Russia’s attempts to address rival strategic agendas in Syria while advancing its own objectives hold questionable attainability.

In September 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin militarily intervened in the Syrian conflict in order to shore up the embattled regime of President Bashar al Assad. Since then, Moscow has had to adapt to a complex web of challenges in order to cement its role in Syria and lay the groundwork for a return on its costly investment.

Among these challenges are a hostile and dynamic regional context marked with competing interests, a subversive ally in Tehran, and a regime in Damascus that refuses to cooperate with Russian imperatives while freely accepting the Kremlin’s financial, political, and military support.

However, as the start of the year sees greater strain in their alliance, it is worth asking if 2021 will be the moment of the truth for the regime and Russia. If so, what options does Moscow have in Damascus?

Moscow’s choices

Essentially, Russia has four options in Syria.

First, Putin can allow the regime to proceed with its farcical elections. This follows a half-century tradition of theatrical elections for which the Assads – first Hafez, followed by his son, Bashar – would stage referendums on their presidency in which they ran unopposed. 

Over time, the practice itself became a laughing stock to Syrians, including many loyalists. In 2014, in Assad’s last election, he introduced a poorly choreographed charade of obscure – hand-picked – presidential ‘candidates.’

Yet, 2021’s re-enacting of this facade, scheduled to take place in June, may prove to be a costly endeavour to both parties and may even shake their alliance.

The conservatively estimated $400 billion required for Syria’ reconstruction will not pour into the country from EU and Gulf states without a political settlement. This happens at a time when the Russians are neither willing nor able to shore up the collapsing Syrian economy, devastated by chronic corruption, a decade of an apocalyptic civil war, and of course, US sanctions.

Poverty is estimated at 90 percent, meaning that most Syrians, including those residing in regime-held areas, are on the brink of starvation.

As the regime is unable to address rising discontent from populations living within areas under its control, including from within its own loyalist Alawite base, bitter and bolder complaints are virally surfacing across social media. Though they have generally been directed against corrupt government officials and warlords, criticism has recently extended to Assad’s inner circle.

In January, a string of arrests by the secret police, or mukhabarat, targeted social media activist Younes Sulayman, for implicating Assad’s political and media advisor, Buthyna Sha’ban, in corruption schemes. TV anchor Hala al Jarf and government auditor Feryal Jahjah were also arrested for similar “offences.” In order to curtail growing critiques and avoid the potential for further instability, economic reprieve is desperately needed.

The second option is to apply minimal pressure to induce the regime into implementing cosmetic changes, packaged as ‘reforms,’ with the hope of obtaining some constitutional changes. Some analysts, such as Ayman Abdel Nour, have suggested that Assad may even install a figurehead as president while maintaining the reins of power.

Yet, this option is highly problematic. It is unclear how Moscow may go about reforming an intransigent regime built on systemic corruption, penetrated by war profiteers and Iranian militias, and reinforced by interests directly linked to Assad’s immediate and extended family.

This includes his brother, Maher, who commands the army’s elite 4th Division and benefits from a range of illicit activities. Moreover, this scenario, similar to the first, forges a reality in which Moscow will still have to deal with Iran’s disruptive network of proxies while alienating both the Syrian opposition and the international community, which have been calling for the implementation of a negotiated settlement to the conflict as per UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Option three, predicated on sufficient Russian influence, would see Moscow force the regime into a full political settlement. This, however, may bring about a new regime that is independent and unfriendly to Russian interests. 

Even if Putin offers Assad assurances in exchange for upholding democratic transition and facilitating free and fair elections, this is likely to be rejected. Under its genuine realisation, Assad and his henchmen would effectively slip into oblivion.

If Putin tries to impose this scenario onto his Syrian counterpart – thereby crossing the regime’s own ‘red lines’ surrounding the presidency – the latter may react by putting all his eggs in the Iranian basket. This would likely end one of Assad’s favourite games: pitting Russian and Iranian patronage against one another to avoid offering concessions.

In August 2020, Assad terminated a contract, signed in March 2019, to lease the port of Latakia to Iran – obstructing what would have been a colossal strategic prize for Tehran, which has long aspired to link Iran to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria. The cancellation signifies a slight tilt towards Russia. However, if Assad makes an about face, Russia could lose many hard-won advantages.

A fourth course of action for the Kremlin is to stage a palace coup and replace Assad with a more malleable figure. Again, this would require a great degree of Russian penetration into the Syrian army, which remains coup-proofed. This bold play, however unlikely, would be perceived as a declaration of war by Iran, which can still try to destabilise a post-coup Syrian regime.

Strategic balancing

For the Syrian people and the opposition, the Russian position has brought them a series of successive disappointments. The proceedings of the Constitutional Committee – originally created by Russia in September 2019 to circumvent a meaningful and autonomous political settlement – are by no means an exception.

On 29 January,  the Committee concluded, without any progress, its fifth round of negotiations between representatives of the opposition and those of the regime, which has undermined the process through digressionary tactics and endless stalling. On this front, it appears as though the Russians have, thus far, done little to nudge Assad.

But it is not easy to nudge Assad, who inherited his father’s stubbornness and opportunism. Former Soviet Ambassador to Damascus Nuritdin Mukhitdinov once said about Syria under Hafez that it “accepts from the Soviet Union aid, loans, student exchange, military programs – when you think of it, it accepts everything from us – except advice.”

Russia’s attempts to address all the rival strategic agendas in Syria while advancing its own objectives hold questionable attainability. On 18 January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia would neutralise any threats from Damascus that Israel perceives to its security. This is sure to be received negatively by Iran, which could interpret this message as a clear hint at its military presence in Syria.

The Syrian military is tired and overstretched, struggling on battle fronts in the northwest, a growing Islamic State (Daesh) insurgency in the Badia region in central Syria, and the ever-intensifying air strikes against Iranian-allied militias across the country by Israel. These militias have recently begun raising Syria’s state flag above their positions in order to confuse Israeli aircraft.

The war in Syria has afforded the Kremlin the opportunity to test more than 600 weapons, utilising civilian suffering to showcase its arsenal and boost sales to clients while attracting new ones in the process.

Yet, weapons marketing aside, Russia gains very little amid such instability: Its contracts in oil, gas, and phosphate for example, require an investment-friendly context. Furthermore, Syria’s reconstruction, which will mean increased business opportunities for Russian firms, is not possible prior to normalisation between Syria and the rest of the world.

Given its own economic limitations, anti-Putin protests, and uncertainty regarding the Biden presidency, Russia faces obstacles in continuing to prop up the Assad regime.

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