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What are Russia's interests in Syria leading to?

July 20, 2020 at 2:53 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) during their meeting in Sochi, Russia on 21 November 2017 [Kremlin Press Office/ Anadolu Agency]

Since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, the Russian leadership has been standing beside the regime in adversity, especially in its war against Islamists and the armed opposition. In all his statements, Russian President Vladimir Putin has mentioned that Russia’s mission in Syria is to fight terrorists, who may threaten his country’s security if they succeed in the Middle East.

Russia does not want Bashar Al-Assad to leave because he suits its foreign policy and he is a loyal friend like his father Hafez, who had a good relationship with the Soviet Union. Hence, Russia will not leave Assad to stand alone; Putin has said this repeatedly in the media and this is what we see on the ground; Russian troops support the Syrian regime army in all of its military operations.

One of the most important Syrian figures that the Russian media is proud to promote is Brigadier General Suheil Al-Hassan, who leads the elite Tiger Forces in the Syrian army. As far as Moscow is concerned, he is a hero who has helped Russia in the fight against terrorism, for which it awarded him the Russian Friendship Medal. Anna News covers the Tiger Forces’ operations which has helped to boost his public and international profile. In many ways, he is regarded as the ideal Syrian for Russia’s interests.

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How will the situation in Syria change if Russia does not hand Assad over? Although Moscow insists that it only went into Syria to fight terrorism, it keeps trying to change the regime and security systems, and install more loyal people within the Syrian army. It is possible that Al-Assad could stay in power with changes in the Syrian economy and security services, but Russia understands that keeping the President in office has no benefit to itself, because Europe will not support reconstruction projects in Syria with Assad still at the helm. Thus, Assad may need to give up some of his policies in order to be tolerated by the EU and, it must be said, Israel.

If Russia replaces Assad with someone of its own choosing, and this is possible, it could only happen with a veneer of legitimacy if an opposition figure stands for election as well. This would convince the world that the election is credible, even though it would be a Kremlin game in order to preserve Russia’s presence in Syria.

Armed Islamists have helped Russia as it faces the Syrian opposition because they were the main reason that Moscow joined the war. The Islamists delivered many areas to the Syrian regime and Russia, while the latter also helped Islamist fighters to get from the North Caucasus to Syria relatively easily. Without the Islamists and Russian intervention, the Syrian opposition would have kept control over many areas, but it was unable to form a political alliance that could prepare a plan for the future of Syria or give Russia a plan in which it may be interested.

Although it seems that Russia, the US and Israel do not agree on Syria, they cooperate with each other and do not want Assad to leave now because they cannot find a replacement who is close to their way of thinking. They are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over in Syria, which they believe will threaten the future of the whole region. As such, they are not ready to give up on Assad, having fought against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists. They are, though, angry with him because he is cooperating with Iran.

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One of the solutions to the situation in Syria is the formation of a national front or political party that unites the Syrians in exile and is open to them all. They must have a voice and be able to play a role in political change in their country, but first they must get rid of the international community’s recognition of the Syrian coalition.

Russia will not be able to stand against a national plan that aims to replace Assad in Syria, but it wants to keep its military bases there as well as its cooperation with Damascus. That is why Moscow is holding on to the Syrian regime.

We must not overlook Israel’s role in all of this, because it is afraid of Islamists and cooperates with the US in fighting them. The current Syrian opposition represented by the coalition is close to the Islamists, and so neither Israel nor the US want to cooperate with them and do not consider them to be an alternative to Assad.

Translated from Aram Media 19 July 2020

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