Russia is on a campaign to get the rest of the world to normalise relations with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The drive follows a growing realisation in Moscow that the war in Syria is coming to an end and the cost of reconstruction needs to be shared by the West.
President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, wants to end the Russian military intervention that tipped the war in his favour, but this can only be done through international support for post- war reconstruction and the return of refugees to areas controlled by the regime.
“For Moscow, it is important to gradually drag other countries into initiatives that constitute de facto working with Assad,” said Nikolai Kozhanov, according to the Financial Times (FT). The Russian Middle East expert who was speaking at the European University in St Petersburg added: “Western countries have shown stiff resistance to that in the past. But in Europe, people are much more inclined to reconsider that than we may be aware.”
Moscow’s efforts are beginning to bear fruit, Kozhanov said, citing the delivery of French medical aid by Russian forces to eastern Ghouta in April. The French aid is believed to be the the first instance of an EU country agreeing to support a territory controlled by Assad. The transportation of aid followed an agreement between French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin.
According to Kozhanov, Russia views humanitarian aid as a “springboard” into the more substantial question of reconstruction. “Putin needs Europe for that because Russia doesn’t want to pay,” he said.
Moscow is said to be lobbying the US and other western countries to join an effort to return some of the nearly six million Syrians who have fled the country to areas controlled by Al-Assad. Discussion between President Trump and Putin’s teams is said to have taken place last week during the summit in Helsinki. Russian defence ministry said Moscow expected to work with Washington on the return of refugees and financing reconstruction. The White House declined to comment on the specifics but said that the two sides were making progress on issues discussed at Helsinki in the months ahead.
Meetings also took place between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, this week. Discussions between the two countries addressed the issue of “creating conditions for the return of refugees” in Syria. Russia’s seriousness in getting this plan on the road was highlighted with the news that a headquarter had been set up in Moscow for co-ordinating the repatriation of Syrian refugees. The office is said to be staffed by Russian defence and foreign ministry officials.
It won’t be plain sailing for Russia, according to another expert cited by the FT. The path to normalisation is “going to be bumpy”, said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Hokayem noted that there were still US and EU sanctions on Syria. He explained that western government make a distinction between normalisation and rehabilitation and that they may be willing to prioritise small-scale reconstruction and refugee return, without a nod to full political normalisation.