Moscow’s leverage in Syria is strong, but limited

11 december 2017

Maxim A. Suchkov is editor of Al-Monitor’s Russia-Mideast Pulse and an expert on the Russian International Affairs Council. He is also an associate professor of international relations and deputy director for research at the School of International Relations, Pyatigorsk State University, in the North Caucasus, Russia. He was a Fulbright visiting fellow at Georgetown University (2010-11) and New York University (2015).

Resume: Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared “a complete victory” over the Islamic State on both banks of the Euphrates River in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared “a complete victory” over the Islamic State (IS) on both banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. He announced Dec. 6 that the military operation in the area is now finished, and focus will switch to a political process in Syria that will eventually involve presidential and parliamentary elections, Putin added.

His announcement, as well as his bid for a fourth term as president, were sidelined in the media by US President Donald Trump’s controversial same-day statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Yet there’s no shortage of stories describing the multiple challenges Moscow now faces in Syria, from setting up the Syrian National Dialogue Congress (which is supposed to be held this month) and handling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to ensuring an “Iran-free” post-war Syria or granting broader autonomy to the Kurds.

Some observers are concerned Russia might further “hijack” Syria’s settlement process. Others, including Russia itself, argue that Moscow’s role will gradually diminish now that other parties with a lot more at stake — Turkey and Iran in particular — will be coming to the forefront.

Ironically, those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios. Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United States — each due to their own reasons and motives — simply cannot do what Russia is doing: coming up with different ideas to move the political process forward, and working with all sorts of local and regional players opposed to one another. Some are forced to work with Moscow, not having other viable alternatives. Others genuinely see Russia as their go-to representative. Whether accurately or erroneously, they believe Russia can deliver whatever they’re asking for.

Moscow is partly to blame for setting the bar high for their perceptions. In recent years, Putin has convinced much of the world of Russia’s omnipotence in Syria and across the Middle East, elbowing his way to lead the process. Many in the region now have a rather inaccurate view of Russia’s situation in Syria.

One of these “perception traps” is the belief that Moscow is in control of the Assad government. In the absence of other leverage over Assad, Western and regional governments continue to appeal to Russia to work its influence, which it has been doing with random successes. The truth is, two years into Russia’s direct involvement in the Syria conflict, it’s still impossible to assess to what degree Assad is under Moscow’s control. Russia has palpable influence in some major areas, such as the military and intelligence. Russian military instructors are training the Syrian army, Russian officers have planned major offenses for government forces and in private chats, and Russian diplomats would say Assad is listening to what the Kremlin has to say. At the same time, Moscow has no illusions about Assad’s personal loyalty or his ambitions to keep his power, despite Russian efforts for a political settlement and talks with the opposition.

Moscow still doesn’t regret its decision to prop up Assad, simply because it never changed its mind about how Syria might have looked now, if Assad had been forced out of power six years ago. But, at times, Russia arguably does seem to wish it was the sole decision-maker on Syria in its dealings with the opposition camp — including external actors — for it would have been a much more streamlined process.

But the reality is, while Russia is a principal actor, it cannot resolve the situation all alone, and the much-rumored divergence of interests in the coalition meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, does indeed exist.

This leads to the second-biggest faulty perception, which is reflected in the positions of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. They keep pushing Moscow to convince Tehran to abandon its goal of ensuring a stronghold for itself in Syria. The presumption that Russia has major influence over Iran probably stems from three things: the “alliance” the two have forged over the course of the war; their growing cooperation on important economic, infrastructural and regional issues; and their seemingly shared opposition to the United States.

Russia and Iran are “strategic singles” in the international and regional arenas, and each ultimately has a strong sense of self. But they share an affinity for the way things are shaping up in the Mideast, and they intend to have each other as partners rather than adversaries.

There’s not as much space between those two poles as some might think, however, and there’s a delicate balance that could be upset easily with a careless move by either party. Neither side wants to find out what the result of such a move might look like. That’s why Russia’s not willing to put pressure on Iran to leave Syria.

In the meantime, Russia and Iran are carefully approaching one another on other sensitive matters — in Syria and elsewhere — with each party learning and making important choices for itself through the lens of its own interests.

Moscow is very likely aware of Iran’s activities that Tehran’s opponents deem subversive and toxic. But as long as these activities don’t target Russian interests, Moscow doesn’t see a need to react harshly. 

For example, Moscow no doubt is mulling Iran’s desire for a “Shiite corridor” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the idea as dangerous. But before reacting, Moscow will deconstruct this concept to distinguish Iran’s interests and determine its potential effects on Russia. Does Iran need a physical land corridor? If so, would that pose a threat to Russian military forces or its control over economic assets it has acquired in Syria? Perhaps Iran is only seeking a “virtual corridor” where its goal is political influence — in which case Moscow will also examine the idea with respect to its own opportunities. 

Iran’s grip on political forces across the region and what appears to be the construction of a military facility in Syria — a site Israel recently targeted — suggest Tehran seeks both a physical and political corridor. Russia must determine what level of Iranian presence on the ground is acceptable. But even before that, Moscow needs a clear vision of what it wants for itself in Syria — what kind of presence it needs and how many commitments it’s willing to make.

Until Moscow has clear answers to these questions, it will continue to compartmentalize the issues and its relationships with regional players.

But then, getting too close with Iran could also jeopardize the relationship’s balance. When the United States or Israel has a beef with Tehran, they assume Russian will jump to Iran’s side. Yet Russia wants to avoid complicating its relations with the United States and Israel over Iran.

This highlights what is possibly the biggest problem of the Russian-Iranian partnership: lack of trust. There’s barely any trust between any set of players in the Middle East to begin with, and often even less with outsiders. Russia and Iran have a bad history with each other that shapes their perceptions and defines their political discourse. A retired Russian diplomat once remarked to Al-Monitor, “Putin enjoys good personal chemistry with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and seems to trust him more than he does the Iranians.” 

So trust isn’t a given. It’s a political resource to be accumulated over a long period of time, patiently built through concrete actions. Russia and Iran have gained some of this through a number of joint economic initiatives and military interactions in Syria. The experiences weren’t always successful, so trust is still minimal, but at least now Moscow and Tehran have something on which to base their future work. They will try to maintain their balance, swaying on certain issues that won’t necessarily favor the other party. But the expectations of what Moscow can and cannot do regarding Iran should also be kept balanced.

Al-Monitor

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