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Moscow and Damascus: A gap or estrangement?

February 25, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Bashar Al-Assad’s presidential decree for parliamentary elections to be held in April did not get much attention in international political and media circles, not only because the parliament in Syria — like most other Arab countries — does not play a major role in politics and decision-making, but also because the election results will not influence the well-known positions concerned countries hold regarding the Syrian crisis. It is also because all sights are set on the timeline for the Vienna conference and UN Security Council resolution 2254, which stipulates that presidential and legislative elections will be held 18 months after the beginning of the political process in Syria.

However, this has not stopped observers and politicians from trying to understand the underlying meaning of the decree and look for the “messages” it holds, in order to get closer to the mentality of the decision-makers in Damascus. This brings to the surface two readings, no more. The first is “good intentions or goodwill”, as an attempt for the regime to send more than one message to more than one recipient: an implicit message of its rejection of the Vienna path, its timeline and the “political transition” based on which it was established; and a “confirmation or reiteration” of the regime’s independence from its allies, especially Russia, after the public crossfire that occurred following Assad’s statements and the response of Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador at the UN.

Although it is true that relations between Moscow and Damascus have never been stronger than they are today, it is also true that there are signs of a “gap” between their respective positions that may lead to an “estrangement” between them. Moscow is keener on the Vienna path and the “political solution”, considering it a condition to not being involved in the ongoing Syrian quagmire. The Russian government is also more in a rush to implement the Kerry-Lavrov agreement regarding the “hostile actions” between the two sides.

During the past month, Assad regime forces, under intensive Russian aerial cover, made a series of qualitative penetrations along a number of fronts in the rural areas of Aleppo, Latakia and the south. These achievements revived the regime’s illusions of a “military resolution” and Assad said that the battles will continue until all of Syria is back under regime control, understating the significance of the support his country receives from its Iranian and Russian allies. Then the “warnings” came from New York, through Churkin, and Assad changed his tone and discourse in a number of subsequent statements.

During the past week, it looked as if that the regime’s attack on multiple fronts and axes was coming to a standstill, especially after Daesh was successful in occupying the strategic city of Khanasir and blocked the road to Aleppo. Some believe that this was caused by the exhaustion of the Syrian army, fighting on a number of fronts, and others say that it is due to a decline in the frequency of Russian air strikes. This was a message to the leaders in Damascus, saying that without aligning with Russia’s policies, they will not receive the support they want, and that it is Russia, not Syria, which is the “maestro” conducting the pace of relations between the developments on the ground and the diplomatic discourse.

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There is no doubt that the Kerry-Lavrov agreement astounded the regime in Damascus at a time when it was enjoying its achievements on the ground to the full. There is also no doubt that the regime wanted an additional “grace period” to continue what it had started. In terms of the local Syrian considerations, what the regime thought of and aspired for was completely legitimate, but Russia has considerations that go past Azaz and Khanasir, and are associated with all of its interests and strategies. Based on this, Russia is willing to stop at limits that do not please the regime, but better serve Moscow’s interests and considerations vis-a-vis the US, NATO and the West in general.

The differences between the angles taken by Damascus and Moscow allow for a “gap” in positions that may lead to an “estrangement” between the two allies. Over the next few days, we will be able to see the nature and limits of the agreement and the differences in the positions of the two countries, especially after “the cannons are silenced” and the work starts on the journey to end all hostile acts.

Translated from Addustour, 25 February, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.