Mohammad Zubair Ud Din
A report emerged in the Middle East Monitor on 4 May, 2020, which has evinced keen interest among international observers. This report says that 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 Al-Assad. What looked in the beginning as a losing battle for Assad suddenly saw a metamorphosis after Syrian opposition groups and the ISIS took a heavy beating from Russian airpower. In December 2017, Russia declared that her troops will remain permanently stationed in Syria even as Russia would support a negotiated solution on Syria involving all the stakeholders.
Russia’s entry in the war
There are a 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 on the lookout for an opportunity since the disintegration of USSR to improve her international stature and establish its position as one of the world powers. The oil boom years after 2000 placed Russia in a position to act on her wish to regain status as a world power. Consequently, Russia decided to take advantage of the Syrian conflict and made a military intervention. Second, in Russia assertive nationalism was visible when Russia conquered Crimea from Ukraine between February and March 2014 despite strong opposition from the west. Third, Russia views Middle East as an important region from the strategic and economic point of view. The Middle East has geographical proximity with Russia, which makes it all the more important for Russia to try and offset, as far as possible, US hegemony in the region. Since its entry in the Syrian War, Russia has tried to strike a balance between different regional powers like Turkey, Iran and even Israel, though there have been certain skirmishes. One such skirmish which entailed the downing of a Russian jet, Su-24, an all-weather attack aircraft, by Turkey on 24 November 2015 resulted in an unprecedented mutual acrimony for some time before the relations were normalised in 2017. Since Turkey and Iran support rival groups and have divergent interests in the 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 military intervention should also be viewed from the perceived threat of ISIS to her national security.
Assad regains foothold
Russia fared well in the Syrian conflict with its airpower battering the opposition forces including the dreaded ISIS. Here Russia was lucky in having the tacit support of the USA, which viewed ISIS as a threat to its national security. The USA and Russia together destroyed ISIS infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. There was a convergence of interest even between USA and Iran in the fight against ISIS. Here even Turkey was on the same page with Russia and Iran for it, too, viewed the ISIS and what it stood for as a danger. In between, Assad got the much needed breathing space. The Syrian War has oscillated from one end to another and what seemed to be a powerful uprising against the Assad government in the beginning has emerged into a multilayered conflict. The Assad government has regained much of the territories it had previously lost. Although Russia has turned increasingly pro-Assadist as the conflict has unfolded, it has avoided direct confrontation with Turkey, which supports a few opposition groups. Even with Israel, Russia has maintained a unique relationship and avoided a zero-sum game during the course of the Syrian conflict.
Limits of Russia’s Syrian Policy
Russia succeeded in preventing the collapse of the 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 over the humanitarian disaster of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens, Russia has not been able to translate its military success into a political settlement to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. Russia, no doubt, has so far played its cards deftly in the Middle East by skilfully balancing the different regional powers in the region, but this policy is not without vulnerabilities. Much to the disliking of the Assad regime and of Iran, Russia and Turkey signed a ceasefire agreement in Syria’s Idlib Province on 5 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 the Astana (Kazakhstan) agreement, suffered many casualties. In retaliation, Turkey subjected the Syrian regime forces to a heavy drubbing. Especially the use of drones by Turkey proved a game changer. The Assad forces which had pinned hopes on Russia’s military support had to cut a sorry figure as both Turkey and Russia avoided 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 Assad 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 and Covid-19 pandemic
The Crimean adventure of Russia had two sides, Russia and Ukraine, locked in a conflict but the worrying part for Russia from this Crimean adventure has been that it provoked the harshest sanctions from the west against Russia which have since taken a heavy toll on her economy. Foreign investments have reduced, which has made the Russian economy all the more energy dependent, with its fluctuating and volatile prices. Russian people are worried not only about growing unemployment but also seem to be fed up with the Russian military adventure in Syria, a fact attested to by a 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 increasing domestic pressure for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
As if the slowdown in the economy was not enough, Covid-19 is hitting Russia hard. At the time of writing this article, Russia has 5,76,952 Covid-19 cases with 8,002 deaths and counting. Covid-19 has put the health infrastructure of Russia under tremendous strain. Russia will take a long time to come out of the devastating economic effects of Covid-19. This will, in all possibility, have an impact on her 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 freezed as each country looks for austerity measures. 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 military intervention in Syria. Russia would like to decrease its political and military commitments in the Syrian conflict and instead focus its concern towards securing and having uninterrupted access to its Tartus and Hmeimim military bases in Syria. In order to extricate itself out of the Syrian imbroglio, Russia’s pressure on the Assad regime for a comprehensive dialogue involving all the stakeholders looks all the more plausible. After all, Russia would never want itself entangled in another Afghanistan-like situation.
The writer is an Assistant Professor of History