-western Syria. They contained an agreement that the Syrian military should not advance on Turkish-backed groups. But that provision was set aside this year, with Russia’s active support.

Syrian officials have a much more positive view of Russian, rather than Iranian, involvement. In a chapter published in a report by RUSI in 2016 on Iran’s relationship with Syria, I argued that senior Syrian military and intelligence officials preferred Russian intervention citing how Iran did little to help the Syrian state and instead helped Tehran’s proxies whilst Russia assisted the Syrian military and institutions. Furthermore, it was the Russian military that changed the tide of the war. The Orthodox Church plays a big role, alongside security dimensions, in Russia’s motivation to support Damascus. Earlier this year, on Orthodox Christmas, Putin made a poignant visit to the old Marian cathedral in Damascus that dates back to the beginning of Christianity. Russia has long also seen itself as a Third Rome and the defender of Eastern Christianity.  

Two former British Ambassadors in conversation argued that Russia always has and shall be dominant in Syrian affairs. Sir Roger Tomkys, who served in Damascus during the 1980s peak of the Cold War, said the Russian Ambassador enjoyed unparalleled access to Assad and supported Syria without conditions. Henry Hogger, who served in Damascus when Bashar took over from his father, believes Russian military bases and military support to Syria is fundamental and permanent.

UAE Renews its Interest in Damascus

In 2018, the UAE first displayed a change of strategy towards Damascus when their Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in an interview that it was a mistake to throw Syria out of the Arab League, and that the Arab world must work with Damascus. This followed the extremely warm exchange between the foreign ministers of Syria and Bahrain at the UN General Assembly in late 2018. The public embrace and hugs were followed by the Bahraini foreign minister calling his Syrian counterpart ‘a brother’, and saying that the Arab countries were ready to work with Syria. Bahrain seems to have completely differentiated itself from its previous Saudi-aligned policy of seeking to oust Assad.

Since then, a top UAE diplomat praised the ‘wise leadership’ of Assad, and as the coronavirus pandemic spread, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed made a very public phone call and show of support to Assad, promising to help during the pandemic and with the reconstruction of Syria. The UAE has also sent high-profile trade delegations, defying US displeasure. Equally important is that the Saudi Crown Prince has made overtures to Assad in a number of interviews, publicly calling for an acknowledgement of Assad’s victory and Saudi acceptance of Assad's rule in return for pushing Iran out. Similarly, a senior delegation sent by Libyan National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar came to visit Assad in a sign that the UAE and the Saudis are aligning Libya with Syria, in other words they view this as a common theme in opposing Turkish and Qatari ‘aggression’.

Evolving Alliances

Putin is looking to work with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Syria by leveraging their animosity against Turkey and desire to balance Iranian influence. It is an open secret that the Russians want a reduced Iranian role, something the whole region would welcome. Russia is also welcoming an increasingly visible Chinese presence in Syria. There have been regular senior Chinese officials visiting Damascus and the Chinese see Syria as a long-term investment rather than a quick reward. In addition, Greece has appointed its first official envoy to Syria since the war began, which is further evidence of new alliances to counter Turkey in Syria.

The Russian frustrations with financial corruption amongst Assad’s inner circle have also been swiftly dealt with. Damascus cracked down on the billionaire Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, thereby showing that Syria does act on some of Moscow’s serious concerns. Makhlouf was the main focus of the Syrian protestors in the early days of the conflict as a result of his alleged widespread corruption and control of the Syrian economy. Now, however, and at Moscow’s urging, Assad acted decisively to counter his own cousin and former bankroller of the government. In cash-strapped Syria, the message was there is no margin for error as Assad cleans house to make room for new alliances, cementing the old Russian deterrent against the enemies of Damascus.

Makhlouf was open to Iranian business interests, whilst the Russians want their companies at the head of the queue. At the same time the Israelis announced this week that Iran is slowly but surely getting the message and leaving Syria. As the region goes through a significant change, one equation will not change: the Russian presence in Syria; and the steady consolidation of Assad’s victory.

Kamal Alam writes on Syrian defence and strategic affairs. He was a Fellow at RUSI from 2015 to 2019.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Kremlin.ru

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