A year after Russian military intervention in Syria, there were signs that Moscow was beginning to shift its position. Attempts to explain this were as divergent as the various stakeholders in the crisis, but the common denominator was that the change was quick and unexpected and Moscow was now neutralising allied parties and granting legitimacy to others it had long refused to recognise.
On 8 December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, following a meeting with his American counterpart John Kerry, suddenly announced that combat operations of the Syrian army in east Aleppo had been suspended and that Russian and US military officials were exploring ways to end the fighting and evacuate civilians and opposition fighters from the city.
After the evacuation of opposition fighters was complete, Moscow arranged a meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran. On 20 December 2016, the participants issued what has become known as the “Moscow Declaration”, providing a roadmap for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. It included a comprehensive ceasefire to be followed by a revival of the negotiating process. Then came a set of difficult talks, hosted by Turkey, between Russia and Syrian opposition factions. These culminated in the “Ankara Declaration” which called for a comprehensive ceasefire covering the whole of Syria, but excluding Islamic State (IS) and Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), to be followed by the resumption of the diplomatic process in Astana, Kazakhstan. The understanding also provided for mechanisms to monitor the ceasefire and ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians. The Russian-Turkish guaranteed ceasefire went into effect midnight 29 December.
Immediately afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin called up Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to inform him that the basic mission was “to reach a comprehensive political settlement”. Putin’s purpose was to pre-empt further Syrian and Iranian insistence on the need to continue the war until all opposition factions are defeated.
Moscow then dispatched a regiment of Russian military police to Aleppo. Once deployed they prevented the entry of Iranian and Syrian regime personnel into the city. Only Syrian criminal police were allowed to operate and the activities of Syrian domestic intelligence agents were restricted.
Also in the course of sudden Russian shifts, Moscow “advised” Al-Assad not to come to Aleppo, overriding Al-Assad’s insistence on delivering a victory speech in the city. Unlike previous victories, this was one that the Russians did not want to hand to the Syrian regime.
As the ceasefire began to hold, Moscow announced that it was prepared to reduce the number of Russian forces in Syria. On 6 January, a naval group led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier withdrew from the Syrian coast. This, perhaps more than other developments, epitomises a dramatic shift in Russian position that had long been a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime and unwavering opponent to the Syrian opposition.
The Turkish-brokered talks between Russia and the armed Syrian opposition factions constituted Russia’s first direct recognition of the militant opposition as a political party that deserved a place in talks in Astana. Until this point, Moscow had labelled the vast majority of militant factions as terrorist groups. In the same talks, Iran was excluded. Tehran is not a guarantor or a sponsor of anything in the truce agreement.
Russia is now clearly determined to resolve the Syrian dilemma. But observers and Syrians in general, and the regime in Damascus, are at a loss as to what might account for the Moscow’s sudden change in attitude. As diverse as attempted explanations have been, they generally homed in on four possibilities.
One is that the Russians fear Iranian dominance in Syria and they realised, very late, that by providing such huge air support for the Syrian army they had enabled Iran, through its own and the Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan forces loyal to it, to assert its control on the ground. Russian ground intervention followed by moves to arrange for a ceasefire followed by a political process in Astana were, thus, intended to pull the rug out from under the Iranian and Syrian regimes’ plans that ran counter to Russia’s long-term strategic aims.
However, there is nothing to suggest that Iran was working to deliberately embroil Russia in Syria or that it had any surprises in store for Moscow. Tehran’s aims have been clear from the outset. Its plan was to assert its political, military and social hegemony over Syria in order to create a Shia “corridor” from Iran to the Mediterranean.
The second possibility is that Russia wanted to take advantage of the few weeks before Donald Trump comes to power in the US. Perhaps Moscow felt this handover period, when US foreign policy is semi-paralysed, was the ideal time to alter balances of power on the ground, impose its will on local and regional combatant parties, and push for its vision for a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Russia holds most of the keys to the Syria crisis. It has been leveraging this in order to convince the US to give it a greater international role, to lift economic sanctions and recognise its annexation of Crimea, to resolve the problem of natural gas exports to Europe, and other issues. However, the bases of a solution that Russia offered this time are much more flexible than its previous proposals before Washington broke off its arrangements with Moscow with regard to a Syrian peace process, a fact that weakens this theory.
The third hypothesis holds that Russia initiated “pre-emptive changes” in order to soften possible reactions on the part of the incoming Trump administration. Towards this end, Russia has worked to bring its ideas for a solution closer to those of the new US administration. It is widely believed that Russia accelerated action on Syria because it felt certain that the Trump administration would oppose Russia if it sustained its previous policies. Therefore, it quickly shifted from being a party in the war to being a mediator, forestalling or minimising a clash with the next US administration.
According to this viewpoint, Putin wants to establish a policy greeted by a minimum degree of approval in Washington, there laying the foundations for regional and international cooperation with the US. Perhaps, too, Putin believes that it is preferable to avert the revival of a Cold War that would probably not work in Russia’s favour and, instead, cede to the US the lead in steering a political solution after Russia guaranteed place for itself in Syria.
The fourth theory strikes many as romantic. It holds that Russia had a sudden awakening and realised that it had committed a “grave sin” in supporting the Syrian regime, which caused it to lose the friendship of the Syrian people and destroyed its relations with major Arab powers, elevated tensions with Europe and the US, aggravated economic problems at home and caused terrorism to rear its head in Russia.
Less romantically, theory holds that Russia realised that it had reached a limit on what it could do in Syria; that a partial military victory was the most it would achieve. It therefore preferred to turn this into a political victory before getting sucked into a protracted military quagmire. Accordingly, it began to promote a peace plan that Iran and the regime would dislike and, simultaneously, sent the message that it would withdraw forces from Syria, meaning that Russia would not be party to further hostilities and that the regime would have to go it alone and risk collapse. At the same time, Russia took pains to forge a peace plan that it felt would respond to the demands of regional and international powers, the US above all.
It is difficult to judge how emotional considerations determined Russia’s actions, but realpolitik would certainly have compelled it to take all the abovementioned problems into account, as well as other considerations to do its reliance on sectarian militias and the mistake of attaching so much importance to supporting the person of Al-Assad and other regime figures who have committed crimes against the Syrian people. This factor is what sustains a certain validity to this hypothesis.
Theoretically, the context surrounding the Russian shift is markedly different from that surrounding previous changes that were observed by the Syrian opposition. On the need to understand the reasons behind the change, Syrian opposition member Said Muqbil told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Understanding what led to the Russian change in attitude facilitates the opposition’s task of understanding the type of strategy it should adopt in the forthcoming phase. The opposition must work seriously and quickly to grasp every Russian decision and statement. It must closely observe developments in the field in order to understand what the Russians are doing, as well as the regime and Iran. It must study every political or military detail. In addition it should test the pulse of the Chinese and Turkish positions and attempt to read the stances of the American Republicans, as all this will help the opposition understand the real reasons behind the Russian’s sudden shift. Every reason requires its own optimum way of handling it and responding to it in order to achieve the greatest possible gains in the post-ceasefire period.”
As Muqbil suggests, there are many possible reasons for the Russian shift, all requiring the opposition to make different types of assessments and preparations. If Russia was indeed motivated by fear of Iranian hegemony or if it had a late “awakening” then the opposition should strive to reach an understanding with Moscow and offer proposals that will help it follow through on its decisions. If, on the other hand, Russia is merely playing for time or preempting US reactions, then the Syrian opposition might be better off focussing on the US, since Washington will be holding the most important keys with regard to the forthcoming phase.