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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Russian Strategic Orientations in Syria

Russian Strategic Orientations
A photo of the Russian President Vladimir Putin while meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 13, 2021.
Mikhail KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP

Ghazi Dahman

Ghazi Dahman is a writer and political analyst specializing in Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs.

Russia is handling the situation in Syria as a geo-strategic opportunity emanating from the changes occurring in the global arena and as a result of the policies sought by Russia’s new elites in their pursuit of a Russian role on the international front.

The Tartus base is the most prominent among the features of Russia’s influence, as it affords Moscow control and sways over a broad swath of territory extending to Europe through its strategic bombers’ ability to maneuver and monitor. Moreover, there’s the matter of its impact on NATO’s southern flank, where its proximity to NATO bases in Turkey grants Russia sizeable scope to counterbalance the power of NATO, which seeks to contain Russia from the west through the Eastern European countries, and from the south by precipitating changes in Central Asian countries.

Russia is seeking to manage complex equilibriums in Syria’s crisis by rehabilitating the Syrian regime internationally and diluting the impact of international resolutions, particularly Security Council Resolution 2254. In addition, it realizes a new frame of reference for the Syrian peace process between the regime and the opposition that ensures the former’s survival while introducing some reforms that allow the opposition to enter the regime’s structure without compromising the regime’s decision-making power. This comes due to a lack of confidence in the opposition as it has been deemed a vassal of the West since the beginning of the conflict, and any power it would accrue would jeopardize Russia’s interests, especially at the Tartus base, and by extension endanger Russian military assets and investments in Syria.

At the same time, Russia is seeking exit strategies that prevent it from getting entangled in the Syrian quagmire, a goal Moscow has long sought. Russia realizes Syria is isolated and in ruins, and absent a process of reconstruction and efforts to revitalize its economy, which according to the latest statistics, has incurred losses exceeding the $1 trillion mark, would become a burden on Russia, which lacks the resources to complete the reconstruction process without regional and international contributions. 

Within the framework of Russia’s strategy to push the international community, particularly the United States, to re-evaluate the Syrian regime’s position, Moscow has worked to open channels of dialogue between the regime and Israel that until now include the repatriation of the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in 1982 during Lebanon’s Civil War, in addition to the release of more recent captives on both sides. Russia has demonstrated its effectiveness on this track and proven the scope of its influence over the Syrian regime, which observers accuse of having fallen under Iranian hegemony.

Consequently, Russia cannot negotiate with Israel save within parameters that strengthen Iran’s regional cards and support the so-called “resistance alliance” comprised of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. Therefore, it appears Russia plans to develop these partial negotiations into broader peace talks between the Syrian regime and Israel. In fact, reports have already leaked about a meeting that took place at the Russian Hmeimim base in Latakia between Syrian and Israeli security officers, which explored the possibility of future negotiations between the two sides.

Russian views in this field are based on the fact that achieving a Syrian-Israeli peace will enhance Moscow’s sway in the region and grant it further standing as an active and influential international party in the region’s security and political files, especially in light of the decline of American effectiveness in the region’s affairs due to the abatement of the Middle East’s importance from the perspective of the U.S. administration.

However, Russia faces quite a few logistical conundrums in its Middle Eastern geopolitical project, represented by Syria, and in particular its Tartus base, as in order to deliver all the supplies of weapons and fuel needed to operate its planes, as well as the food it needs for its soldiers in Syria, the routes to reach Tartus pass through the Bosporus Strait.  

Russia is well aware that Turkey, which can close the strait on sovereign grounds, or by exploiting some legal provision that lets it close the strait to any transit movement that poses a threat to the security of the crossing, may attempt to do so if pressured by Russia in Syria, or if interests it shares with Moscow in other regions are imperiled. This poses a risk for Russia because although, in principle, it has large stores of weapons in Syria, these are not sufficient given that it lacks an air cargo fleet capable of replenishing supplies in the event of the Bosporus Strait’s closure.

What heightens Russia’s concerns about Turkey, and the level of distrust between the two parties is the possibility of Turkey returning to a state of cooperation and consensus with the United States under the administration of President Joe Biden, his plans to reactivate the role of NATO, and his administration’s re-evaluation of the importance of good relations with Turkey.

Another dilemma compromising the achievement of peace in Syria, in exchange for obtaining economic and political concessions from the West, especially in terms of financing the reconstruction project, was evident in handling the issue of refugees’ return. Despite Russia’s repeated invitations and sponsorship of the refugee conference held in Damascus late last year, its behavior showed its efforts were not a serious and firm approach to this matter but rather an investment in the context of blackmailing Europe and the West.

Russia is betting on seeing the West’s options in Syria weakened, which would push them to adopt Moscow’s vision of a solution in Syria. However, Russia’s ability to achieve this appears in doubt considering the deteriorating economic conditions in Syria and a decline in Moscow’s ability to help, which may push it to revise its strategy at this stage in anticipation of a revelation of the Biden administration’s stance toward Syria.

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The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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