What is behind Russia’s recent moves in Damascus?

The Russian strategy in Syria has entered a new phase, which is the combination of the hard reality on the field and the deceptive perception that there is hope for withdrawal. Moscow wants to couple its military gains with economic advances and the achievement of a political solution. While one could have anticipated how Russia would choose to counter the U.S. Caesar Act, which was a move intended to crush Syria, Moscow sent its diplomats on a mission to Damascus on September 6 and 7. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov was the first to arrive in Damascus, followed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They met with President Bashar al-Assad, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim and other officials.

They discussed an economic cooperation package as well as the renewal of 40 critically important establishments including power plants, oil and natural gas facilities. The target is to complete these deals by the end of the year. The deal also includes hydrocarbon drills in the territorial waters. This means Russia wants to enter the energy game that is currently being played in the East Mediterranean through Syria.   

Beyond its military intervention, Russia had been seeking economic motives for the past three years. Oligarchs close to the Kremlin have been pursuing their interests in Syria. StroyTransGaz, which is owned by Gennady Timchenko and has been the target of US sanctions, had already been contracted to operate a phosphate mine located near the Syrian city of Palmyra for 49 years and to run the port of Tartus for 50 years. 

The same company had previously undertaken the construction of the southern gas processing plant (GPZ-1), 50 km from Homs, and a northern gas processing plant (GPZ-2), located 75 km to the southeast of Raqqa. In 2017, StroyTransGaz was also granted offshore oil and gas exploration licenses for Tartous and Banias. 

A similar agreement was signed with SoyuzNaftaGas seven years ago. Deals were made with Zarubezhneft, Zarubezh Geology and STG for oil exploration, the renewal of oil fields and the maintenance of refineries. In December 2019, the Syrian Parliament endorsed three separate deals with the Russian companies Mercury and Vilada for the exploration and production of an oilfield of northeast Syria and a gas field north of the capital Damascus. Mercury belongs to the founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The project package that Moscow submitted to Damascus in July, and which consisted of 40 items, marks a new phase. The worsening economic situation in Syria is challenging the system. Russia, realizing that military gains will not necessarily translate into political victories, is adding new dimensions to its intervention. Of course, this could also be considered as the yield of the investment on war for five years. But the issue is still about winning the war. 

Hence, Moscow has reached some significant decisions. Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Moscow’s ambassador in Damascus, Alexander Efimov, as his third special envoy for developing relations with Syria in May last year. There were already two existing envoys: the Kremlin's special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev and special presidential envoy for the Middle East, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. 

The focus of the first two envoys was on military issues, relations with the opposition, Astana, Geneva and Sochi processes. The appointment of Efimov, a former Ambassador to Abu Dhabi, to Damascus in 2018 and his appointment as a special envoy are associated with this endeavour to rebuild the country. 

Meanwhile, an impasse occurred as rumors mounted in Russia that Moscow was seeking an alternative to Bashar Al-Assad within the Syrian establishment. The Syrian government cracked down on corruption and launched a financial control campaign that affected oligarchs such as Rami Makhlouf. 

With general elections in July and the formation of a new government in August, Damascus gave Moscow the impression that it could be a functional partner. The Russian incursion bypassed this platform. Putin once again shocked those who were seeking a retirement venue for Bashar Al-Assad. Yet those moves were not aimed at a certain person, they have to do with sustaining the continuity of a Russian ally. 

As it focuses on the economy, Russian needs to seek parallel moves. 

  • Damascus needs to be encouraged to find a formula regarding the Kurdish autonomous administration in the east of Euphrates in order for the Kurds to relinquish their ties with the US. This is a serious issue. Damascus considers the autonomy as a separatist project. The differing points of views between Moscow and Damascus became apparent during a recent press conference that was held in the Syrian capital. A journalist asked about the memorandum of understanding that was signed between the Syrian Democratic Council and the Moscow Platform/Popular Will Party during the press meeting. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said they did not support any agreement that contradicted the Syrian constitution. On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintained Russia had partaken in consultations. However, “the groups confirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This corresponds to our own stance.” With these words, Lavrov somehow established himself as a guarantor of this initiative.

Before the Americans set foot in Syria, the scenario according to which Damascus would recognize the autonomy of the Kurds, as a response to Ankara, was not unlikely. Today, Russia is in a position where it tells both Ankara and Damascus that unless something is granted to the Kurds, the U.Sç will not withdraw and the territorial integrity of Syria will not be safeguarded. Yet because of the Turkish veto, neither the Americans nor the Russians were able to make the Kurds partake in the Geneva process. As long as Damascus carries on with its stubborn stance and as long as Ankara keeps on imposing its veto, no solution covering the east of Euphrates may come out of Geneva. That is why Russia is clinging onto an alternative exit.

