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The Russian Bear And The Game Of Reducing Forces In Syria – OpEd


By Saeed Davar*

If you don’t know the Russians, you would be surprised, but if you understand the Russian spirit properly, you would know that it is a mixture of the Eastern essence and Western thought. Therefore, you have to understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to checkmate everybody.

Do you think that Russians would be able to solve Syria’s five-year problem in a matter of five months? And will they be able to do that through a limited military withdrawal from the country?

I must say that Russia has gotten fed-up with the prolongation of what is going on in Syria and although it is serious in defending its interests, Moscow uses different and somehow understandable methods to do so. Various wills have been currently pitted against one another in Syria. The destructive war that is raging in the country has not given anybody anything useful yet and various groups that oppose Syria’s President Bashar Assad are naively trying to play the role of [France’s] General De Gaulle by forming a government in exile, while Assad is hosting his allies in uncarpeted rooms. Russians entered Syria in order to change the existing equations and to strike a balance of powers in their relations with powers outside Syria, which were operating against Assad. However, please pay attention to this point that the goal pursued by Russians is not limited to Bashar Assad. Moscow has solved this problem. A large part of Syria’s territories has been retaken from terrorists. These are lands whose value cannot be played down by anybody. I believe that the interests of Russians call for Assad to step down from power, but the country’s crisis has become protracted and boring and without a political understanding, which would be based on military power, there is no possibility of solving this problem. Before Russia entered Syria, Moscow’s interests in the Arab country were practically in jeopardy. Now, however, these interests have been stabilized and Russia’s iron fist has been also demonstrated to other parties and it has been proven that continued operations of this fist can cause more problems for Assad’s opposition. For this reason, inclination toward peace is currently high on both sides of this equation.

In this analysis, I ignore Daesh and al-Nusra Front because the fight against them will continue. I ask for permission to explicitly say that Russia embarked on entering Syria on the basis of a premeditated and scheduled plan, and has envisaged a time period of one year for its activity inside the Arab country half of which must end the military phase of the Syria war. Other actors like Iran, the United States and Israel were also informed of Russia’s strategy. I have been witness to some sort of coordination between Russia and the United States and Israel, as well as between Moscow and Tehran, which shows that those countries were kept abreast of what Russia wanted to do. In fact, you cannot see even a single or slight problem between Russians and Israelis on how Russia should enter Syria and what measures the Russian Air Force should take for bombarding Assad’s opposition groups. A similar situation existed with regard to relations between Moscow and Washington. Russians were even in coordination with Israel over securing Syria’s sky for their flights. Isn’t this an important issue? In fact, Russians could have entered Syria after promising to resolve the country’s crisis in favor of the interests of all involved parties, which would be the big deal. The course of events was such that Russians had to do something. In doing this, Putin managed to “resuscitate” Syria, regulate Damascus’ heartbeat and prevent its traditional ally from falling into a coma, and it carried out that resuscitation through “military shock.”

At the same time, to shore up political negotiations between the two sides, and especially to assure the opposition, which sought some powerful and international guarantees, and to encourage them to enter into negotiations with Assad, Russia was seriously mulling withdrawal of part of its forces, but it had also set conditions for taking this step. It is exactly for this reason that political forces opposing Syrian government immediately announced their readiness to take part in direct negotiations with Assad as soon as Russians left the country, which proves their less than inadequate trust in Moscow. Of course, the US and Israel played a supportive role and unlike Ukraine, Syria turned into one of the common operational domains between Russia and the United States in which the United States mostly played a diplomatic role. This part of the story was also attractive to Israel because if the process continues in the way that has been agreed, Tel Aviv could be hopeful that Assad would be removed from office through forthcoming elections in Syria. Afterwards, Israel can mount pressure for rapid withdrawal of the Lebanese Hezbollah in order to pave the way for increasing its influence over future governments and structure in the country.

