Russia has shown it can conduct a successful military campaign beyond its borders; now, political and humanitarian aspects are coming into play, which will prove more challenging.
Russia’s policy in Syria has evolved in recent months. Although many of Moscow’s critics legitimately argue that the Kremlin remains the major military force in Syria and the main backer of the Syrian government, the nature of Russia’s approach to the conflict has changed.
The Russian military has become less involved in ground operations against what it describes as terrorist groups, concentrating on limited air support. Since Moscow began to focus more on the political process and the Syrian government’s military successes, an understanding has developed that Damascus must demonstrate more inclination towards dialogue with the opposition, and more resolve towards defeating the remaining terrorist groups.
This creates an atmosphere of reconciliation, while also signalling that radical armed groups won’t be tolerated. It also makes Moscow look more powerful, indicating that the Kremlin can convince Damascus to demonstrate a certain degree of restraint, which is perceived positively by regional actors and the West.
Russia, however, needs to demonstrate the practical results of its Syria policy in the political realm. Moscow has shown that it is capable of conducting a successful military campaign beyond its borders, and that it has its ally’s back. Now, political and humanitarian aspects are coming into play, which will be more challenging, prolonged and costly.
Moscow views Syria as a chance to show the world how its approach to a country in chaos is more successful than that of the US. Stabilising and restoring Syria is Russia’s ultimate goal, and an ambitious one at that.
However, Russia understands it can’t reconstruct Syria alone, even with Chinese, Iranian and Turkish help. It needs the West and Gulf states on board, but Western countries, especially the US, are not willing to give cash and participate in Syria’s reconstruction with Bashar al-Assad’s government in power, which would mean acknowledging that their approach to the conflict was wrong. This is why they insist on political transition, eventually leading to Assad’s removal – an issue long at the centre of discussions among parties to the conflict.
At the same time, Moscow must create decent conditions for the return of refugees, which requires cooperation with Western partners and regional actors. It must also start a large-scale reconstruction process.
To fulfill its goals, Moscow is exploiting one of the most controversial and sensitive issues for EU countries, which have taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. It has offered to help Europe ease the refugee burden and to create conditions for Syrians to return home.
Moscow is doing its best to convince its European partners to take part in the reconstruction of Syria. Iran could be a factor here: If the EU and Gulf countries refuse to participate in the reconstruction process, it automatically leaves more room for Iran in Syria. For certain regional and global powers, the reconstruction process presents a chance to limit Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Gulf states appear to understand these dynamics, as indicated by recent visits to Russia by Saudi, UAE and Qatari leaders. To these states, Syria is already a lost game, and they want to minimise their losses through economic leverage and limiting Iran’s influence.
The situation around Idlib – the last remaining de-escalation zone in Syria and a safe harbour for rebels – is complicated. Idlib has been a Turkish zone of influence for some time, with Ankara supporting opposition groups there. Under the Astana agreements, Turkey was supposed to provide security in the area, setting up 12 observation posts.
Ankara also is a Russian partner and guarantor of the Astana process. Moscow needs it on board to justify its approach to the Syria conflict and counterbalance Western and NATO criticism. The Kremlin can’t afford to alienate Ankara.
To be consistent in its Syria policy, it is crucial for Russia to ultimately return Idlib to the Syrian government’s control – but at the same time, it does not want a confrontation with Turkey.
In recent months, there have been mortar and drone attacks from Idlib province against Russian military personnel in Latakia, giving Moscow a legitimate reason to push Ankara towards a plan acceptable to both Turkey and the Syrian government – one that would leave the latter in control of Idlib, but with Turkish interests considered.
Partnership with Ankara
Also important to consider is Russia’s new priority of returning Syrian refugees to their homes. Turkey is seen as a crucial partner in this regard, as it hosts the largest number of refugees, more than three million. Any large-scale military offensive against Idlib from the Russian and Syrian side is a last resort, as it would cause another huge refugee flow towards Turkey’s borders.
Most likely, an agreement in the works between Moscow, Ankara and Damascus will define the nature of the military presence of each party in the region. It is highly unlikely that there will be direct confrontation between the Syrian and Turkish militaries, which would push Ankara back towards the US.
Ideally, Russia wants to negotiate a settlement with Turkey and the Syrian government on Idlib, involving a limited joint offensive against armed groups and a humanitarian plan for the return of refugees.
Another important factor is the Kurds, who will most likely be a part of any formula for Idlib and Syria’s broader north. Contacts have recently intensified between Syrian Kurds and Damascus, and between Kurdish groups and Russia. The Kurds are considering a deal with Damascus that could give them some sort of autonomy, in return for sharing revenues from oil and gas fields and refineries.
The Idlib situation can be characterised as a crossroads, where it will soon become clear whether Russia and its partners can maintain the status quo or face a new, far more complicated reality.