Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

As Assad pivots to Iran, Russia might be suffering a degree of buyer's remorse in Syria

The reported involvement of Russian mercenaries in Libya suggests Vladimir Putin's priorities have changed

Russian and Syrian forces standing guard at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, Syria. George Ourfalian / AFP
Russian and Syrian forces standing guard at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, Syria. George Ourfalian / AFP

After the enormous investment Moscow has made, both in terms of blood and treasure, to keep Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in power, the Kremlin must now be feeling somewhat short-changed about their post-conflict treatment by Damascus.

It might be premature to conclude that the Syrian conflict is finally over, especially as the Kurdish-led operation to clear the last remnants of ISIS on the Iraqi-Syrian border is continuing. It is also likely that the Assad regime will maintain its attempts to reclaim all of Syrian territory under its control, which has been the president’s declared aim since anti-regime protesters first took to the streets in the spring of 2011.

But after eight years of brutal fighting, there can be little doubt that the Assad regime has emerged as the undisputed victor in the conflict, assisted in large measure by the Kremlin’s timely intervention in the autumn of 2013.

Having been persuaded by Qassem Soleimani, the influential head of the Quds Force unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, that Russia’s long-standing Syrian military assets, most notably its bases at Tartus and Latakia, were at risk if Mr Al Assad fell, Moscow acted quickly to implement a major military intervention.

The Russian move, which has cost the Kremlin billions of dollars in military expenditure that the hard-pressed Russian economy can ill afford, proved to be a decisive turning-point, one that helped to turn the tide of the conflict in the Assad regime’s favour.

Yet, as Russia’s combat operations draw to a close, it is starting to dawn on the Kremlin that the rewards it hoped to receive from the Assad regime in return for its support are unlikely to meet Moscow’s original expectations.

As one senior Western official involved in the conflict recently told me, “All the signs suggest the Russians are now suffering a degree of what might be described as 'buyer’s remorse'.” The Russians clearly believed their massive military investment in Syria would pay dividends in terms of consolidating their geo-political standing in the region.

“Now, as the conflict draws to a close, they are finding that the Assad regime has a different set of priorities,” the official continued.

Moscow’s concerns that its Syrian gamble may ultimately backfire stem from the realisation that the Assad regime appears to be far more interested in forging a closer post-conflict relationship with Iran than it does with the Kremlin.

Russia and Iran have always had an uneasy alliance in the campaign to save the Assad regime. While both countries have shared similar objectives on the battlefield, such as their combined assaults on rebel strongholds like Aleppo, elsewhere they have pursued different agendas.

Moscow hoped that its Syrian adventure would help to deepen its involvement in the wider Arab world, especially at a time when many leaders in the region no longer regard Washington as a reliable ally.

Iran’s focus, by contrast, was more insular, to consolidate its influence over the Assad government, thereby enabling Tehran to expand its military influence in the region.

For decades Damascus was able to exert a degree of control over Iran’s activities in its territory, particularly Iran’s ability to maintain a regular supply route to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Now Tehran believes it has become the dominant partner in the relationship, enabling it to build a new network of military bases in Syria.

The differing Russian and Iranian agendas have not been without their tensions. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enjoys a cordial relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has turned a blind eye as Israeli warplanes have bombed Iranian positions in Syria without fear of being shot down by Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

Now the competition between Moscow and Tehran for favoured status in Damascus is in the open following Mr Al Assad’s recent visit to the Iranian capital, where he signalled that, looking to the future, he regarded Iran, not Russia, as Syria’s more valued strategic partner.

In his first visit to Iran since the outset of the conflict, Mr Assad met with Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani. Previously Mr Al Assad’s only visits outside his country had been to Moscow, and the fact the he has chosen Tehran as his preferred destination as hostilities draw to a close is a clear sign of where the Assad regime’s priorities now lie.

Any disappointment, though, that Moscow feels about Mr Al Assad’s diplomatic snub is likely to be short-lived. For a start, the Russians never wanted an open-ended military engagement in Syria. Russia’s military chiefs have been lobbying for Moscow to down-scale its involvement for more than a year, arguing that there are more pressing priorities, such as tackling a resurgent Nato, for them to address.

Furthermore, the Kremlin is always on the look-out for new opportunities to extend its influence, especially when it comes at the expense of the Western powers.

In this context recent reports of Moscow funding a 300-strong group of Russian mercenaries in Libya would suggest that Mr Putin is already moving on from any disappointment he might feel about Syria.

The mercenaries, who are said to be fighting in support of General Khalifa Haftar, are helping the country’s breakaway eastern half to resist attempts by the Western-backed Government of National Accord to bring political stability to the war-ravaged country.

The presence of the Russian mercenaries in Libya, who are attempting to seize control of the key ports of Tobruk and Derna, is seen as part of a carefully-orchestrated plan by the Kremlin to seize control of vital oil supply routes to southern Europe.

And, if the Russians succeed with their plan to become the dominant force in Libya and other parts of northern Africa, their future relationship with Mr Assad will no longer by a key priority for the Kremlin.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Updated: March 7, 2019 06:22 PM

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