Besides, if Russia is unable to solve the deadlock in Idlib, its promise to safeguard Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will remain unfulfilled. Under Turkey’s mandate, Idlib is gradually turning into the land of the Jihadi. 

Turkey’s rising military presence as a result of Russia’s “trade-off” strategy is also being questioned in Damascus. The postponement of operations in Idlib is causing much irritation. Following the control of the road M-5, when it was the turn of M-4, the operation was halted on March 6 through a Russian-Turkish consensus. The joint patrol of Russia and Turkey, which sought to open the M-4, has been largely unsuccessful. Turkey’s commitment to eliminate terror organizations has proved deceitful. The target of creating a 6-kilometer safe zone on both sides of the M-4 has remained on paper. 

Naturally, the Syrians are now asking whether Russia is conducting different negotiations with Turkey for its own economic-strategic interests. In the press conference, it was asked what Ankara demanded to end its military presence in Syria. Lavrov argued that their accords with Turkey were reached with the Syrian leadership’s support and did not contain any economic factors. He added, “The government-controlled part of the Idlib de-escalation zone has considerably increased since the signing of the Russian-Turkish agreements.”

If we consider the agreement in Astana in May 2017 on establishing four de-escalation zones in Idlib, and the following agreements reached in Sochi and Moscow, as a whole, this partnership yielded the following results: Opposition positions in Eastern Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa, al-Qunaitra, Homs and Hama have collapsed. They either laid down their arms or moved to Idlib. The most recent deal reached in Moscow on March 6 enabled Turkey to accept the new status that was formed following the transfer of control of the road M-5 to the central administration.   

These agreements now serve to exert pressure on Ankara. Turkey has used these agreements to raise the number of its military posts in Idlib to 68. This raises the prospect of an annexation scenario. Russia is opting to maintain its tense partnership with Ankara until a draft text for a constitution is drawn up in Geneva. After that, Russia will be able to tell Ankara it is their turn to withdraw from Syrian territory. 

For Russia to be able to achieve its economic interests, the Geneva talks should succeed. After the third round, the UN Special representative visited Moscow to report on the slowdown stance of the Damascus delegation. The general impression is that Russia is annoyed by this stance that delays the process. The aim of Damascus is to postpone the writing of the constitution as much as it can, to hold presidential elections in 2021 without a new constitution. If a new constitution were written and approved through a referendum, it would be implemented in the 2024 general elections. The opposition delegation insists that the constitution should be written prior to the holding of elections. For Moscow, it is important that Geneva remains a platform for a solution. That is why it expects Damascus to take the process seriously. This was also brought up during the press conference. While Muallim said the elections would be held on time, Lavros said, “There are no, nor can there be any deadlines for the work of the Constitutional Committee. As long as a new constitution is not in place, the current constitution remains effective.” 

Moscow is in growing need for subtle solutions while the quad of Israel-U.S.-Europe-Gulf regards Iran’s presence in Syria as an obstacle to normalization. Russia has become a favored force in Syria due to its tolerance of Israeli attacks, the facilitation of withdrawal of Iranian components from the south, its attempt to control the militia; but these are just not adequate regarding the expectations concerning Iran. Upon a question whether Russia is working toward a withdrawal of Iran from Syria, Lavrov answered, “As for the Iranian presence in the SAR, it is determined neither by the Russian or any other side, nor by anyone’s desire aside from the position of the Syrian leadership.”     

Damascus’s tactic of balancing two allies with each other is also making things tougher for Moscow. As the future of Syria is determined, a power struggle between Iran and Russia will likely erupt. 

In short, the fact that the Caesar Act has triggered an economic collapse has increased the risk for Russia of losing its military gains. Basic needs such as wheat, power and oil did not challenge the system even at the height of the war, but now they are mentioned alongside other shortages. Besides, the Russian strategy is challenged by the US’s deployment in oil fields in Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah, the loss of a safe supply of wheat from the east of Euphrates and severe economic sanctions imposed. While maintaining the current situation, Moscow has to find a middle course with the Kurds so that Americans withdraw, as well as forcing Turkey to agree to a solution in Idlib. Moscow also needs to speed up the constitution writing process in Geneva and elevate the economic and managerial efficiency of the Syrian system to break the international isolation which prevents reconstruction and normalization. If not, the US strategy of economic collapse may arise. If the Democrats win the elections in the US, there is a possibility that they will furiously take the Syrian case in their hands. That is also a source of concern for the Russians.