Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C) meets with representatives of Syria's political opposition (front) in Moscow on January 27, 2017
In his annual address to the Federal Assembly (December 1, 2016), Putin emphasizing on Russia’s readiness for equal partnership with the US, noted the shared responsibility between the two states in providing international security and stability, and mentioned that the interaction between Moscow and Washington to solve regional and global problems benefits the entire world. This emphasis and his softer tone in this speech, compared to his former positions, show another sign of the desire and possibility of compromise between Moscow and Washington in various fields, including Syria. In the context that the Kremlin sees its goals partly achieved in Syria, and that Trump, emphasizing on the US focus on the domestic issues, looks for a face-saving settlement of the US foreign policy problems, including Syria, this approach can also lead to practical results.
If the compromise over Syria is achieved, the Kremlin can be considered victorious both on the battlefield and in the political arena which will be no small achievement for it. Such a development can serve as a catalyst for coming to an agreement on other issues, including the division of new tasks in the Middle East and the international arena. But if the compromise is not achieved, and no “available” benefit is received, Moscow can pursue her own independent policy in Syria and the Middle East, and provide her interests with options already at her disposal.
The Inevitable Agreement
Although Russia has established her long-term “military presence” in Syria after Damascus agreed to let her establish permanent bases in this country, this is an open question that how long Russia will continue her “operational presence”. At the onset of military action, the Kremlin officials carefully stated that this was a short term action, but over time and with a closer examination of the situation, this issue became subject to the elimination of terrorism. But can terrorism and in particular, the ISIS be eliminated in Syria and Iraq through military action in the predictable time? The Kremlin has responded negatively to this question, and accordingly, repeatedly reminded the need to create an international counter-terrorism coalition in Syria.
The fact is that it does not seem proper to create a link between Russian “operational presence” (and not her military presence) in Syria and the elimination of terrorism, because according to the evidence, this phenomenon will survive in Syria and the Middle East until the foreseeable future, while the continued operational presence of Russian troops to an “uncertain future” is not compatible with the Kremlin’s calculation of resources-goals and profit-cost, especially at a time when Russia has had to reduce her 2017 budget and her possible budgets for 2018 and 2019 due to her economic problems.
Now the question raised here is that if Moscow decides to stop her “operational presence” in Syria for any reason, what will happen. History of Western military action and the withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya indicate the empowerment of extremism and terrorism in the created vacuum. This also holds true about Russian presence in Syria, meaning that in the case of any halt in the “operational presence”, a vacuum will be created that due to the weakness of the central government in applying its sovereignty, this gap can be filled with extremist forces and terrorist groups.
Of course, this does not mean the inefficiency and the lack of necessity of military action against the ISIS, but it shows Moscow is aware of specific implications and consequences of her long-term “operational presence” in Syria, on the one hand, and her unwillingness to accept the non-calculated obligations, on the other hand, because Russia has not basically sought to “completely” destroy the ISIS, or restore the sovereignty of Damascus over “all” Syria, and has not made specific obligations in this regard. Regardless of military action problems in asymmetric conflicts with the ISIS and other extremist groups in cities with high civilian population, including Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, regional and trans-regional forces’ struggle for having a future contribution [in Syria] is also considered an important obstacle to stabilize the situation.
In these circumstances, given the relative achievement of Russian goals in Syria, strategic opportunism dictates Russia not to spend more money in Syria due to her unclear future, and divide the responsibility and costs of fighting against terrorism by splitting shares that Russia has been originally seeking for. Accordingly, Moscow proposed the creation of an international counter-terrorism coalition in the region, and at the same time, made it clear that if the US recognizes Russian interests and considerations, she is prepared to cooperate with the US as well.
Although under Obama, both parties failed to reach such an agreement, with Trump’s rise to power and his desire to do a ‘big deal’ with Russia in various fields, including Syria, hope of achieving an agreement has been raised. Of course, Moscow has found out during her relationship with the US in the post-Soviet period that Washington does not simply comply with Russia’s two important conditions, i.e., to respect the Russian interests, and accept her as an equal partner, and this will continue under Trump as well, therefore, in case of any interaction with the West on the issue of Syria, Russia will be fully cautious, and consider the compromise possible only if she receives “available” benefits.
The Relative Achievement of Goals, the Time for Compromise
On the reason why Russia is ready to compromise at this time, in addition to the specific situation in Syria and the Russian relations with the US, Russian goals in Syria and that how much they are/will be achieved should be also considered. On the nature of these goals and their priorities, different sources have presented different lists. In the meantime, experts of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS), the Russian Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry considered and prioritized these goals in a survey as follows:
1. Preventing the strengthening of radical Islam and terrorism on Russian soil,
2. Destroying the ISIS as a political-military force,
3. Establishing Russia as a major important power in the Middle East (great power strategy),
4. Creating conditions for negotiations and peace in Syria,
5. Creating conditions for Russian military presence in the Mediterranean Sea,
6. Weakening the influence of the US and NATO in the “CIS countries”,
7. Making a comprehensive assessment of Russian military readiness and capabilities,
Although the arrangement of these goals has not been much discussed on, and only the important issues have been mentioned, there are disagreements about how to prioritize them, for example, it seems that Russia’s first priority is to prevent further negative changes in the geopolitical balance with the West, and consolidate her position as a “great power”. However, counter-terrorism has also been important, Moscow has more taken advantage of it for achieving her first goal. Also, in the final judgment regarding the achievement of these goals, “process” should not be confused with “result”. Full achievement of goals and the success of Russia’s Middle East policy are subject to sustainable gains in the long term, and her one-year presence in Syria cannot be a strong indicator for judging Russian success. However, the above goals can be considered relatively achieved up to “this stage”.
