By Aqeel Saeed Mahfoud* |
While the intensity of military operations in Syria may have somewhat died down, the war still serves as a “guiding” or “referential” framework for what is happening both in the country and in the region as a whole. The long and short of this is that there is no end in sight to the war, and Russia will continue to have a presence in Syria for the foreseeable future, a fact which itself comes with a number of attendant overtones, opportunities and challenges for the two countries.
We still do not know exactly how Russia views its presence in Syria and its role in the civil war, especially given the “high costs” and “low returns” of its participation in the conflict. Can a middle ground be found between “retreating” from Syria and “continuing” the course? And to what extent will “entrapment” and “uncertainty” persist in the country?
The Syrian people are concerned about the Russian presence in their country and its role in determining Syria’s future, especially with the emerging Russian tensions and dynamics that go beyond the Syrian situation itself. According to some politicians and analysts, this has affected both the nature of war and the future of the Syrian state and society. This includes the country’s relationship with Turkey and how it affects the future of Idlib, relations with the United States and the Kurds and what this means for the territories east of the Euphrates, relations with countries it has signed agreements and treaties with and how this affects the country’s influence and power in the southern region, and Syria’s relationship with Israel and its impact on the state of affairs in Syria as a whole. Even if the Syrian people understand that there are great “benefits” to be reaped from these relations and interactions, they are nevertheless fraught with serious dangers.
What the Syrian side thus needs from Russia, at least to begin with, is a “clear vision” for moving forward, a reaffirmation of its priorities in Syria — to make the restoration of a strong, united and coherent Syrian state the cornerstone of its policy in the country, and to hold a “strategic discussion” between the parties involved in order to create a “common agenda” for the future.
This paper does not claim to provide a definitive answer to the question posed in its title. Rather, it attempts to search for and investigate the main line of meaning and patterns of thought of a potentially large part of the Syrian population in the areas controlled by the Syrian government and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, a different approach is required for the study of Syrians on the other side of the war.
When a number of media outlets and Russian think tanks started criticizing the Syrian regime, many got the sense that Russia was in the process of reassessing its position with regard to the war in Syria, and to the country’s political regime in particular. There was speculation that Russia might give up on Syria and leave the regime to deal with the increasing pressure to make internal changes. Alternatively, some thought that Russia may attempt to “interfere” in the structure of the political regime to “make changes” inside the country. Although Russia has denied changing its position, these criticisms have left their mark, even if they are only “signals and alerts,” rather than real attempts.
The criticism of Russia (or rather the pressure placed on the country from outside) coincided with a number of dangerous developments in the war:
- The increasing American military and political interference in the east of the Euphrates.
- The increasing number of Israeli attacks on Syrian and Iranian sites across Syria.
- The increasing U.S. and Israeli pressure on Iran inside Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
- The declaration of the implementation of the “Caesar Act.”
- The worsening economic crisis; the collapse of exchange rates and the increase in prices; the emergence of serious economic and social challenges inside the country.
According to James Jeffrey, the feeling of “uncertainty” that haunted the Syrian people was compounded by the emergence of certain factors on the part of the United States that were in direct opposition to Russia:
- The American speech about the potential shift in Russia’s position on the political regime and the statement that Washington has no problem with the Russian presence in Syria and supports the idea of removing all other actors from the country, including the United States. This has been interpreted as an offer to do just that.
- The American side hinting that their objective is to turn Syria into a “swamp” for Russia. James Jeffrey, the American responsible of the Syrian file, has stated this rather candidly.
This is why many in Syria, as well as a number of external observers, have come to the conclusion that Moscow has started to change its policies towards Damascus and that all of this is part of collusion between the United States and Russia — not to topple the regime in Syria, but rather to force it to make changes at home and return to the framework and requirements of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254, or to change its position on Iran and Hezbollah, a topic that has attracted much attention.
The United States and its allies are trying to benefit from the “lessons” of the wars of the last decade and investigate why they were unable to fully achieve their goals by focusing on “containing” and “dismantling” the factors of “Damascus’ steadfastness” and the factors that pushed Russia, Iran and other parties to support Syria and to continue to do so even after ten years of a very costly and dangerous war.
The Americans and their allies have also realized that their retreat in the Syrian war includes even greater threats than they had imagined. That is not to say that the United States has achieved its goals in the war, but giving in means victory for Syria and its allies.