Naturally, this issue would be against Iran’s interests and if we wanted to find a sign and reason to prove a possible problem between Tehran and Moscow irrespective of the military aspect of the issue, we could point out this very problem, which would be totally against the interests of Iran in Syria and Lebanon and the entire region. Russians may have a problem with Assad, but they have always denied this. I, however, believe that in order to make Bashar Assad show resilience in his decisions and viewpoints and forcefully make him enter into positive negotiations with his opposition, Russia has connected the withdrawal of forces from Syria to this issue. Russia apparently aims to remind Assad of the risk of losing liberated territories and those territories that are still in terrorists’ hands, which may end in the continued rule of the Free Syrian Army and other terrorist groups, especially Daesh, and it is doing this through its withdrawal diplomacy. In doing so, Moscow wants to make the central government in Syria join political negotiations to avoid possible disruption of the balance of powers, which has been forged as a result of Moscow’s assistance. Naturally, if Russians had not withdrawn from Syria and liberated new regions with the help of Syrian army and other allies, Assad would have shown no willingness to negotiate with the opposition or would have taken new obstructionist steps. Russians have put both sides to the Syria challenge in a defensive position. On the one hand, the opposition is afraid that if peace talks fail, Russian forces would be redeployed to the country while, on the other hand, the government of Assad is concerned that withdrawal of Russia would leave to a negative change in the balance of power.

Russians’ diplomacy will, on the one hand, help Assad mend its domestic image in elections to show that achievements of his government have not been simply gained through Russia’s help. On the other hand, this diplomacy will prop up political and social position of Putin within the Russian society by proving that he has high military management power and can defend Russia’s interests across the world without suffering great loss. In my opinion, although due to certain reasons accepting the withdrawal of the Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah from Syria without achieving their goals seems difficult, I can still consider this possibility as an analyst, which may take place within framework of the aforesaid big deal. At the same time, I also believe that Russians will never accept to pass over their own interests in order to maintain those of Iran and they will prefer Israel’s interests over Iran’s interests. This is why they may not be necessarily honest with Iran in many places.

What I wonder is if there is the possibility of a compromise between Russia and Saudi Arabia over Syria within a new and unprecedented framework? Can there be a compromise through which Russians would be refunded for the cost of their 200-day war in Syria and use a method for withdrawing from Syria, which would seem that as if it was done upon a sudden decision by Putin while, at the same time, Riyadh would use its influence over Syrian opposition to calm them down?

At present, the will of big powers is focused on putting an end to Syria crisis and they are trying to reach a rapid conclusion through political means. This is why I expect more heated activity from foreign ministries of Russia and the United States. Through his actions, Putin has already proved his power as well as the strength of his political and military leadership, which is not unrelated to teachings of the former Soviet system, which he is using under such conditions. Note that at present, Russia’s power in Syria is not limited to two marine and air bases and a total of 1,000 troops. Russians still enjoy a powerful military fleet with advanced equipment and well-trained forces, which no analyst has so far pointed them out in their analyses. Russians have practically succeeded to challenge their army in a difficult and complicated and real military maneuver, and find out about their weaknesses and fortes. At the same time, they have managed to come up with an accurate assessment of the regional realities as well as capabilities and goals of countries by studying other countries’ reactions to the ongoing developments. Russians have also accurately assessed strengths and weaknesses of their missile launch from Caspian Sea to Syria and have provided their traditional enemies with the opportunity to reassess Russians and especially reckon on them by controlling and testing Russia’s military operations in Syria.

In my opinion, Russia’s withdrawal diplomacy is on the whole and from a psychological viewpoint not positive for Iran and the government of Syria. However, at the same time, I believe that a good balance of power has been created in the region and the two sides, both the Syrian government and its opposition, will be willing to engage in political negotiations in order to maintain what they have gained.

There is also another point here. Let’s accept that the government of Assad has been given more breathing time, but to raise hope about its survival, that government needs special emergency care and measures before being transferred to a general ward.

* Saeed Davar
International Analyst

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