Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

Russia and its partners in Syria play a game of realignment and mutual suspicion

Neither 100 per cent behind its allies, nor against its enemies, Russia projects its influence by accommodating all the players in this troubled nation

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan are embracing out of obligation, while each fears the other will stab him in the back. Alexander Nemenov/AP
Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan are embracing out of obligation, while each fears the other will stab him in the back. Alexander Nemenov/AP

Russian diplomacy under President Vladimir Putin is “half a loaf”, according to a prominent Russia expert: not 100 per cent with its allies and not 100 per cent against its adversaries. It is a friend to countries that are to each other enemies, such as Iran and Israel. It does not play by the rules and uses its few available means judiciously and prudently. Thus, Russia is a partner to the other two members of the Astana process for Syria, but it does not lead any kind of Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance there. And its allies on the ground in Syria are not necessarily long-term strategic partners.

The Russian president sharply distrusts the schemes of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is manipulating what he sees as his distinctive leverage with both Russia and the US. The recent summit between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan in Moscow has a flavour of obligation, rather than total accord, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. Meanwhile, the Russian-Iranian alliance on the ground is hitting the stumbling block of not only the lack of alignment between the two countries’ projects, but also their competition over the future of Syria. Concerning the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, Russia almost cannot live with him or without him.

Then there is the peculiar relationship between Russia and Israel, fluctuating between meticulous co-ordination in Golan and strong resentment as Israel embarrasses Russia in Syria by striking Iranian positions, with Russia not activating its S-300 air defence systems and Iran accusing it of deliberately turning them off during Israeli raids. In addition to all this, Moscow is watching warily the measures of the White House and Congress, not only in terms of the supposed withdrawal from Syria, but also the new bills and sanctions targeting the Syrian government and individuals and entities supporting it, presenting further obstacles to foreign contributions to the reconstruction of Syria. This comes after the EU slapped new sanctions on regime-affiliated figures and businesses.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, coined the term “swivel diplomacy” to describe Russia’s foreign policy, which tries to accommodate all players in Syria, including adversaries, allies, rivals, partners, neighbours, and foreign powers. During his intervention at the Carnegie conference in Beirut, Mr Trenin said that Russia has made an important decision in the context of a new strategy for national identity, where Moscow would see Russia as Russia, not as a European power, and determine its role in the world realistically.

Russia does not have the final say in the Middle East, Mr Trenin said, “and has no parity with the US as it had during the Soviet era”. Russia does not claim to be as powerful as the US in the world, he continued, but despite this, “there is space for new assertive roles for Russia”. Mr Trenin said Iran and Mr Al Assad have been able to block the prospects for a political solution in Syria, despite Russia’s determination to see it through. If anything, this highlights the brittleness of Russian leverage in the Middle East and its competition with Iran in Syria.

As for Turkey, the other member of the Astana process, Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan are embracing out of obligation, while each fears the other will stab him in the back. During their press conference in Moscow, Mr Putin said he spoke to Mr Erdogan about the impact of the US intention to withdraw its forces from north-eastern Syria. He confirmed the Syrian regime is talking to the Kurds, saying this would help unite Syrian society and aid national reconciliation, and would be beneficial not just for Syria but all neighbouring countries. Mr Putin also said a new tripartite summit would be held by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, and that talks with his Turkish counterpart also tackled the issue of forming the Syrian constitutional committee.

Interestingly, Mr Erdogan said “the cornerstone of stability in Syria is co-operation between Russia and Turkey”, ignoring the other party to the Astana process, Iran; and the Syrian regime. Mr Erdogan was keen to deny there were differences between Ankara and Moscow regarding establishing a “safe zone” in northern Syria, which he justified by saying the US withdrawal will leave a vacuum for terrorists to fill, unless arrangements are made to confront them, which suits Turkey’s interests.

