Moscow’s Syrian blues are unremitting
Paradoxically, Russia is winning the Syrian war but may also be losing control of the peace process; Washington and Tehran are complicating the issue
Winning the war and making the peace are two different things. One of the best-known examples in modern history is the Austro-Prussian War in 1866.
The “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck put his foot down on his generals’ plans to push forward after conquering Bohemia in the Battle of Königgrätz and march on to Vienna.
Russia faces this lesson from history as the Syrian conflict is drawing to a close. When a war is cruising to an end prematurely, before peace talks gain traction, a void can appear. Foresight is needed to avoid it.
Paradoxically, Russia is winning the Syrian war but may also be losing control of the peace process. As the English poet W B Yeats wrote, “Turning and turning in a widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
It is a delicate moment. Russia entered the Syrian war in September 2015 with six main objectives:
- Salvage the Syrian regime;
- Prevent an Islamist takeover in Syria;
- Establish a long-term Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean;
- Force Washington to engage with Moscow;
- Expand an engagement with the US over Syria to other theaters (Ukraine, in particular); and,
- Leverage the overall engagement incrementally toward a Russian-American détente.
The score card shows 50:50. The first three objectives have been largely fulfilled; the fourth – episodically, perhaps; but the last two remain a chimera.
It is an unsatisfactory outcome. Meanwhile, the ground beneath the Russian feet shifted abruptly when US President Donald Trump summarily abandoned “Timber Sycamore” (codename for the disastrous Central Intelligence Agency operation authorized by president Barack Obama in 2013, to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad).
Trump’s decision signifies that the US will not be bogged down in the “Assad must go” mindset. It is an American decision that Russia had long sought. But the catch is that Russia also expected that in the downstream, the US would be working with its military to defeat ISIS as well as shape a political solution.
Now, the downstream turns out to be a dark, dangerous alley. Russia is such a toxic subject today in Washington that no meaningful US-Russia cooperation in Syria – leave alone Ukraine – seems conceivable in the short term.
Where does that leave Russia? Of course, Russia has significant military resources in Syria, but it still cannot advance a political solution without US participation.
On the other hand, recent events in the region compel Washington to rethink its own regional strategy – the rift in the Persian Gulf region, Turkey’s support for Qatar, Iran-Qatar rapprochement, US-Turkey tensions, US support for “moderate” Kurdish rebels and so on.
What complicates matters further is that Russia’s allies in Syria – the Assad government, Iran and Hezbollah – are pressing ahead on the war front. Hezbollah’s dramatic victory in gaining control of the heights on the Syrian-Lebanese border and Syrian government forces’ relentless advance toward Deir ez-Zor and its control over long stretches of the Syrian-Iraqi border – they testify that the (residual) war has a dynamic of its own.
Russia does not like a scenario where it is unable to call the shots. Its frustration takes the form of a vicious attack on Iran in a commentary on Wednesday by Sputnik, Moscow’s media organ, titled “Is there the risk of Russia, Iran being at odds over Syria’s future?”
To quote from the commentary: “Tehran wants to establish a government in Damascus that would provide Iran with voting power in Syrian politics, including in expanding Tehran’s influence in the region along the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon Shiite arc. Iran wants to maintain a logistics corridor which would guarantee military and financial support for pro-Iran forces, first of all Hezbollah, in the region….
“Hezbollah’s role in Syria is decreasing, [but] the military group continues to remain the main tool to expand Iran-led Shiite influence in the region…. Russia is not happy with Iran’s attempt to impose its will on Damascus and establish a political and ideological basis for further expansion of Shiite influence in the region. Such a policy is destabilizing…. Such a scenario would not serve Russia’s interests in the region.”
Can it be that the commentary is dissimulating? Russia may see advantages in projecting its discord/rivalry with Iran. Russia could even be playing the “Israeli card” to curry favor with US elites. Or, Moscow might be piling pressure on Iran to extract some concessions elsewhere, such as lucrative business deals.
All the same, Sputnik underscored a plausible scenario – an uncompromising Iran that is hell-bent on steering a Syrian settlement in directions that safeguard its vital interests and core concerns.
Iran is a tough negotiator. And Syria is a frontline state. This is an existential war for Tehran. The “axis of resistance” is at the core of its objectives in throwing the dice.
There is a contradiction here. Iran would see no reason to act like a surrogate power at Russia’s bidding. After all, Iran too has the diplomatic ingenuity to leverage its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to engage with the US directly on equal terms.