Russian circles are more interested in a process that leads to power sharing in Syria rather than a power vacuum. They are more focused on who comes to power, through elections, rather than who leaves.
Moscow has its own “logic” in Syria. One can agree or disagree, but such logic can no longer be ignored. After Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria four years ago, it has become increasingly difficult not to listen to its approach on the country’s complexity and rules.
Moscow did not welcome the so-called “Arab Spring” which was sparked in Tunisia back in December 2010. The uprising reminded the Kremlin of “coloured revolutions”, ones that swept away former Soviet colonies, two decades aback. For Russia, it is not important which Arab leaders leave office, via popular protests or through external intervention, but what rather matters, is who comes to power instead.
The consequences of the Iraqi army’s dissolution after the 2003 war, are used to justify opposite behaviour in Syria; empowering the army and expanding its outreach throughout the war-torn country. Moscow adheres to a policy that builds upon the “legitimacy of the ruler,” which it claims, ought to only be changed via election ballots. Russia further reaffirms its commitment to the Syrian state’s “sovereignty over its territory.”
Russia uses the Iraqi scenario after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a weapon in its diplomatic duels with the West on Syria, along with who came to power in Libya after Mouammar al-Gaddafi’s fall. Since the beginning of 2011, Moscow has pursued a policy of diplomatic dialogue on critical issues in the Arab World, showing little appetite for popular protests that lead to decapitation.
Before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, President Vladimir Putin knew little about his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, who during his first decade in power was always closer to Western leaders. Assad only visited Moscow for the first time in 2005, five years after assuming power in Damascus. Prior to that, he visited Paris, London, Madrid, Rome and Berlin. In 2011 and 2012, Russian diplomats mentored “Arab Spring” developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They visited Damascus and regularly received Syrian opposition figures in Moscow, especially those who hailed from communist and leftist backgrounds ideologically aligned with the former Soviet Union.
From the outset, Moscow was asking its interlocutors whether Assad had supporters, and what would happen if he departs. In 2012, one of them replied saying that only 10-15% of the Syrian people supported the Syrian President.
“The solution lies not in arms, but in ballot boxes,” Moscow said. “Let us focus on elections, under auspices of the United Nations, ensuring the highest standards of transparency,” Russian officials added. They concluded by asserting their “encouragement of inter-Syrian dialogue, to reach a common ground for future elections.”
In June 2012, an international meeting on the region was held in Geneva and chaired by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, then serving as Special UN Envoy for Syria. The key phrase at the Geneva Declaration was to call for the formation of a “transitional governing body with full executive powers.” However, just as the statement was written, Moscow and Washington immediately went into disagreement over its interpretation. Could those “with blood on their hands” be part of the transitional governing body? The Americans stated clearly to the Russians that they do not accept for Assad to have a role in such transition, despite Moscow’s insistence. The Russian reply to this was that they had “no clear explanation of the Geneva declaration”. “Let the Syrians meet and discuss its interpretation. We should support what the Syrian people agree on, and our role is to encourage Syrian-Syrian dialogue,” they added.
Opposition figures insisted that “Assad has lost legitimacy”, but the Russians replied: “this then means that the entire state has lost legitimacy, as well, and this keeps the door wide open for external intervention, and also means that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has gained legitimacy.”
“It is more important to know who comes before we know who is leaving.” This was the phrase used by the Russians during the Arab Spring until they entered the Syrian battlefield in September 2015. The Russian headlines were: “ISIS is at the gates of Damascus.” They constantly argued that the fall of the regime meant the rise of ISIS. If Assad went, they said, then Al-Baghdadi would be the successor. He was ready to move his personally acclaimed capital from Raqqa to Damascus, and to expand the rule of ISIS to Baghdad, Beirut, and other capitals of the Arab World. “Russia has no choice but to intervene militarily in Syria in order to save the state and prevent it from falling into the hands of ISIS,” the Russian reiterated. From their viewpoint in September 2015, this was an utter necessity in order to prevent the reoccurrence of a scenario “worse than Iraq and Libya,” according to them.
Indeed, Moscow intervened militarily and supported the Syrian Army in recapturing areas that had fallen under the control of the armed opposition. One after the other, it restored government control of entire cities and towns dismantling the opposition’s infrastructure and its civil society institutions. “We prefer a relationship across the state and its institutions, not with non-state players,” Moscow said. “Anyone after getting Hezbollah and Iran’s militias out of Syria has to strengthen the Syrian army and make sure that it is properly redeployed throughout all of Syria,” it added.
Between 2015 and 2019, areas under the Syrian government’s control were increased from 10-15% to 62%. Moscow sponsored the “de-escalation” agreements in East Ghouta of the Damascus countryside, Homs, and southern Syria. Those “de-escalation zones” were marketed as “temporary solutions” until the full restoration of the state’s sovereignty. In agreement with the US, Israel and Jordan, Russia restored governmental control of the Syrian south, claiming that Iran will only be pushed out of the area after the Syrian Army’s return to it.
