Recently, there have been a lot of talks surrounding the prospects of an Iranian withdrawal from Syria. It is also rumoured that Moscow is growing tired of the Assad regime’s intransigence and refusal to work with political opposition for a viable political solution, as such Russian leadership might vie to abandon its alliance with the regime.
The Assad regime was on the verge of collapsing when Russia first sent its forces to Syria. Before Russia’s military involvement, Assad’s forces and the Shia militias loyal to the Iranian regime were no matches against opposition forces. Moreover, during Russia’s initial attack, President Putin claimed that Russian military engagement would only last three to four months. Four and half years on from that statement, Russian forces are still on the ground in Syria, some permanent Russian bases have been installed and many Syrian troops are stationed at said bases.
Russian, Iranian and Assad forces have won many battles in the war as their success translated into retaking territories away from armed opposition forces. The regime would also retake other lost territories through international deals with Iran and Turkey, these deals ranged from the Astana Agreement to the Sochi Agreement.
Even though Russia and Turkey signed the deals to reduce military engagement, the talks that lead to the signings did not take place until Russia successfully took back control of Syrian villages and cities, which Turkey had previously occupied. Thanks to these agreements, the Assad regime is now in full control of most of Syria’s territories, the only exception being the eastern regions, which the US allied Syrian Democratic Forces control, and Idlib, which is currently under Turkish control.
While Russia made an impressive military accomplishment in Syria, it has not been able to translate its armed success into political success. For one thing, Moscow has not been able persuade the international community of the need to kick-start the rebuilding process in Syria. It has also been unsuccessful in demonstrating the effectiveness of the reconciliations it made with armed factions. An example of such a deal was the one it negotiated between its allies in Daraa and As-Suwayda and the Fifth Corps factions, which it was fighting against.
Today, Russia claims to be resentful towards Bashar Al-Assad as it is sending many mixed messages implying that it is annoyed the regime’s refusal to cooperate in Syrian Constitutional Committee. This is because Russia is looking towards political reconciliation in Syria, but the regime is obstructing all such efforts.
However, to believe Russia’s current stance is to ignore its previous attempts to obstruct any steps towards political reconciliation in Syria, these attempts can be traced back from the early months of the revolution. Russia, along with China, used its veto priveliges 14 times in the UN Security Council in order to stop any resolution calling to resolve the Syrian conflict. This only increased Assad’s determination to militarily crush opposition.
Even though Russia had participated in the Geneva conference on Syria, it should be noted that it never really pushed for reconciliation. In the post talks press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov gave an empty explanation of Russia’s stance on reconciliation, this led to mixed responses from Syrian opposition as some welcomed Russia’s statement, while others rejected it.
Russia has always tried to demonstrate that it is not tied to the Assad regime, and that it could easily sever its relations with it. But, Russia will not cut ties with the regime because it fears that doing so will result in the collapse of the Syrian state. Moscow’s close ties with Assad was the biggest factor behind its vetoeing of reconciliatory resolutions. This also isn’t the first time in which Russian media launched attacks on Assad, rather Russian media has always portrayed the Assad regime as a weak lacky that Russia is in full control of. Russian media often uses videos of Assad meeting with Russian leaders and even Putin himself as proof of Russia’s total control over the regime.
As it stands, Russia is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Syria is on the verge of economic collapse, however the US made it clear that no reconstruction in Syria would take place until a robust and trustworthy peace process takes place, said peace process would also need to be supported by Europe and some Arab countries. James Jeffery, US special envoy to Syria, also said that Russia would not receive support from the international community as long as it remains close with the Assad regime. Even though Russia is showing signs of dissatisfaction with Assad, it will not cut ties with him because it sees no other alternative to his leadership. Furthermore, we are currently weeks away from the implentation of the Caesar Act which will stop Russia’s manipulative tactic of pretending to be supportive of a political solution in Syria, and not being clear of Assad’s intention to run in the next presidential election (a point of contention that always led to Russian obstruction of political reconciliation efforts).
While Russia did produce a military victory in Syria, it is this victory which has caused it major economic and material losses. No other country is willing or able to support Russia’s ventures in Syria: Iran is currently undergoing severe sanctions, while the Assad regime has spent the last nine years exhausting its resources fighting against his own people. Additionally, sanctions from other Arab countries and the Coronavirus crisis have caused even more trouble for the regime.
Russia is now racing against the launch of the Caeser Act, which will place heavy sanctions on Assad. Funnily enough, Moscow is trying to convince the world that it is not tied to the regime, in order to buy the regime more time. To to do this, it is now claiming to be in favour of political reconciliation as well as the removal of Iranian forces in Syria. Russia is implying that Iran is waiting for international orders to pull out of Syria, but if that were true that it would have abandoned its expansionist ambitions after it faced attacks from Israel or after General Soleimani was assasinated. This also implies that the international community isn’t aware of the vast number of Iranian militias currently present in Syria, and how these militias never withdraw from a region unless it is guaranteed another area to move into.
In reality, Iran will not give up its expansionist project unless it reaches a concise deal with the US administration which would set limits to said project. Russia is also out of strategic plans to help its ally in Syria. Furthermore, throughout the last nine years, neither Russia nor Iran have shown the willingness to end a conflict that has caused hundreds of thousands of Syrians to lose their lives, pushed millions of Syrians from their homes and destruction that put the world on the verge of a third world war.