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Disentangling the Syrian conflict: the Russian card, a game changer?

Image credit: Freedom House

Image credit: Freedom House

Much has been written about the Russian military intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015. Few had anticipated such an initiative on such a scale. When in March 2016 Putin announced a reduction of force levels – in fact a change of force mix and capability – in preparation of negotiations in Geneva, praise was almost unanimous in the news media. For once someone had shown the world what effective diplomacy in a hotspot like the Middle East can do. Indeed, this decisive intervention has turned the situation on the ground around in favour of Assad who had recently been losing out. How does this development fit into a more general perspective of Russian relations with Syria and how successful will this intervention ultimately prove to be in securing a durable political settlement?

Historical roots of a special relationship*

Syria’s relationship with Russia – and previously with the Soviet Union – has been characterised by ebbs and flows. It goes back to the 1950s when the Syrian Communist Party – a member was then part of the Syrian government – acted as a sort of go-between. Damascus was already buying arms and sending officers to Soviet academies. Agreements on cultural, economic and technical assistance followed. Later, against the background of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Damascus enjoyed Soviet support in international forums, especially in the United Nations (UN). After the radical wing of the Baath Party under the then leader, Salah Jadid, had won out against the moderates in the late 1960s, Hafez Assad, the father of the present President, established a more businesslike relationship in 1970, less ideological and free from doctrinal and emotional ups and downs. Arms deliveries would take on added importance, the Soviet navy gained access to the port of Tartous (a refueling and maintenance facility) and a bilateral treaty of friendship was concluded.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 relations were put on the back-burner until 2005 when, under Bashar Assad, Damascus obtained favourable terms for its sky-high debt. Inevitably arms sales continued to rise (especially in the context of the Israeli-Lebanon war of 2006) and natural gas and oil exploration contracts were signed.

Moscow toes the Assad line as a means to maintain its influence in Syria and the region

Against this setting, characterised by fluctuating strong ties, Moscow toed the Assad-line during the present civil war, granting support in the UN as well as advising the armed opposition to negotiate, not to fight. Indeed, Moscow was in favour of a negotiated settlement of the conflict, opposed to any form of regime change engineered by outside powers, either with or without military means.

Russia stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the summer of 2015, when alarm bells started ringing in Damascus following substantial territorial gains by the armed opposition. Mindful that the Obama administration was unlikely to directly use force to change the regime following the chemical arms crisis in September 2013, and realising that intensive Russian diplomacy – also with regional powers – was not yielding tangible results, Moscow initiated massive air strikes to prop-up the Assad regime in September 2015, which were partially halted in March 2016. These strikes earmarked – at least until March 2016 – not only officially recognised terrorist groups such as ‘Islamic State’ and al Nusra but also the armed non-radical opposition such as the ‘Free Syrian Army’, ‘al Islam’ and ‘al Sham’. Soon Assad was back in business and the balance of power was once again favouring the regime. The Syrian Foreign Minister spoke of a ‘game changer’.

Consequently, Moscow had shown off the effectiveness of its new generation of weapons and built up its military forces in Syria with now two bases, one in the port of Tartous and the other in Lattakia (an airforce base). It was also no longer isolated on the international scene after the crisis in the Ukraine and was attempting to divide the EU on sanctions.

Thus, the conditions were created – but this time with Assad in a position of strength and Russia in the driving seat – to restart the negotiations in cooperation with the United States in March 2016, pursuant to UNSC resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015 on a ‘roadmap for the peace process in Syria’ and UNSC resolution 2268 of 26 February 2016 on a ‘cessation of hostilities’, both unanimously adopted and based on the Geneva communiqué of 30 of June 2012.

Assad still holds several cards

What prospects do negotiations offer for a meaningful solution? The idea behind the present talks is that joint US-Russian pressure, backed up by unanimous UNSC resolutions, would compel Assad to finally get down to business. However, at the moment the odds seem stacked against such a possibility. Indeed, the Assad regime has made it clear that its priority is to defeat the terrorists (which includes all armed opposition groups), broaden the present government with some acceptable opposition parties and amend the constitution (to this purpose a committee could be set up). Assad’s political future is not negotiable. No parliamentary or presidential elections can be envisaged within the 18-month period, ending 30 June 2017. The Syrians – those still inside Syria – will eventually decide the country’s future.

On the other hand, the opposition is adamant Assad has to go and cannot be part of a transitional government. Furthermore, UNSC resolutions must be fully implemented which, apart from providing humanitarian access to besieged areas and the release of political prisoners, entails the drawing up of a new constitution and, at the end of the 18-month period (30 June 2017), the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections under UN supervision, including the diaspora (but obviously without Assad).

Beside these disagreements on issues of substance it should be remembered that Syria, often isolated internationally, has a long history of negotiating against the odds. Moreover, the leadership group around Assad appears at the moment to be largely intact, even though a recent development deserves special attention: that is, an open letter by the Alawite community – to which Assad belongs – seemingly distancing itself from the Assad regime. In this letter the Alawites lay claim to a third role model within Islam (therefore not part of the Shia community), defending secularism and arguing for a Syria in which the different faiths are equal. Is this community preparing for the post-Assad era, fearing possible stigmatisation? The regime also still enjoys the support of a critical mass of Syrians remaining inside the country and who see no alternative to Assad. Many fear the vacuum which would follow his removal. In case Russian support falters, Damascus can fall back on Iran which, given its already huge investment, will not easily give up the Syrian corridor to Hezbollah in Lebanon in the fight against Israel.

Thus Assad still has some cards to play. As such his representatives at the negotiating table in Geneva will do all they can to drag their feet, stall and gain time, waiting for new developments to occur. What happened in other Arab countries will not deter Assad. As has been amply demonstrated, Syria is and will remain a special case. It is not surprising therefore that the Soviet ambassador, questioned in the 1980s by a western diplomat on the country’s relationship with Syria, replied ‘Syrians take everything except our advice’.

… the only way forward: change the balance of power on the ground once more

The only course to follow with any chance of success is to create conditions on the ground which will sufficiently weaken the regime so that it will thus have no alternative but to negotiate seriously if it wants to survive, therefore in a position of weakness. The threat of force will have to be maintained as a final recourse. We were nearly there a year ago. However, this option is not without risks (i.e. the threat of radical Islam filling the vacuum). That is why present successful efforts in pushing back ‘Islamic State’ should be pursued relentlessly, and, in parallel, scenario and contingency planning should be looked at in western countries to prevent any repeat of what we saw in other Arab countries once the existing ruler had left the scene.

…where does this leave the EU?

So far the EU has been perceived on the international stage as a victim of the crisis and not as an interested major actor. Located in its backyard and having directly felt the impact of the civil war, the EU should consider Syria more than a homeland security issue (e.g. home-grown Syrian fighters), a humanitarian disaster (e.g. refugee camps in and outside Syria) or a migrant crisis. Indeed, Syria is also a geopolitical challenge. Even if skepticism is warranted concerning the present peace process in Geneva, these negotiations should offer an opportunity to put forward EU proposals (i.e. not just those reflecting the interests of major EU powers) that seek to bridge the glaring differences in position between the opposing parties.

Vol. 8, No. 13 (2016)

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