Days before the Valdai Discussion Club's February 25-26, 2016 conference in Moscow, titled "The Middle East: From Violence to Security," the Saudi London-based daily Al-Hayat published a report on leading Russian political analysts' views about Russia's Middle East policy.
The Valdai International Discussion Club conference "The Middle East: From Violence to Security: Photo: Vitaliy Belousov, RT.com, February 26, 2016.
The report stated that according to Russian analysts, the outcome of the Russian campaign in Syria will determine whether the Kremlin will emerge as a winner with international influence, or will end up a loser. In order to win, they said, Russia needs Syria to remain a united entity - but Russia cannot count on the army of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad or on the capabilities of its local allies, that is, Hizbullah, to achieve this and it is only with its recent intensification of airstrikes that Russia has made military gains. They further explained that Russia's political victory is predicated on a military solution, and on creating a completely new situation, not on finding a political solution. In the meantime, even before it achieves a decisive military victory, Russia is already enhancing its global standing merely by stepping in, they said.
It should be stressed that this report reflects an Arab understanding of Russian policies.
The following is a translation of the Al-Hayat report, which was published February 23, 2016.
Russia's Policy Is Predicated Not On Achieving A "Comprehensive Deal" In Syria - But On Changing The Balance Of Power
"...Is the world on the brink of a third world war, as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently warned? An important group of Russian political analysts from the Valdai Discussion Club... believes that such a development is uncertain and is even the less plausible option...
"[Concerning Russia's role in Syria,] the Russian analysts do not hide their view that whatever the solution in Syria may be, it will... determine the contours of the new world order in which Russia is striving to create a discernible place for itselfÔÇª
"In contrast to the situation on the eve of the Soviet Union's collapse, when the Russian regime settled for 'oral' guarantees [from the West] that Russian interests would be respected, the current Russian policy is working to impose [on the West] the guarantees it requires [to preserve its interests], by being actively involved in all regional and international issues... [This is] in an attempt to impose a reality that will dovetail with its aspirations. This policy is predicated not on achieving a 'comprehensive deal' [i.e. a comprehensive solution for the Syrian crisis], but on changing the balance of power by benefitting from the... mistakes made by the U.S. and other parties in their management [of regional and international issues].
"On the eve of the Soviet Union's collapse, Moscow agreed to dismantle the Warsaw Pact and destroy the Berlin Wall in exchange for promises [from the West] that the NATO alliance would not expand eastward and that Russia's interests in regions within its geopolitical sphere of influence would be respected. But the end result was that the NATO alliance did expand eastward and sought to impose a security and military closure on Russia, and that the U.S. began deploying in military bases in several former Soviet republics..."
For Russia, A Partition Of Syria Would Be The Worst Outcome
"This background underlines one of the main motives for the more radical Russian [approach] in Syria and in other regional crises. However, according to [Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for the Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club] Andrey Bystriitskiy, this [radical Russian approach in Syria and in other regional crises] does not reflect 'grandiose imperialist dreams' on Moscow's part, but rather an attempt [by Moscow] to involve itself in the accelerated changes taking place worldwide, in order to guarantee Moscow's interest in a way that allows it to formulate relations with the West on a new basis.
"Russian political analysts are divided into two groups. The first believes that Russia has a 'complete strategic concept' of what it wants. The second group believes that neither Russia nor most of the world powers have a strategy, and that what is occurring is that [each of them] are dealing with [today's] burning problems and are trying to exploit them early on in order to create a favorable terrain for securing [their own] objectives.
"[Regarding the Syrian crisis, there is a perception] that Russia's success in resolving the crisis in Syria in a manner that is favorable to Russia will not only... lay the groundwork for similar resolutions of regional and international problems, but will also [provide] a solution to most of Russia's current political and economic problems. This is because [such a resolution] will pave [the way for] a comprehensive examination [by the West] of Russia's relations with the E.U., the U.S., and the [world's] important regional blocs.
"For Russia, a defeat [in Syria] is a worse outcome than its [continuing] involvement in the Syrian swamp... For Russia, the partition of Syria would also be a worse outcome [than a continuation of the crisis] because this would plunge [Russia] into intensifying clashes with the many parties [that will result from such a partition] - and the outcome of these clashes cannot be predicted.
"The second group of Russian experts disputes this analysis. It believes that Russia's Plan B includes a partition of Syria, and that Russia will be compelled to turn to this option if it sees that it is beginning to lose its gamble on a comprehensive solution that will preserve its interests...
"In formulating its tactics and strategies, Russia is relying on the following principles:
- Exploiting the American retreat [from the Middle East] and the deep division within Europe on [the issue of the sanctions on] Russia, when an important part of [the EU] is prepared to immediately restore relations with Russia and form alliances with it.
- Presenting a Russian 'alternative' as a mediator in resolving regional conflicts, such between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as presenting initiatives for establishing joint security areas (the Gulf, Central Asia, etc.).
