By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
Russia has almost reached the end of its military operations in the Levant, which is certainly not the case for the central government in Damascus and its main allies within the “Axis of Resistance.”
Moscow is preparing to put an end to the occupation of some of the remaining sites still held by ISIS and al-Qaeda in northern Syria and is paving the way for the political process, which is expected to be complex. However, it is predictable that the political process may not unfold as desired by President Vladimir Putin, and for one simple reason, the position of the Syrian government. This will run counter to what the Russian patron thinks and will become clear when all the countries involved (USA, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Syria) eventually unite around one negotiating table.
Russia was able to cohabit with the US for decades in Germany after World War II because the spheres of influence were divided between the countries that themselves won the war. In the Levant, things are entirely different. Even though Russia itself has been ready to “co-exist” with the US on one territory in Syria, the government of Damascus – along with its allies in the “Axis of Resistance” – is totally unwilling to allow or accept any foreign occupation of its territory, even temporarily.
Russia’s allies also view the presence of US-French-British forces as the greatest threat to Syria. These are known for their planning and implementation of regime change, and for their underlying and unconditional support for Israel and its expansionist ambitions, with its occupation of neighbouring territory in the Middle East.
Damascus considers that the illegal airports under US control in north – eastern Syria are used as stations and services for Israeli jets. Moreover, the US illegal presence is also acting as an incubator for Israel and the US in a Syrian environment north of the country outside the central government’s control, which is provocative in a Kurdish controlled area and represents a threat to the national security of Syria, as well as that of its allies in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon.
Syria considers that Russian intervention in Syria since September 2015 has positively counter-balanced the military position on the battlefield. The Russian involvement has in fact allowed the return of more than 50 percent of the Syrian territory, together with the liberation of Damascus, Homs and Hama and their respective surrounding areas, plus the city of Aleppo, and some of rural Idlib as well as Deir Ezzor. But Russia would have been incapable of achieving this goal without the participation of tens of thousands of Syrians and allies, i.e. Hezbollah, Iran and its close allies on the ground. Russia actually brought a very small ground force, compared with the mass of ground forces provided by the allies of Damascus.
Russia also crucially supported the Syrian government in international forums and prevented America from taking international decisions at the United Nations to legitimise the overthrow of the regime. It also, interestingly, minimised two US “disciplinary” attacks on Syria (one against Shu’ayrat military airport and months later against multiple targets).
But Russia’s reward in the Levant has been, through Syria, to open the door to the international arena. Using it as a live experimental battlefield, Moscow was able to show its military capability and takes away tremendous lessons from the results of using its advanced weapons on real targets. Damascus agreed to sign a strategic agreement (for 49 years) with Russia, to keep and develop its naval base in those warm Mediterranean waters. Russia was also able to boost its economic role in Syria relating to the exploitation of energy resources and the reconstruction of the country, which will allow Russian firms to enjoy unlimited contracts.
In the political arena, Russia played a vital role by giving impetus to the Astana talks, which imposed themselves as a real and efficient alternative to Geneva.
Nevertheless, all this will not deter Syria from demanding the return of all occupied territories, in particular those under US control, firstly in the north-east of Hasaka and Deir al-Zour. The al-Tanf area is more difficult because of its desert terrain and openness – but it therefore becomes insignificant once the US occupation of the north-east is ended.
So the central government in Damascus will not be intimidated and will claim back the return of the south despite the Russian-American agreement on Daraa and the Golan, where groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are still in control (1,500 “Khalid bin al-Walid Army” militants control 8 villages and over 200 sq km of territory). This may indeed run counter to Russia’s desire to lay down arms, to end the war and begin political action to regain the occupied territories without resorting to fighting.
However, Russia is acting as if it does not know that political negotiations will never force the US and Israel out of Syria. Actually, these two countries have never ended any of their occupations by their own freewill, only under repeated attacks from whatever locals they have tried to dominate!
Syria and its allies (led by Iran) believe that they won this war because their situation on the ground against jihadists until September 2015, even before the Russian intervention, was critical. Today, the Arab states (and Turkey) have lost all the Syrian proxies they had in the Syrian war. Syria and Iran have inflicted serious losses on western countries (EU and US) who have been aiming since 2011 to topple the Syrian regime, and President Bashar al-Assad has maintained the command and control of both political and military power in Syria. All remaining proxies have been pushed from all Syrian cities into the north, and mainly Idlib.
Even if holding on to President Assad was not a prerequisite for Moscow (which is convinced today of the necessity of holding presidential elections), today Russia would like to see the Syrian people choosing their own president. This is consistent with the expressed desire of Assad himself and his other strategic allies.
As regards Iran and its allies, Assad does not find any points of disagreement on the objectives to be achieved in Syria. Moscow is indeed a strategic ally of Damascus, but there are points of disagreement between Damascus and Moscow : what is important is that these differences do not spoil the friendliness of the relationship, nor damage the underlying support.
Moscow can say what it wants and what it says may even be contradicted between the same Russian officials. However, the language and the objectives aimed by Assad and Iran in relation to the Syrian war are identical and do not appear to vary.
Moscow will work for peace in its own way without contradicting Syria’s goals and without having to interfere in the military operations that Syria and its allies can carry out without Russian support.
The liberation of the far north-east at Albuqmal, and the far south-west at Beit Jinn, was carried out by paramilitary forces without Russian air support. Russia and Syria have their own policies which are not themselves at war! It seems that Moscow’s strategic understanding does allow it to coexist in the Levant with the US and with Damascus and its allies-and all on the same territory, even though they have targets which are themselves conflictual.
Proof read by: Maurice Brasher
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