What the United States thus needs is to “disrupt” the path that leads towards the Syrian state restoring its former power, and to prevent Russia and Iran from advancing in the regional and international scenes. This would require the United States to “change its style” by widening the targeting ranges and stifling Damascus. This is essentially what is at the heart of the Caesar Act.
According to James Jeffrey, the United States does not want to overthrow the regime in Syria. Rather, it wants to “force” the Syrian government to return to the “requirements” of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 , which, as the American side has both implied and stated openly, would bring us back to March 2011 .
Thus, the main goal of the U.S. and European policies of “economic strangulation,” including the Caesar Act, is to:
- Increase the cost of war to such an extent that it becomes too risky to continue, not only for the Syrian regime, society and state, but also for their allies, most notably Russia, which is under increasing pressure from the American side.
- Freeze the areas under the government’s control and even put a stop to their military operations. United States Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey has expressed this clearly saying: “Damascus must stop military operations in Idlib,” in addition to the United States drawing red lines in front of Damascus and its allies regarding “east of Euphrates.”
- Create conditions for other actors to stick to their agendas. On the top of the agenda is the United States and the Al-Tanf military base and the eastern Euphrates, Turkey in Idlib, rural Aleppo and, to some extent the east of Euphrates, and Israel in the south.
This paved the way for the implementation of the Caesar Act and was accompanied by an information war inside Syria and among those with a vested interest in the situation in Syria at a time of unprecedented economic, political and social “stress.” This war increased the feeling of “uncertainty” about what would happen next, as well as Syria’s ability to deal with future developments. It also raised questions about the capacity — and perhaps the desire — of a number of Syria’s allies and regional and international partners to continue to interact with the country in spite of the Caesar Act.
The Caesar Act appeared to have achieved some of its objectives even before it was implemented. This is particularly true of the exchange rate of the Syrian pound against the U.S. dollar and other currencies, as well as the substantial rise in prices. However, the Syrian people and people who keep a close eye on the situation in the country are well aware that the Caesar Act had little to do with what happened to the economy and the financial sector, and that its influence on the flow of goods and the rise in prices was minimal. Rather, all these changes were the result of other developments that took place in Syria itself, and were also partly the result of the profound accumulative effects of corruption, poor government administration and weak financial performance.
Russia is explicitly mentioned in the Caesar Act, which represents a source of threat, a direct targeting of Russian policies and stakes in Syria, and a method of intimidating Russian corporations and companies so that they will avoid working in Syria. This goes beyond Russia’s interests in Syria and touches upon its position and interests in the region and around the world. This requires an appropriate response from Russia, or rather a response that is commensurate to the American threat.
One possible response may be to focus on preventing the Caesar Act from achieving its key goals. In other words, if the act aims to “strangle” the Syrian economy, to dry up its sources of income and disrupt the flow of money and goods to and from the country, etc., then Russia needs to break this cycle of strangulation and threat by giving Syria the means to resist the Caesar Act and the consequences it may bring, in particular those related to socioeconomic development.
The Syrian people realize that going against the Caesar Act largely depends on how willing Russia is to help their country when it comes to dealing with the economic strangulation, the sanctions and the blockade. There is no doubt that the Russian side is aware of the seriousness of the threat it faces in Syria and that the American success in “strangling” Syria economically is another way to continue the war by ruining Russia’s policies and stakes in the region. This way, it would seem as if Russia had never even been involved in the conflict.
It seems that a large part of the Syrian population is “grateful” to Russia whilst at the same time being concerned about Russia’s presence in their country and what that means moving forward. For example, the implications of the agreements between Russia, Turkey, Israel and even the United States. This is what makes the Syrian people feel “uncertain” about these moments, something that has been mentioned on multiple occasions.
One of the reasons for Russia being in Syria and actively participating in its civil war is that it hopes to turn Syria into a “new starting point” for its entry into the Middle East and the world, seeking to establish a more balanced and multi-polar world order. In this sense, Syria represents a space for expressing the “Russian idea” and restoring its reputation as a major power.
We can state here that Syria owes Russia a kind of “intangible debt,” although many people in the country believe that Syria’s steadfastness (with the support of Iran and Hezbollah), especially during the period between 2011 and 2015, has given Russia an unprecedented opportunity to launch a new phase in its foreign policy and bolster its position in the world.
Russia’s presence in Syria can thus be explained by the fact that it is difficult to involve Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in the following:
- Direct military contact with Turkey, the United States and Israel.
