Russia Considers Its Next Moves in Syria

7 MINS READAug 21, 2018 | 04:30 GMT
Posters of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and of Russian President Vladimir Putin adorn a kiosk at a border crossing in eastern Idlib province.

Posters of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and of Russian President Vladimir Putin adorn a kiosk at a border crossing in eastern Idlib province. Russia's involvement in the conflict has cemented its influence with al Assad's government.

  • To reap the rewards of its investment in Syria and to stabilize the conflict before it escalates further, Russia will try to implement a risky multipronged plan, the success of which is far from certain.
  • As part of that plan, Moscow will try to secure help from the United States and European Union in funding a reconstruction effort in Syria, though Russia's desire to keep Syrian President Bashar al Assad in power will be a sticking point.
  • Moscow will also try to prevent the conflict in Syria from giving way to an international war by mediating between Israel and Iran and by balancing the priorities of the Syrian and Turkish governments in Idlib province.

The Syrian civil war has entered a new phase since the government takeover of Daraa and Quneitra in the country's southwest. Now, for the first time in the conflict's seven-year history, all meaningful territory in Syria is either under the direct control of loyalist forces or subject to a significant foreign presence. The Syrian Democratic Forces and allied U.S. troops control the northeastern portion of the country, while Turkish troops are embedded in northern Aleppo province and Idlib province, where the last of the rebel forces are holding out.

It is President Bashar al Assad's government, however, that controls most of Syria, with help from allies such as Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Each of these partners has a different vision for the country's path forward. But Moscow — having already achieved its primary goal of securing its position, and that of al Assad's government, in the country — is eager to stabilize the war and reap the rewards of its involvement in the conflict. To that end, Russia has crafted a multipronged plan, one that is full of risk and whose success is far from certain.

The Big Picture

As the conflict in Syria reaches a new phase, Russia is still a central player in it. Moscow's strategy during this chapter of the war, and whether it succeeds, will help determine the future of Russia's relationships with the United States, the European Union, Turkey and Israel, not to mention with Syria itself. And if the strategy fails, the conflict could escalate into an international war. 

An Improbable Reconstruction

The first step in Russia's plan is to secure the reconstruction funding necessary to keep al Assad peacefully in power in Syria for the long haul. Without significant efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country, simmering dissent could once again boil over into rebellion. Russia's role in pacifying and rehabilitating Syria, moreover, would simultaneously cement its influence with and boost the legitimacy of the Syrian government, perhaps enough to encourage the West to lift its sanctions on Damascus. The process won't be cheap, though; estimates put the cost of reconstruction at about $400 billion. Because Russia can't possibly afford to foot the bill on its own, it is turning to other countries, namely the United States, China and EU member states, for help.

So far, it has met with mixed results. While China has signaled a desire to invest in the effort, the United States and the European Union are not on board with Russia's plan. Some EU countries, such as France, have already undertaken humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria alongside Russia, but their activities are a far cry from the reconstruction plan Moscow has in mind. To try to entice EU members to support its vision, Russia has raised the prospect of returning refugees to the reconstructed Syria. The European Union, however, is skeptical of Russia's intentions and still unwilling to work directly with al Assad's government. Convincing the United States of the plan's merit is proving even more difficult. Not only will Washington not work with the Syrian government, barring a political transition, but it is also looking for ways to cut its spending in Syria. The U.S. State Department announced Aug. 17 that instead of spending the $230 million earmarked for stabilization efforts in the areas under the Syrian Democratic Forces' control, it would ask its Arab allies to put up the money.

Avoiding an Israeli-Iranian Escalation 

As Moscow continues to look for ways to assure the longevity of the al Assad administration, it is also working to keep the conflict in Syria from escalating into a war between the states involved there. Israel has been ramping up its attacks on Iranian troops in Syria over the past year to try to prevent Tehran from entrenching itself in the country. The attacks, if left unchecked, could give way to a full-blown conflict between Iran and Israel that could both hurt the Syrian government's capabilities and draw Russia in. To head off a further escalation, Russia has persuaded Iran to withdraw its heavy units from southwestern Syria for the time being and elevated its communications with Israel to avoid accidental clashes between Russian and Israeli forces.

Even so, the risk of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation remains. Iran could always decide to send its forces back to the area near the Golan Heights. Furthermore, as long as Iran has a presence in Syria, Israel is likely to continue its attacks. Russia has neither the ability nor the will to drive Iran entirely out of Syria; the Islamic republic is too entrenched in the country and its influence with Damascus too vast. In addition, Moscow still needs Iranian forces in Syria for the counterinsurgency missions that will continue long into the future in the remote corners of the war-torn country. 

The Idlib Question

But the most pressing issue that Moscow has to deal with is Idlib. The rebel stronghold technically falls under a "de-escalation" agreement that Russia reached with Turkey and Iran during peace talks in Kazakhstan last year. The deal's claims to de-escalation have been nominal, though it did pave the way for Turkey to dispatch forces to establish a dozen observation points along Idlib's provincial borders. And now that al Assad's government has reclaimed its control of southwestern Syria, Damascus is eager to launch an offensive on Idlib to recover more territory. Loyalist forces have been moving north toward the province for the past several weeks in preparation for such an operation, putting Russia in a tight spot.

On the one hand, Moscow wants to debilitate the rebel forces in Idlib — particularly those behind the makeshift drone attacks on Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia — to ensure that they won't pose a further threat to the government in the future. On the other, doing so could put Russia in a direct conflict with Turkey, which opposes pulling back from Idlib for fear of losing its buffer zone in Syria and unleashing a wave of refugees over its border. Moscow has no intention of provoking a confrontation with Ankara. A conflict between them, after all, could sever their ties and drive Turkey back to the United States' side while also encouraging the country to redouble its support for the rebellion against al Assad's government.

Russia's strategy in Syria is ambitious but risky, and implementing the full plan will be easier said than done.

Taking these factors into account, Russia will take an evenhanded approach to the Idlib question. The country is pressuring Turkey to take a tougher stance on the rebel forces' jihadist contingent, including groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria (which, as an offshoot of a Uighur insurgent group, is a major concern for China, too). At the same time, though, Russia is also managing Damascus' expectations by making clear that it will not back a full military offensive to retake Idlib so long as Turkish forces are still in the province. Rather than a full-fledged operation, a series of Russian-backed loyalist attacks will probably begin in the next few weeks, along with a widespread propaganda campaign to persuade rebel groups to lay down their arms.

Yet even such a carefully calibrated approach will entail significant risk. Russia has never before supported a large-scale military operation in a rebel-held part of Syria with a foreign troop presence. If it decides to do so in Idlib, it would run the risk of causing Turkish casualties or inviting retaliation and escalation. Although al Assad's government has largely regained its hold on power, Russia will probably find that implementing the rest of its strategy in Syria is easier said than done.

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