https://www.jpost.com – By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Russia has been an ally of the Syrian regime and of the Assad family for decades.
Russia played a key role in releasing an Israeli woman held in Syria. The full details of the exchange are not known, but the central role of Moscow is clear. This is a reminder of Russia’s overall role in Syria and how it is able to facilitate aspects of the conflict. It’s important to understand how Russia does this to potentially see where Syria is going in the future.
Russia has been an ally of the Syrian regime and of the Assad family for decades. It has naval base in Tartus in northern Syria and an air base in the same area, called Khmeimim. This Russian presence and support for the regime led Russia to intervene in Syria in 2015. Russia claimed to be intervening to fight ISIS and other “terrorist” groups. A year after Russia intervened its role in keeping the Syrian regime intact was clear. Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, fell in December 2016.
By the summer of 2018 Russia had helped broker the collapse of the southern Syrian rebel strongholds near the Golan and Quneitra. Rebels left areas in Damascus and also pockets they held between Homs and Hama in May 2018. Russian intervention was not like the US intervention in Vietnam. Despite American policy makers like Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s Syria envoy, who claimed the US could make Syria a “quagmire” for Russia, there was no quagmire because there was no massive Russian presence. Russian sent air force assets, drones, special forces, contractors and military police. But no huge divisions of men were coming.
Russia’s real intervention was on how it could shift the Syrian conflict to leverage it to regional influence. Moscow encouraged the Astana talks with Turkey and Iran and soon Turkey and Iran were running to Moscow and Sochi to ask Russia what to do next. Russia sold Turkey S-400s to create daylight between Ankara and Washington, feeding on Ankara’s growing authoritarianism and conspiracy-minded leadership. As Ankara became more pro-Russia and more pro-Iran, Moscow moved to be the arbitrator of who could have what. When Turkey demanded Afrin and the ethnic-cleansing of Kurds and needed the airspace to use its F-16s, Russia consented in January 2018. The trade off would be that the Syrian regime would get more slices of Idlib. Russia, Turkey and Iran conspired to remove the US from Syria by trying to break US relations with its partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. In October 2019 it appeared they had got what they wanted as US President Donald Trump agreed to leave Syria.
As the US withdrew, the Russians backfilled the American bases. If Jeffrey’s quagmire theory was to work it was unclear how Russians running into former US bases was part of the plan. But US diplomats and insiders and experts had all been marshaled to oppose the “endless” war in Syria. Syria wasn’t actually an endless war for the US, only a handful of US soldiers were there and a successful partnership with the Kurdish-led SDF had worked well. But former US ambassador Robert Ford argued the US should leave. Let Russia and Turkey and Iran have Syria.
As Turkey and Russia worked together in Idlib, with joint patrols, Russia sought to harass the remaining US forces in eastern Syria. Cat-and-mouse patrols squared off in 2020.
Then there was Israel. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has good relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Putin, a keen reader of people, likely has watching Netanyahu since the late 1990s. it is widely believed that Putin respects Israel and understands its concerns. Russia has a carrot and criticism approach with Israel on Syria. In November 2019 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Israeli airstrikes were the “wrong move” in Syria. In late November 2019 Russia even appeared to expose details of an Israeli airstrike by alleging Israel flew over Jordan. Russia also blamed Israel after Syrian air defense shot down a Russian aircraft IL-20 in September 2018 near Latakia. Fifteen personnel were killed. Israel apologized.
Russia, the US and Jordan also agreed to a ceasefire deal in November 2017 that is widely seen as having paved the way for the eventually collapse of the southern Syria rebels. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov appeared to indicate foreign forces, like Hezbollah, could leave Syria when the war ends. Those comments were in February 2017. In August 2018 Russian military police were supposed to head to southern Syria to help keep the peace. Russia supported the 5th Corps in Southern Syria that includes former Syrian rebels. This is designed to de-conflict and also reconcile former Syrian rebels. It hasn’t always worked.
It is important to recall also that back in 2017 reports in Israeli media said that Russia had rejected a request to keep pro-Iranian groups 60km from the Golan border. But, August 2018 Reuters said that Russia said that Iranian forces had pulled back to 85km from the Golan.
Given all this knowledge about Russia’s role, much remains unclear. Russia supposedly provided Syria with the S-300 system in 2018, but it hasn’t been used by the regime. In May 2020 reports indicated Russian radar the Syrian regime uses were inadequate to prevent airstrikes. Israel has said it carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria in recent years. Russia sent its S-400 to Latakia in 2015 after a Russian plane was shot down by Turkey. Russia was also likely behind Syrian strikes that killed Turkish soldiers in February 2018. What was Russia playing at in Idlib in that scenario? Showing Turkey that it could suffer casualties or seeing how the Syrian regime would square off against Turkey.
Is Russia opposed to Iran’s increasing entrenchment or not? Reports in January 2021 indicated Russia doesn’t want Syria to become an area of Iran-Israel warfare. That could erode and destabilize the Syrian regime that Russia supports. After all, Iran is sponging up Syria, building bases, moving in militias, most of whom have no interest in Russia. Iran is destabilizing Syria and the Syrian regime in the past was a powerful Stalinist-style state. Now Syria is divided, occupied by Turkey, with the US backing the SDF in the east and Iranian entrenchment in the south and Israeli airstrikes. Is this what Russia wants, a frozen conflict, or a secure Syrian regime. CSIS, in a July 2019 report, alleges that Russia both supports Iran in Syria and “explicitly or tacitly allows Israeli military actions against Iranian targets.” The US under Trump, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton and Jeffrey’s backing, enabled Israel to act in Syria with cooperation from the US. The level of that cooperation is not known.
Russia has threaded the needle in Syria. It has enabled friction between the Syrian regime and Turkey, between Israel and Iran, gambling on the idea that all those involved in Syria now come to Moscow to figure out what to do next. The recent deal to release an Israel woman who went to Israel, illustrates that. A careful reading of Russian involvement shows how Russia acts as the “maestro” of the Syrian conflict, keying in parts of the band when necessary. Whether Iran, Israel, Turkey, the US, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, Kataib Hezbollah, Hezbollah, and everyone else in Syria, will continue. To play their role in concert is unclear.