After the Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and the confirmation of the Russian President as the godfather of Syria’s present and future — in close partnership with Israel, it must be said —Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the self-styled Jewish state. He presented Tel Aviv with an offer to withdraw Iranian forces to 100 kilometres away from the Syria-Israel border. Israel rejected the offer and demanded that the Iranians should be withdrawn from Syria altogether in exchange for Bashar Al-Assad saying in power in Damascus.
Syria’s future is no longer in the hands of Assad, but is instead linked to what Putin wants. Russia is negotiating with the US, Israel and Iran regarding Syria’s future. It is true that the Syrian leader believes that he has won the war in his country because he is still the President. However, he has become like eastern European leaders during the Soviet era, when they had no options for self-determination; without Putin’s Russia, Assad faces the same sort of fate as former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Russia, of course, is not the Soviet Union; nevertheless, for the immediate future, Putin has a major role in Syria, allowing him alone to make key decisions. These even include, for example, how humanitarian aid is distributed across Al-Ghouta. Although he has announced that he is making these decisions in cooperation with France, in reality it is solely up to Russia.
Neither the UN nor its Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, have a real role in finding a political solution to the Syria crisis because this is also a Russian decision. Russia will be holding a meeting soon in Sochi, bringing together the countries participating in the Astana process — Turkey and Iran — which the UN Envoy will attend. French President Emmanuel Macron’s new envoy to Syria, Francois Sénémaud, visited Moscow before officially starting his duties in September, just after he left his post as ambassador to Iran. Moscow, Sochi, St. Petersburg and other cities have become the heart of the negotiations over events in Syria. There is no doubt that Russian companies will be at the forefront of the reconstruction of Syria if and when peace is achieved; anyone else wanting a share of the reconstruction spoils will also probably have to go through Moscow.
Thus, rampant corruption in Russia will be augmented by that of those close to Assad, whose own corruption was the spark for the popular protests repressed by the Syrian President using explosive barrels, bombs and torture. They have always claimed that the protestors who campaign against corruption and for freedom were terrorists. When Russia decided to push a number of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and Jordan to Syria yesterday, it suggested strongly that it is Moscow which decides which Syrians are able to return to their country. Such Russian domination of affairs in Syria will survive after this catastrophic war, unlike Assad’s regime, which has become a puppet in the hands of Russia, Israel and Iran.
As for the Iranian forces in Syria, they will face a fierce war with Israel, which will not allow them to remain on its border. Russia is aware that it cannot remove Iran from all of Syria, and Israel continues to strike Iranian bases under the watchful eye of the Russian air force, which takes no action in response because it is aware that Israel alone may eventually push the Iranians out. Iran does not possess the military capability to fight Israel, so the latter is counting on the fact that Assad will remain weak under Russian guidance, leaving it to focus on edging Iran out. Hezbollah has begun withdrawing its forces back to Lebanon, as it is realising that the war will be very costly for the movement and for Lebanon itself if Russia covers Israel’s work in Syria.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 25 July 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.