Incidentally, Nato member Turkey’s position on Venezuela is intriguing, as the crisis there seems to be reviving Cold War-style alignments. The Axis of Defiance that includes Iran, Hezbollah and Bashar Al Assad has expressed support for the Maduro regime against the head of the opposition-dominated parliament, Juan Guaido. Mr Guaido has declared himself “acting president”, as Venezuelans lose patience with President Nicolas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez. Mr Erdogan, Russia, and China have also voiced support for Mr Maduro, after the Trump administration recognised Mr Guaido as the “interim president” who has promised to form a transitional government and hold free elections. Mr Erdogan’s support also comes as Washington has vowed all options are on the table in Venezuela, which some observers say may include military intervention.

The developments in Venezuela will produce many alliances and alignments, and who stands where will be noticed. Turkey remains under US scrutiny, being a Nato member, but Ankara believes it can have its cake and eat it in its affiliations, domestic projects and regional and international policy. But Turkey will not escape recrimination while its partnerships in the East and the West are nothing but precarious. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the Syrian regime, have stuck to their long-lasting support for the Chavez-Maduro regime, which could invite further US pressure on them as the crisis develops into a direct confrontation between Washington and Caracas.

The Trump administration is determined to rein in Iran, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is preparing for an international conference on peace and security in the Middle East in Warsaw in mid-February. The conference will seek to build new Middle East alliances to further encircle Iran and its allies.

This week, the US House of Representatives passed unanimously the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, to impose sanctions on supporters of the Syrian government and nations allied to the Assad regime. The Act includes a list of regime officials and associates, including Mr Al Assad, his wife, and military, intelligence, air force, and central bank officials, and called for holding those involved in war crimes in Syria accountable. The Senate is expected to approve the bill.

Lebanon is liable under this bill as long as Hezbollah continues to pursue Iran’s agenda. The Iranians are preparing for the coming phase, and are taking seriously the Israeli escalation against their positions in Syria and the possibility of its expansion towards Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are also taking seriously the signs that the US intends to take measures beyond financial sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Iranians are aware that their Russian friends will not take on the US or Israel to protect them or the project of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Lebanon. This may explain the sharp criticism of Russia voiced by Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, following his return from Ankara. Mr Falahatpisheh accused Moscow of deactivating the S-300 air defence system when Israel conducts raids against Iranian positions in Syria.

Russia wants to sponsor direct negotiations as soon as possible between Israel and Iran, according to Russian ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov, who told Israel’s i24: “The claims and deeds of Iran, especially when they are talking about the destruction of Israel, are unacceptable”. Mr Viktorov also said Moscow has taken “very serious measures at the very highest level with Iranians, and convinced them to withdraw from the immediate proximity of the Israeli border."

Iran and its allies are thus not falling only under US pressure and sanctions, but also a clear Russian message that Moscow will not be drawn into Iranian provocations of Israel and will not prevent Israel from blocking the plans of the IRGC in Lebanon and Syria.

The US is also pressuring political groups allied to Hezbollah in Lebanon, such as the Free Patriotic Movement, which the US blames alongside President Michel Aoun of the FPM for providing political and security cover for the militant group.

Jeffrey Feltman, former US ambassador to Lebanon, wrote a lengthy analysis for the Brookings Institute titled “Hezbollah: Revolutionary Iran’s most successful export”. Mr Feltman called on the US “to contemplate seriously how to show FPM officials and supporters, many of whom have ties to the United States, that there are consequences in terms of their relations with the United States for the FPM’s alliance with a designated terrorist organisation with American blood on its hands.”

As an example, Mr Feltman proposed sending a clear message to Lebanon’s foreign minister and President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, that his “embrace” of Hezbollah will cost him especially in terms of his contacts with officials in Washington. Mr Feltman also called for “scrutiny of World Bank commitments in light of what ministries fall under Hezbollah’s control in the new cabinet”, and for “rapid US action … to mitigate the impression … that the US has lost interest and influence in the region and that Washington’s Iran policy is rhetorical only” and “to prevent the emergence of other Hezbollah-like entities elsewhere in the region.”

Encircling Iran and its allies in the region is not a rhetorical policy. Russia may not be too upset by that, because pressure on its allies and partners, such as Iran, Turkey and the Assad regime, has pushed them to seek Russian counsel first.

Updated: January 26, 2019 05:15 PM