The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seems to have ended. Although the armed group is unlikely to disappear, its territorial controlhas been almost completely wiped out after its two “capitals” – Mosul and Raqqa – were liberated and most of its territories in Iraq and Syria were recaptured.
In Syria, besides the few remaining areas under ISILcontrol, there is Idlib province which is dominatedby Ha’yet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front). Russia, Iran and Turkey are likely to launch a joint operation against the HTS there and then divide the province into spheres of influence.
The rest of Syria is either under the control of the regime or the US-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Thanks to two years of Russian intervention and attacks by ISIL and HTS, a significant part of the real armed opposition was liquidated, and we can say that the period of active hostilities has come to an end. The issues of peace and stability have become much more important to Syrians than problems of power and the future political order.
As Syria enters a new de-escalation phase of the conflict, the role of Russia in it comes into question. Soon the Syrian regime will no longer need military backing as much as financial support. And that Russia might not be able to provide.
Russia’s post-conflict strategy in Syria
Today, Bashar al-Assad can consider himself the “winner” in the civil war very much thanks to Russian backing and its military intervention. Yet, this does not necessarily guarantee Moscow a comfortable presence in post-war Syria.
In the course of the armed conflict, the value of Moscow for Damascus was the military assistance and deployment of its forces which played a key role in the military advances of the regime. But with the transition to the post-conflict period soon to begin, the significance of the military factor would steadily decrease, giving way to the financial and economic aspects of cooperation.
Iran has already declared that it will assist Syria financially. In a recent telephone conversation with Bashar al-Assad, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assured him that his country “is prepared to actively participate in Syria’s reconstruction”.
Russia, however, does not have the financial capacity to invest heavily in Syria after the end of the conflict. In this context, its positions in Syria no longer seem so convincing. This has forced Moscow to realise that alliances with Tehran and Ankara in Syria might not be so beneficial in the future and that it needs to find new allies for the post-conflict period. As a result, the Russian government has upped its efforts on keeping the negotiating process under its control to make sure it is not ousted from its position as kingmaker in Syria.
It is the desire to demonstrate its exclusivity and irreplaceability that dictated the latest Russian initiatives on Syria: from Vladimir Putin’s statement about the need to hold the Congress of the Syrian people in Sochi to a series of meetings that the Russian president held last week with the leaders of Middle Eastern countries.
Particularly revealing in this respect was the “unexpected trick” with Bashar al-Assad showing up in Sochi. This was Assad’s second trip out of his country since 2011; in 2015 he went again to Russia to meet Putin. For Moscow, the Syrian president is a kind of a “liquid asset”, which the Russian leadership is trying to convert into diplomatic success. His visit was meant to reinforce Russia’s monopoly over the Syrian file. It sent a clear message to the international community that Moscow holds the keys to Damascus and is the only patron of the regime able to push it to the negotiations table.
Immediately after the meeting, Putin hastened to share its results with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the United States. And two days later, at a meeting with Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he demonstrated his “leading and guiding” role in the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle.
Despite its crucial role in the Syrian negotiating process, its resources and capabilities are clearly not enough to hold it. Russia needs another partner in Syria which is able to guarantee funds for reconstruction in the post-conflict period. And that partner needs to be willing to route the financial flows through Moscow.
The bigger problem is that Russia doesn’t have much time to do this. Assad’s regime could become even more intransigent as its “victory” solidifies and it might be even more difficult for Moscow to push it to sit down for negotiations.
Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad have already expressed their scepticism about the negotiation process under the auspices of the UN. The initial refusal of Damascus to participate in the negotiations in Geneva under false pretences signals that the Syrian regime is playing a waiting game.
The regime ultimately wants to hold negotiations only after the opposition is completely disarmed and after it makes sure that there is no interference “in the internal affairs of the country”. Basically, it wants the opposition to capitulate and it is patiently waiting for it.