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Putin Faces Hard Choices in Syria

Putin Faces Hard Choices in Syria

Tuesday, 9 October, 2018 - 07:15
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Amir Taheri
While the Russian “spymania” is dominating the global headlines, President Vladimir Putin maybe concerned with a much bigger problem looming ahead of his beleaguered administration: Syria.

A first glance, Syria may seem to have entered a new status quo forged by seven years of war that may have sapped the energy of most belligerents. The country is divided in five zones of influence under the control of various foreign powers. The flow of refugees has dwindled to a trickle while the various armed groups that fought Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as each other, are either confined to narrow bands of territory or restrained by powerful foreign allies.

However, what looks like a stable new status quo at first glance may look quite different on closer observation.

To start with, while territory-based fighting has come to an almost complete halt, anti-Assad forces, including groups linked to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, are reverting to classical terrorist methods to undermine the emerging status quo. Last month operations in Latakia, a province believed to be largely loyal to Assad, was one example. The recent massive explosion close to Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, was another. Russian intelligence has identified at least 20 “operational units” preparing terrorist attacks in urban areas and against military targets, according to Russian media.

Then there is the growing unhappiness of the Russian public with Moscow’s involvement in a conflict with seemingly no end.

While the global focus is on the estimated 18,000 Syrians, half of them civilians, killed by Russian bombing, in Russia itself it is the loss of at least 3,000 Russian military and technicians that is attracting negative attention.

Worse still, President Vladimir Putin’s early claim that his intervention in Syria would stop the flow of militant Muslims from Russia’s Muslim community into combat zones and then back home has not been borne out by events. In fact, according to Russian sources, thousands of fighters from Russia’s Muslim-majority republics, notably Tatarstan, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, have moved to Syria, passing either through Iran or via Georgia and Turkey. Iran is known to have arrested a few would-be extremists from Russia, but is manifestly unable to totally stop the flow. The prospect of large numbers of experienced warriors returning to Russia over the years is not one that Putin might cherish.

Syria also affects Putin’s plans for a new rapprochement, albeit on his terms, with the United States.

According to a Council on Foreign Relations analysis the Trump administration “sees Iran, not Russia, as the paramount security threat in the Middle East. It assumes that Russia is relatively flexible on the outcome in Syria and shares Washington’s uneasiness about Iran’s growing influence there. The US perception remains that Russia is the least bad alternative among the regime’s allies and has sufficient leverage to influence the regime, should it choose to do so.”

However, for Washington to continue basing its policy on that analysis, Russia would have to meet Trump’s key demand that Iranian forces be pushed out of Syria.

The problem is that, while he may prefer to see Iranians out of Syria, Putin needs Tehran for two reasons. The first is that Iran is the biggest source of financial support for the Assad regime. In fact, Iranian semi-official estimates show that Tehran is spending over $6 billion a year paying the salaries of Assad’s troops and civilian personnel.

Iran’s contribution is even more important when it comes to providing the boots-on the ground element that Putin needs for consolidating his hold on the Syrian dossier. In Syria, fighting units under Iranian control account for over 80,000 men, including mercenaries from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Tehran leadership might find it difficult to ferry such a large number of foreign fighters into Iran itself, a move that could threaten its own security.

One solution may be to reorganize these forces into an Iranian version of the French Foreign Legion and have it based in Syria under a special accord with the Assad regime. In fact, the scheme was briefly evoked during the recent visit to Damascus by Iran’s Defense minister Brigadier-general Amir Hatami. However, Assad has so far refused to grant Tehran the right to maintain forces in Syria on a permanent basis.

At the same time, the fact that Iran-controlled forces have moved to a region away from the borders of Israel and Lebanon does not seem to have satisfied Washington’s demand for their total eviction.

Putin sees a broadening of international involvement in Syria as one way to ease pressure on Russian resources. That means convening an international donors conference to devise a reconstruction plan for the war-ravaged country. However, there is a big hurdle on the way to creating such a consortium under Russian leadership. The Europeans demand that Assad be scripted out of Syrian political life within a reasonable time-frame and before any checks are signed.

“Russia’s interest isn’t the same as Assad’s interest,” says Margot Light, an eminent professor at the London School of Economics.

That view is echoed by Richard Reeve, who heads the Sustainable Security Program, a British think-tank regarded as a key source of analytical study of the Syrian conflict.

Conscious of the fact that his apparent gains could easily translate into big losses, Putin faces hard choices in Syria in the current parenthesis of apparent calm.

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