Indeed, all “non-Syrian forces” were pushed out of the country’s south, and the “International Disengagement Forces” returned to the Golan under the auspices of the Russian army. Initially, the pre-2011 equation was reapplied, while local opposition councils and armed groups slowly vanished. The state was back, and the army was redeployed to the Syrian-Jordanian border, while Russian police officers were stationed throughout the area, making sure that neither ISIS, nor Hezbollah returned.
This Russian guideline also applies to Idlib and territories east of the Euphrates that are currently under the control of the US-backed Kurdish groups. “Sooner or later, the state and the army must return to every inch of Syria”, Moscow expressed. With respect to Idlib in the Syrian northwest, the Russians know that it has “a lot of particularities,” as there are there 3 million civilians, including IDPs, tens of thousands of fighters, and thousands of terrorists. The province is close to Turkey, giving armed groups geographical depth and political cover, while Iranian troops are deployed on its peripheries, close to the Hmeimim and Tartous bases.
The de-escalation agreement in Idlib remains the one with the longest life-span; renewed by both Putin and Erdogan on the 17th of September 2019. It calls for the establishment of a “buffer zone” between the government and opposition areas, with a depth of 15-20 km, and for the withdrawal of heavy weapons.
It also stipulates that the state should regain the M4 and M5 highways, linking Latakia and Aleppo and Hama and Aleppo, respectively. That was supposed to happen by October 2018. However, it did not. Since then, Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham has expanded its control of the area from 20% to 80%. Last April, the Russian and Syrian armies launched a military operation in the Idlib and Hama countryside, regaining control of the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun.
A new date was set to implement the Sochi Agreement between Putin and Erdogan, this time from Ankara, where the two men met on 16 September along with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. Moscow’s ultimate goal has not changed. It remains committed to restoring “state sovereignty” back to Idlib, and the total eradication of all “terrorists.”
Even China, as it seems, supports Russia’s position on Idlib, hoping to also in eliminate 800 Uighur members of the Islamic Turkistan Army operating in Syria’s north-west. “Caution exists but the goal has not and will not change,” Moscow says. This goal does not foresee “Turkey staying in Syria, because Russia will not accept the annexation of Syria as it did in Iskenderun/Alexanderetta (back in 1939).”
The same applies to the East Euphrates. «The American presence there is illegal” say the Russians. They have no international mandate to be in Syria and were not invited by the legitimate government in Damascus.” Kurdish officials asked Moscow for arms to fight against Daesh. The Russians replied: “We are giving arms to the Syrian state. You must fight Daesh in co-ordination with the Syrian army.” The response included another digression: “East of the Euphrates is not Iraqi Kurdistan. Some want a Kurdish flag, a Kurdish government, a Kurdish army, a Kurdish parliament, and borders for western Kurdistan, but this will not happen. The Americans will leave. The issue is connected to the moment/timing.”
Moscow encourages dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds. Despite several meetings, the conditions are not yet ripe for an agreement. The Russians accepted Ankara’s objection to some names on the Syrian constitutional committee; deemed as too close to the Kurds or as part of the Kurdish entity. Russian experts ask: “How can Turkey agree with the US on establishing a security zone east of the Euphrates, without the knowledge and approval of the legitimate government?”
Now the Russians are hoping to revive the Adana Agreement of 1998, or reach an equivalent of it; allowing the Turkish Army to enter Syrian territory, up to 5-km, in pursuit of Kurdish separatists.
Moscow and Damascus are also coordinating on the return of refugees and rebuilding efforts, “without Western political conditions” apart from implementation of UNSCR 2254. That resolution calls for the launch of a political process that leads to “constitutional reform” and presidential elections under international supervision. The gateway to all of that is the constitutional committee; one that was formed under UN auspices last September with the blessing of the three guarantors of the Astana process; Russia; Iran; Turkey.
“The Syrians now have to meet and talk, in order to decide whether they will opt for the creation of a new constitution, or just amend the current one of 2012.” The constitutional committee hopes to start working by the end of this month. “There is no forced timetable, but it is possible to achieve it quickly, if there is political will.” The constitutional reform may be completed before the upcoming Syrian presidential election in mid-2021, roughly one year and seven months from now.
By then, Moscow hopes to determine “who comes” to power in Damascus, through the ballots, instead of being fixated on who leaves the palace in Syria. The elections will be transparent and internationally monitored, it is claimed, and members of the Syrian diaspora will be allowed to vote. However, Moscow seems to have not forgotten that the West did not allow three million Ukrainians based in Russia from voting in the last Ukrainian presidential elections—something that might come up, in due course; further linking the Syrian and Ukrainian cases, from a Russian perspective.