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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Russia holds the key to nearly half of Syria – and with it, the power to keep Iranian dominance at bay

The regime and its allies now have to deal with foreign powers who are present or hold interests in the areas they intend to attack, writes Hassan Hassan

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu; Russia's military and political gains in Syria have been significant. Alexander Nemenov / AFP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu; Russia's military and political gains in Syria have been significant. Alexander Nemenov / AFP

After Russia intervened directly in Syria in September 2015, it was able to achieve a sequence of military and political gains for the regime. The latest of such gains might be the most important.

Within a few months of the intervention, it became clear that the Russian presence had put an end to any serious attempt by backers of the rebels to topple the regime.

The second biggest achievement happened a year later, when Moscow began to profoundly transform the rebellion against the regime, rather than just securing its ally and winning more ground for it. The transformation started when Turkey abandoned its previous efforts to destabilise the regime and instead struck an alliance with Russia to pursue mutually beneficial policies in Syria.

The new policy ensured that Russia and its ally in Damascus could pick where to turn their attention on the battlefield.

Aleppo was retaken by the regime in December 2016, which, in retrospect, dealt a political and a military blow to the rebels, from which they were unable to recover.

With time and through local deals brokered by Russia and Turkey, the rebellion transformed into weaker forces tamed by their former foreign backers. In the early months of this year, the opposition came almost fully under the sway of foreign powers.

The latest development comes at the backdrop of these changes. Almost all the countries that once backed the opposition now depend on Russia to salvage the situation for them in Syria.

The idea that Russia would serve as a balancing force against Iran and even the regime is not new. The rebels, for example, engaged with Russia after its intervention precisely because they perceived it as a more reliable guarantor of ceasefires than Iran before it.

This perception caused many rebel factions to strike such deals and eventually to get involved in the peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana last year.

Israel, Jordan, the United States and the Gulf states had all viewed the role of Russia with hope at various times, either because it would make the regime in Damascus less dependent upon Iran or because of a perceived Iranian and Russia divergence in their approach and future vision for the country.

A policy proposal to further reduce pressure against the regime was seriously presented and discussed among such countries in Washington last year but the proposal gained little traction.

What seems to be new, however, is that such an understanding of the Russian role has increasingly become the guiding principle for those countries in Syria.

This change could be caused by three main factors: first, no outside effort to challenge the regime exists as before; the rebels present no threat anywhere near the regime’s main urban centres after their expulsion from Damascus, Aleppo and Homs; and Russia, not Iran, has existing deals with all the countries that hold sway over the areas outside the regime’s control.

The first two factors mean that the regime is under less military pressure than before and so it can now do with less Iranian help.

Strengthening the regime would gradually enable Syrians to take control of their country rather than to continue to be under the influence of Iran, whose militias, resources and expertise are indispensable as long as fighting continues.

The third factor is more critical. After the expulsion of the rebels from Damascus, the regime faces a new reality in the areas that remain outside its control.

Almost all of the remaining areas are within the sphere of influence of foreign powers and those countries have existing agreements with Russia.

The US and Turkey control close to 40 per cent of the country in the east and north. Israel also has de facto veto power in any regime military operations near its borders, by virtue of an agreement between it, Russia and the US.

Whereas taking new territory was previously a mere military calculation, the regime and its allies now have to deal with foreign powers with direct presence or interests in the areas the regime intends to attack.

And Russia, not Iran or Syria, is the country that has existing channels with those countries. In other words, the regime and Iran are currently locked out from about 40 per cent of Syria – and Russia holds the key.

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Given these factors, erstwhile allies of the opposition believe that Iran’s heavy presence in Syria could be reduced by strengthening the regime.

Once the regime’s military and security forces control the country, the thinking goes, outside pro-Iranian militias could be forced out. For those countries, Russia could enable such a scenario, even if it continued to be a friend of Iran.

Russia, to them, is the only power left to salvage the situation and prevent a full Iranian takeover of the country.

Regardless of the merit of such thinking, it appears to have now become a serious consideration for many of the countries that once opposed the regime.

On Tuesday, the left-wing Israeli publication Haaretz reported that Israel believed it was time for the US to reach an agreement with Russia based on a formula of “without Iran and without ISIS”.

The report came after unprecedented remarks by a Russian official in Syria calling for the departure of foreign forces, including Iranian-backed militias.

Over the past three years, Russia’s intervention has ensured the survival of the regime and helped it expand the areas it controls.

It then successfully transformed the rebels from active forces against the regime into factions fully tamed and controlled by outside countries.

The third major achievement is now underway – one that presents Moscow as the only remaining hope for preventing the entrenchment of an Iranian dominance in Syria.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC