by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 5, Ramadan, 1437)
What is Russia upto in Syria? The general impression is that it backs the Bashar al Asad’s government. This does not reflect an accurate picture. Russia has its own objectives in which Syria and Asad are mere pawns.
Seasoned observers of the Syrian scene are baffled by the manner in which Russia is playing its game in the region. While claiming to be supporting the government in Syria that it considers as legitimate, it withholds support at critical junctures, raising doubts about its intentions. These doubts are reinforced by not only the frequent parleys between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergio Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry (there is nothing wrong about such meetings except that the two sides supposedly are on opposite sides of the conflict) but also the close contacts Russia maintains with the Zionist regime in Occupied Palestine led by the war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister was in Moscow to meet Putin early last month, the fourth such meeting between the two in a year. So the question is: what is Moscow up to?
While Russia pursues a policy to advance its own agenda — and nobody can begrudge them that — the question is: what is its real agenda? Is it to support a legitimate government in Syria that has been elected by the Syrian people or is Moscow simply using Syria as a bargaining chip to secure favored status with Washington? Russian elites have been constantly seeking acceptance by America.
Notwithstanding President Bashar al-Asad’s own perception of his role as indispensable to the survival of Syria, states are not dependent on a single individual. Systems are more important and the Syrian establishment has shown that it can withstand a grand external conspiracy. Whether one likes or dislikes that system and many flaws can be identified in it, the reality is that the system (as well as the Syrian armed forces), has not cracked up despite more than five years of relentless war against both. Nor are the takfiri terrorists so powerful; had it not been for the massive support they received (and continue to) from countries like the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, etc, they would have been squashed long ago by the Syrian army. Further, the US, France, and Britain also have Special Forces operating inside Syria, ostensibly to help the “moderate” rebels. These forces are there without the permission of the Syrian government. Their presence in Syria is, therefore, illegal and in contravention of international law, which the West is so fond of invoking every time any country pursues a policy not to the liking of Western states.
Let us, however, return to the Russian role. Last March, Moscow abruptly announced a halt to its air strikes when the Syrian army was making steady progress against the takfiri terrorists in places like Palmyra, Aleppo, and elsewhere. Putin said this was to give peace a chance! A US-Russian-brokered ceasefire was agreed and went into effect on February 27 but it did not include the takfiri terrorists Da‘ish and al-Nusrah Front and their affiliates.
The ceasefire sputtered and then collapsed because the so-called moderate rebels were not prepared to adhere to its terms and conditions. As both Syria and Iran have pointed out, the ceasefire is simply used by the terrorist groups to regroup and replenish their weapons and other materiel. According to the Associated Press, Turkey has been facilitating recruitment of hundreds of mercenaries from the refugee camps to be sent to Syria because of losses suffered by the takfiris. Further, the same report said that Syrian teenagers were being forced into recruitment under threat of deportation.
On June 4 the Syrian army entered Raqqah province, the first time in two years and advanced rapidly toward al-Tabqah Dam on the Euphrates River near Lake Asad. It then advanced to al-Hora, which is located about 20km from al-Raqqah, the self-declared capital of Takfiristan. What is worthy of note is that there have been few Russian air strikes on the terrorists’ positions in and around al-Raqqah even though publicly Moscow maintains it is fighting them.
In a commentary on June 13, the Russian news agency Sputnik said that Syrian government forces are overstretched (true) and any imminent victory there or in Aleppo must be discounted. This is debatable. In fact the takfiris are being squeezed from two sides: from the southwest by the Syrian army and its allied militias, and from the north by the predominantly Kurdish forces fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF). The Kurds are backed by the Americans and led by US Special Forces.
The picture that emerges is that neither the US nor Russia wants al-Asad to succeed completely. They both want fighting to continue to exhaust government forces to the point that the government would be forced to accept a ceasefire on the terms dictated by the two powers. Russia and the US have agreed on a new constitution for Syria that they want to put to a vote. The constitution calls for devolution of power, a pluralistic society and system and elections in 18 months. On the face of it, these appear reasonable proposals. What is worrying is the manner in which these demands are being presented.
Syria currently is a patchwork with its territory controlled by different groups. The Syrian government controls a rump of about 30–35%, admittedly important territory that includes major cities; the countryside is split between the government and terrorist groups while in the north stretching from east to west, the Kurds hold sway. Since the Syrian army is overstretched, it has let the Kurds do what they want as they too are opposed to the takfiri terrorists. The US-Russia plan would formalize this division and leave Syria no more than a patchwork of cantons. The presence of American, British, and French Special Forces is seen in this context. They are there not so much to help in the fight against the terrorists but to formalize the division of Syria. This is the US-Zionist Plan B if the violent overthrow of al-Asad does not succeed.
Russian commentators have started to talk openly about the areas of disagreement between Moscow and Damascus. Oleg Yegorov in an opinion piece on June 22, 2016 under the title, “Russia Beyond the Headlines,” identifies three major areas of disagreement. After reminding readers of the support Russia has and continues to provide to Syria, three areas of serious disagreement remain.
Yegorov says their goals are different. He quotes Vladimir Akhmedov, a senior research associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, “Russia’s interests consist in preserving a secular regime in Syria, which would continue cooperating with Moscow.” For this to materialize, al-Asad’s continued presence in power is not crucial. For the Syrian establishment, al-Asad’s “resignation as a prerequisite for the start of a ‘transition period’ envisaged in the Geneva agreements” is a red line and unacceptable. They say it is for the Syrian people to decide who should rule Syria.
The Russians also accuse al-Asad of paying only lip service to a political settlement. “Assad [sic] is a man of war, he intends to fight to the end,” Yegorov quotes Akhmedov as saying. “He is prepared to hold talks only from a position of strength so that he could impose his terms on the opposition. To that end, he needs military victories, he needs to regain control over large chunks of territory.” Arabic scholar, Grigory Kosach, professor at the Russian University of Humanities, agrees with this assessment.
Russia sees continuation of the war as risking bigger losses. “We cannot allow an escalation and the involvement of a large number of Russian servicemen in hostilities. Russia is seeking to move to a political settlement,” Yegorov quotes Akhmedov as saying.
The third area of disagreement relates to the role of the Kurds. Damascus opposes any unilateral moves by the Kurds for autonomy, as they did in March 2016, when they announced the establishment of an autonomous Federation of Northern Syria. Damascus wants these issues to be discussed and agreed at the negotiating table, not imposed ahead of time. It does not require a genius to figure out that this would result in the breakup of the country. Iraq offers a ready example where the Kurds have set up a de facto independent state of Iraqi Kurdistan with its own president, prime minister and parliament.
Officially, Russia is maintaining a neutral position vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurds as stated by Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov, “The internal structure of the Syrian state is a matter for Syrians to decide.” Yet Moscow allowed a representative mission of Syrian Kurdistan to open an office in Moscow in February 2016. It claims it is at an “unofficial level, as a non-governmental organization.” Damascus does not see it that way. And who can blame it?
What emerges from this is that Moscow is not averse to a divided Syria, a patchwork of cantons that would effectively neutralize the state as a major regional player. It will also deal a serious blow to the resistance front against the Zionist entity. Russia’s aim is to get favored status from the Americans. Syria appears to be merely a bargaining chip in Putin’s grand design.