Is Russia Aiming At Exit From The Syrian Conflict?
Assad has become more a liability than an asset for Russia. Russia finds it extremely difficult to untangle itself from the Syrian conflict.
Mohammad Zubair Ud Din
A report emerged in the Middle East Monitor on 04 May, 2020 which , no wonder , has evinced keen interest among international observers in view of the breadth of its scope. This report says the ” Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) expects that Russia, Turkey and Iran will reach a consensus to remove the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad, and establish a ceasefire in exchange for forming a transitional government that includes the opposition, members of the regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)”. Russia entered the Syrian war in September 2015 which changed the tide in favour of Bashar ul Asad. What looked in the beginning a losing war for Bashar ul Asad , suddenly saw a metamorphosis with different Syrian opposition groups and the ISIS taking a heavy beating from Russian airpower. In December 2017, Russia declared that her troops will remain permanently stationed in Syria even though Russia in her official handouts would support a negotiated solution on Syria involving all the stakeholders.
Russia’s entry in the war
There are myriad answers to the question as to what , in the first instance, made Russia interfere in the Syrian conflict. Russian intervention in the multilayered Syrian conflict can be attributed to many causes. First , Russia was in the lookout of an opportunity since USSR disintegration to improve her international stature and establish its position as one of the world powers. The economic boom years resulting from the selling of oil after 2000 placed Russia in a position to accentuate her urge to regain its status as a world power. Consequently, Russia decided to take advantage of the Syrian conflict and thereby made a millitary intervention. Second, In Russia the assertive nationalism was visible when Russia conquered Crimea from Ukraine between February and March 2014 despite the strong opposition from the west. Third, Russia views Middle East as an important region from strategic and economic point of view. The middle East holds geographical proximity with Russia which makes it all the more important for Russia to try and offset, as far as possible, the USA hegemony in the region. Since its entry in the Syrian war, it has tried to strike a balance between different regional powers like Turkey, Iran and even Israel even though there have been certain skirmishes. One such skirmish which entailed the downing of Russian Jet, Su-24, an all-weather attack aircraft, by Turkey on 24 November, 2015 resulted in an unprecedented mutual acrimony for sometime before the relations were normalised in 2017. Since Turkey and Iran support the rival groups and have divergent interests in Syrian conflict , Russia has involved both countries in agreements on Syria like the Astana agreement in 2017. Fourth, Russia has found markets for its weapons in the Middle East and this may continue in future as well. Moreover, Russia has signed many trade and investment deals with many gulf countries especially Saudi Arabia and UAE and it would like to grab the economic opportunities emanating out of this region. Besides , Russia’s millitary intervention should also be viewed from the perceived threat of ISIS to her national security.
Assad regains the foothold
Russia fared well in the Syrian conflict with its air power battering badly the opposition forces including the dreaded ISIS. Here Russia was lucky in having the tacit support of USA as well for they too viewed ISIS as a threat to their National security. USA and Russia destroyed the ISIS infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. There was a convergence of interest even between USA and Iran in the fight against ISIL. Here even Turkey was on the same page with Russia and Iran for it , too, viewed the ISIL and what is stood for as a danger for her national security. In between Bashar ul Asad got the much needed breathing space . The Syrian war has oscillated from one end to another and what seemed a powerful uprising against the Assad government in the beginning has emerged into a multilayered conflict. However, the Assad government regained much of the territories it had previously lost to opposition groups and the ISIS with the support of Russia. Although, Russia turned increasingly pro-Assadist as the conflict unfolded, however it avoided a direct confrontation with Turkey which supports a few opposition groups. Even with Israel, Russia maintained a unique relationship and avoided a zero sum game with it during the course of the present Syrian conflict.
The Syrian war has oscillated from one end to another and what seemed a powerful uprising against the Assad government in the beginning has emerged into a multilayered conflict.
Limits of Russia’s Syrian policy
Russia succeeded in preventing the collapse of Assad regime through its active military intervention. However, of late Assad has become more a liability than an asset for Russia. Russia finds it extremely difficult to untangle itself from the Syrian conflict. In the midst of mounting international concern for the humanitarian disaster seen in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens, Russia has not been able to translate its millitary success into a political settlement to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders. Russia , no doubt, has so far played its cards deftly in the Middle East by skillfully balancing the different regional powers in the region, but this policy is not without vulnerabilities. Much to the disliking of the Assad regime and Iran, Russia and Turkey signed a ceasefire agreement in Syria’s Idlib Province on 05 march , 2020. In a final push to reclaim Idlib , the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, the regime forces started an aggressive military campaign but, advertently or inadvertently, crossed the red line. Turkey which hosts its troops in Idlib as per Astana (Kazakhstan) agreement received many causalities. In retaliation , Turkey subjected the Syrian regime forces to heavy drubbing. Especially, the use of drones by Turkey proved a game changer. The regime forces which had pinned hopes on Russia’s military support had to cut a sorry figure as both Turkey and Russia avoided a direct military confrontation and instead agreed upon a ceasefire agreement which effectually translates into status quo as far as Idlib is concerned. And whereas the regime forces remain stationed in the precarious Idlib , the ISIS has mounted its attacks yet again in Syria. This will not augur well in future , if left unchecked, for Russia in Syria.
Downturn in Russian economy, Covid-19 Pandemic and the possible Political Fallout
The Crimean adventure of Russia has had the two sides, Russia and Ukraine, locked in a conflict with no end in sight but the worrying part for Russia from this Crimean adventure has been that it provoked the harshest sanctions from the west against Russia which has since then took a heavy toll on her economy. Foreign investments have reduced since then which has made Russian economy all the more energy dependent which , nevertheless, always remains exposed to fluctuating and volatile prices. It has resulted in a growing stress among the Russian people who are worried not only about the growing unemployment but seem to be fed up with the Russian millitary adventure in Syria , a fact attested by few surveys. In view of the increasing cost of maintaining her influence in Syria, the job of reconstruction of Syria looks all the more daunting. No wonder, there is an increasing domestic pressure for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. As if the slowdown in economy coupled with other challenges was not enough , Covid-19 is battering hard Russia. At the time of writing this article, Russia has 5,76,952 Covid-19 cases with 8002 deaths and counting. The Covid-19 has put the health infrastructure of Russia under tremendous strain with severe economic consequences in the offing. Russia will take a long time like USA and other countries of the world to come out of the devastating economic effects of Covid-19 . This will , in all possibility, have its impact on the political and foreign policy choices. Already a trade war on the issue of oil prices has ensued between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The various investment projects in Russia agreed to by gulf countries will be frozen as each country is looking for austerity measures right now. Saudi Arabia has already announced to triple its value added tax rate. The unfolding of these developments could eventually have a great role in shaping the future of and consequently lessening Russia’s millitary intervention in Syria. Russia would like to decrease its political and millitary commitments in the Syrian conflict and instead focus its concern towards securing and having uninterrupted access to its Tartus and Hmeimim millitary bases in Syria. In order to extricate itself out of the Syrian imbroglio, Russia’s exercising pressure on the Assad regime for a comprehensive dialogue involving all the stakeholders to arrive at a political settlement at the earliest looks all the more plausible. After all Russia would never want itself entangled in another Afghanistan like situation. The refusal or the resistance by the Bashar-ul-Assad to the idea of brokering peace with his erstwhile enemies could see the lines of report mentioned in the introductory lines covert into a political reality.
Mohammad Zubair Ud Din is an Assistant Professor in History and hails from Soibugh Budgam , Jammu and Kashmir. He can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not reflect the stand or policy of Oracle Opinions.