- The management of negotiations and settlements with armed groups and maintaining security in areas where settlements have been reached, such as Daraa and the southern region.
- Air force, military field work, and the essential supply during the war.
- Russia’s crucial role in international forums; Russia’s push for the “return of Arabs to Syria;” and, most importantly, is Russia’s strong position against the attempts of the United States and its allies to issue resolutions against Syria in the UN Security Council.
However, Syria’s “intangible debt” to Russia faces two types — or rather two levels — of “entitlement”:
- To pay in the moral sense by accepting deep demands, commitments and obligations, as in the nature of the relationship between Russia, Turkey, Israel and zones of settlement, etc. Therefore, the Syrian people would have to “accept” this “in line” with Russia’s will and interests, and its regional and international agreements regarding the Syrian war.
- To pay in the financial sense by concluding “almost exclusive contracts” in oil, gas, ports, transportation and other sectors.
Russia has a presence in almost everything that is related to Syria. Specifically, Russia is involved in: issues of war and peace, infrastructure development, combating terrorism, dissolution and settlement policies, post-war policies, etc., which often turns Russia into a “determining” actor, and an active “interpreter” actor in most cases. This requires further scrutiny and investigation.
This qualifies Russia to be an “internal factor” in Syrian affairs, considering that the nature of war lies in:
- Expanding the range of Russia’s interests from security, militarization and foreign interactions into economy and society, and now into domestic policies. There is frequent talk about the Russian role in reorganizing the army and specifically about Russia’s presence in various aspects of public and economic policies.
- Some have speculated that Russia is interested in the deep internal dynamics of policymaking, particularly with regard to managing telecommunications, oil and gas, and other issues, in order to enhance performance, efficiency and productivity, guarantee greater influence in “managing” and “directing” priority sectors, and also to ensure that a part of the financial obligations resulting from the war are “paid.”
- No one expected Russia to play alternative roles, or represent a “parallel authority” or a “guarantor power” in some Syrian regions, which is exactly what happened in the south and in other areas and sites around the “Euphrates line,” or that it would support a hybrid ambiguous pattern of the undisclosed and unnamed “de facto authority” protected by Russia itself, especially in the South.
- Russia has drawn “invisible borders” around Iran’s presence in Syria, and this is considered part of deep compatibility between Russia and Israel, which is very similar to their agreements with the United States. However, this may threaten and harm Russia itself in the event that its understanding with Israel fails or if its relations with the United States or even Turkey become strained.
- “Sponsoring” and “guaranteeing” internal settlements and national dialogue conferences such as the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi and the hundreds or even thousands of meetings with political and armed opposition actors seeking reconciliation and settlement.
- Establishing “parallel tracks” for the stalled Geneva process, mediated through the Astana and Sochi processes, and charge it with resolving the refugee issue, the reconstruction of the country, and the establishment of a constitutional committee.
The intensity of military operations decreased, but the risks did not. And it is clear that Russia constantly revises the situation, specifically the “balance” between its presence in the country and the military and political role it plays at the domestic level, since its main goal is to empower the Syrian authorities, or rather restore the authority of the Syrian state, and reach a stable and sustainable solution in Syria. This appears to be what the Syrian side demands most from Russia, which in turn gives rise to a number of issues:
- How far can Russia continue to support Syria in the fight against terrorism by seeking a solution or a settlement? And to what extent can it resist foreign interference, in particular from the United States and its allies, in the east of Euphrates and in Syria in general?
- The understandings (and tensions) between Moscow and Washington have moved the Syrian crisis into a good position and have reined in any slippages or unexpected developments. However, they have reached an extremely complicated “threshold,” mainly because the United States has decided to stay in the east of the Euphrates and is working on strengthening entities with separatist policies there and bolstering Turkey’s attempts in Idlib and rural Aleppo.
- The decline in military operations and battles has presented Syria with a number of challenges that are equally dangerous: resolution and settlement patterns and policies; the constitutional committee; the area east of Euphrates; the reconstruction of the country; the refugee problem; and, most recently, the sanctions related to the Caesar Act.
The Syrian people understand that the agenda is long and complex, and that Russia does not approach the issue from a Syrian perspective. This is normal, and although Russia is an ally of Syria in the war, the Syrian side cannot ask Russia to see things the same way that they do.