On the first and second goals, although Moscow has somewhat succeeded in weakening asymmetric threats, she has acknowledged that full elimination of them is not possible through the action of one country and just by military means. Russia’s willingness to create a broad international coalition for doing this is a testament to this reality. The third goal is also somewhat achieved, and Russia presented herself as an active force and a “great power” in the Middle East after her operation in Syria, and at the same time Russia highlighted the US weaknesses.
The fourth goal has been achieved to some extent, and Moscow while establishing herself as one of the key pillars of negotiations, has tested different frameworks in this regard with different actors involved, and made the West and their regional allies understand that it will be difficult to solve the Syrian and regional problems without Moscow. The fifth goal has also been achieved with the approval of the Damascus government, and Russia has turned her military facilities in Tartus into a permanent base, and has increased her strategic depth in the Mediterranean Sea and in the region.
The sixth goal was partially achieved as well, and it seems that the Western focus on the “CIS countries” and their pressure on Russia in this area have been declined, and after Moscow’s military action in Syria, the issue of Ukraine and Crimea are not the priority issues in Russia-West talks. Seventh goal has also been achieved as the explicit remarks of the Kremlin officials including Putin himself show. Russia has used the Syrian crisis as a testing ground for her new weapons and military training, and has gained valuable experiences in the real conditions of war, and by displaying the effectiveness of her weapons, she has found new customers for them.
In the meantime, one of the most important components of Russia’s sustainable gains in the seven mentioned goals - maintaining the political structure of Damascus backing Russia - has been and will be provided. Russia has established this structure during the rule of the Assad family in Syria among Syrian military and politicians. Accordingly, although Bashar al-Assad is the best option for Moscow under the current situation to retain this structure, he is not necessarily the only option. If she is ensured about the maintenance of the Russian-oriented structure in Damascus, Russia does not have any problem with who is/will be the political agent in the Syrian capital.
That is why the Kremlin, unlike Tehran, has not much insisted on [preserving] Bashar al-Assad, kept her relationship with the Syrian opposition, and even negotiated with the West on the transitional government. At the same time, Moscow is aware of this important issue that if the agent changes, it can also lead to restructuring in the long term that the West and their regional allies are especially focused on.
Of course, Moscow considers that the reverse scenario holds truer. Meaning that she agrees with the transitional government in which some element of the current government exist, but presumes that after stabilizing the situation, these elements will gradually take all power, and the Russian-oriented structure will survive. Russian politicians are familiar with this method, but due to the high dynamics of the situation, the Kremlin will insist on Assad’s survival in the present circumstances until Russia is ensured that any change in the agent will not lead to the restructuring.
Moscow also considers a similar approach for creating a Federal Syria that is called a moderate approach for compromise, meaning that given the complexity of situation, and meeting her goals with less costs, the Kremlin agrees to create a “federal structure” (while maintaining the high sovereignty of Damascus and controlling the western and Mediterranean borders), but assumes that after stabilizing the situation and over time, it will be possible to turn the federal structure into a centralized one. This situation also holds true for Russia, and although she is federal in name, her management is centralized in practice.
Russia’s main goals in Syria are to prevent further negative changes in the strategic balance with the West, retain her only geopolitical strength in the Middle East (Syria), and maintain the Russians-oriented structure in Damascus that up to this stage, these goals have been relatively achieved, and there is a certainty factor for their survival. Although Russia’s long-term “military presence” is established, her continued “operational presence” which following the stable asymmetric threats should continue to an uncertain future, is not compatible with the cost-benefit calculation of the Kremlin. For this reason, Moscow while confessing the ineffectiveness of individual measures and military means to deal with the ISIS, considers creating a broad international coalition is a more appropriate approach to deal with it.
Meanwhile, Trump’s willingness to compromise also provides the opportunity to maintain the Russia’s low-cost gains in Syria and the Middle East. Of course, Moscow will not compromise with Trump only over Syria and the Middle East, and will certainly look for some concessions and benefits in other areas and issues, including Ukraine, Crimea, sanctions and the advancement of Western military infrastructure to the East (NATO and the anti-missile shield), and will do her best to link Syria to these issues.
In the meantime, however, previous failed peace plans have shown that interests and considerations of the Syrian sub-national forces and regional powers are also important, and Moscow and Washington have no total control over these players, the importance of the grand compromise between Russia and the US for pushing these forces to change their behavior cannot be overlooked. Their least leverage to impose their vision is to curtail support for these force that will inevitably affect their changing position.
Alireza Nouri, an analyst of Russian politics, is the fellow at IRAS.
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