If the alliances are no longer perfect, complete and mutually beneficial, then their underlying logic is now hugely different to what it had been in the past. We can see here how Russia may already be an ally for Syria, Israel, Iran and Turkey and be in a position to win their confidence. This was useful for the people of Syria, although it was also a source of anxiety for them. But this is the nature of world politics today, and the Syrian people need to “adapt” to this reality as much as possible.
The Syrian people hope that Russia will adopt a more proactive approach in terms of its stance and role in the war, especially when it comes to controlling and balancing the policies, interventions and stakes of the United States, Israel, Turkey and other parties. Otherwise said, Moscow will not only view the situation focusing solely on its own interests, but will also acknowledge the interests of other parties, Damascus included.
As far as the Syrian side is concerned, it is important that Russia considers the possibility of holding a “strategic dialogue” with the people of Syria to discuss the relationship between the two parties — how the people of Syria and Russia see the actual or potential role of the other country in achieving common interests in the future. This will help to clarify any actual or potential ambiguities with respect to how the sides see each other.
The potential benefits of holding a “strategic dialogue” include gaining an insight into the factors that have made Russia hesitate when it comes to taking clearer — or rather more decisive — steps regarding what threatens Syria. Other benefits include gaining an insight into what Russia is “avoiding” in Syria, and an understanding of the balance of interactions among Russia, the United States, Turkey, Israel and Iran in Syria, as well as of the balance of interactions between Russia and opposition actors, including those in settlement zones such as Daraa and Quneitra.
At the same time, such a dialogue provides an insight into what exactly the political regime is “avoiding” both at home and abroad, particularly in the process of change or reform, or the settlement process and the requirements of UN Resolution No. 2254, the pressures that the regime faces concerning its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah, its concerns about the relationships between Russia, Turkey and Israel, and what Russia could do to dismantle the deep sources that threaten the Syrian authorities as a consequence of the war.
Perhaps the biggest challenge or concern facing the Syrian people is to understand the Russian vision for post-war Syria. This will help manage situations and policies and go some way to keeping interactions between the two parties in check. It will also help to “seize mutual expectations,” or at least provide an opportunity to search for understandable forms of interaction. This is because what Russia sees as normal — a “federal system” — the Syrian authorities consider a source of threat to the regime. And this applies to other issues related to the settlement with Israel.
The Syrian side would thus like to see the following from Russia:
- Continued support of Syria in the fight against terrorism and foreign interference.
- A push for the settlement or resolution of the conflict and guarantees to contain pressure from the United States.
- The restoration of state power and the preservation of the unity of society and state in Syria.
- A dismantling of the lines and maps of dominance and intervention and other entities in the east of the Euphrates and in northern and southern Syria.
- A pushing or urging of general policies and an appeal to the state bureaucracy to reform, renew, increase professionalism, transparency, productivity, etc.
- Provide assistance in conducting in-depth reviews, evaluations and reforms of the political, legal and constitutional system, the nature of the relationship between the state and society, etc., and to “break down” obstacles that prevent this, based on the results and conclusions of an in-depth “strategic dialogue” between the two parties.
- To dismantle existing or potential perceptions or sources of threat towards Syria as a result of agreements between Russia, the United States, Israel, Turkey and other parties.
The only way to answer the question of what exactly the Syrian people expect from Russia is to view the issue from the Russian perspective as well. In this sense, the opposite question arises: What do the Russian people expect from Syria?
We have pointed out the urgency of holding a “strategic dialogue” between the two parties in order to clarify a number of issues, provide a “solid core” to the relations by imbuing them with a set of “constants,” and draw cognitive and procedural maps for “controversial issues,” considering that the dynamics of policies and interests are neither identical nor a necessity.
For Russia to get what it wants out of participating in the Syrian war, it needs to focus its efforts on empowering Syria so that it can “restore itself” as safely and stably as possible. It is also important that post-war Syria is not the result of negotiations or a settlement agreement. This prospect makes Syria a war-torn country that is unable to protect its own citizens and preserve the interests of its allies and partners.
* Translation conformal to original text in Arabic. In case of any discrepancies, the Arabic version shall prevail.
1. James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to Syria, with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
2. Russia considers Resolution 2254 as a framework for a settlement or solution in Syria. However, Russia’s reading and understanding of the aforementioned resolution is different from the American reading of it, as if the two parties were talking about two different decisions concerning two different events.
*Writer and University Professor, Member of the Scientific Board and Head of the Political Studies Department at the Damascus Center for Research and Studies — Medad.