- Setting up short- and long-term mechanisms for settling international problems, in an attempt to become part of the new world order...
- Finding permanent allies who are ready to embrace the Russian concept of building regional security areas in various parts of the world...
"[However, both groups of] Russian analysts are in agreement that 'Egypt is currently Russia's main ally in the Middle East.'
Russian Experts: No Return To The Hafez Al-Assad Era In Syria
"[Valdai Discussion Club research director] Fyodor Lukyanov, who is editor of Russia in Global Affairs, does not seem pessimistic when speaking about a future settlement in Syria, especially in everything that pertains to the Munich track, which he describes as the first step upon which a solution can be based. This, he notes, was demonstrated in other crises such as Bosnia and the Ukraine, where the first attempt to impose a ceasefire after a military conflict was unsuccessful, but it [a ceasefire] can nevertheless be implemented on the ground after a few [more] attempts.
"However, in contrast to the analysts' optimism regarding the 'settlement track,' they are in a near consensus with regard to Syria's future: Syria will never again be what it was, and whoever [in Syria] is counting on the return of 'Hafez Al-Assad's' Syria is under an illusion.
"[This] is why the international discussions on how Syria can be preserved [as a united political entity] have run into grave difficulties - it is impossible to discuss Syria's future without [first having] military achievements on the ground. Lukyanov stresses that when Russia decided to carry out direct military intervention, it was counting on the capabilities of the Syrian regime's army, and on [Syria's] on-site allies, to quickly alter the situation on the ground, with intensive support from the Russian Air Force. [Unfortunately], this turned out to be a bad bet, and it was only recently, with the intensified and expanded Russian airstrikes, that [Syrian] military achievements began to materialize.
"This helps explain the Russian [political] maneuvering in Munich and Geneva [to prevent Assad's removal], since the Kremlin sorely needed military achievements in the battle for Aleppo in order to be able to proceed with the political settlement track. Under such circumstances, the [February 2016] Turkish military maneuvers [on the Syrian border] and the talk about a possible Turkish ground intervention [in Syria] are worrying Moscow greatly...
"Lukyanov emphasizes... that there is currently no [world] power that can force the elements in the region to accept specific [political solutions] or impose new maps, including delineating the contours of a new Middle East..."
A New Regional Order Will Arise From Regional Wars
"The Russian experts believe that... a new order in the Middle East will be drenched in blood, and that it cannot be the outcome of deals by the great powers, that it must derive from a series of regional wars, and that Syria is not the end of the story.'
"At the same time, Lukyanov rejects the Russian decision makers' prevailing notion that the U.S. is behind the region's problems. The American administration is not strong enough [for that], and also has serious problems comprehending the rapid developments [there] - even though it is trying to benefit from them and to exploit the region's crises. Most of its activity is a [mere reaction] to developments as they occur.
"[Lukyaniv is] clearly alluding here to the absence of an American strategy for the region. But it is even clearer that all the international forces currently dealing with the region's crisis- Russia included - lack strategies.
"While President Barack Obama's administration prefers to spread its bets across several parties in the region in order to achieve maximal benefit from future developments, Moscow prefers to bet on one party, i.e. the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Although this policy is risky, Moscow has also won some important things thanks to it. [For example,] it proved that it is firmly adhering to its positions, which, in turn, reinforces its standing vis-├á-vis its allies, while there is increasing displeasure with the U.S. policy of 'saying one thing and doing another'... Moscow believes that its regional losses due to its support of Assad are not many, because it has gained much from [standing by its allies]. This contrasts... with the U.S.'s nebulous and feeble positions..."
Moscow Knows That The Next U.S. President Will Be Firmer Towards Russia
"Russia is waging its major campaign in Syria [as a gamble] in which it either wins and emerges with clear achievements on the regional and international levels, [or it loses and] President Putin will have to acknowledge his strategic failure. The Kremlin decided to stick to its path and [proceed with determination in] waging the fateful campaign - hence the recent major military escalation, since he [Putin] cannot allow the Assad regime to collapse, even though he [Assad] is not a satisfactory ally for the Russians and is 'deluded.'
"As for [Russia's] complex relationship with Assad, the Russian experts believe that Moscow clearly understands the Syrian regime's composition and the 'symbolic' weight of Assad as the leader, [realizing that] his [eventual forced] resignation [would cause the immediate collapse of the entire regime]. [This means that] Russia will lose its whole bet in one stroke.
"On the other hand, the experts believe that Russia is in a weak position for pressuring Assad, and Moscow knows that he could reject warnings from Moscow. Therefore, it is trying to handle the Syrian situation carefully, and prefers to send [Assad] indirect messages.
"The Russian experts' analysis leads to one conclusion: The Russian bet is predicated on a military solution and on imposing a comprehensive [new] situation on the ground, which will make negotiations a desired objective [for all other parties]. Therefore, they believe, the principle of creating a national unity government in Syria cannot meet Russia's needs. Nor is it possible, from the Russian point of view, to allow the Syrian regime's departure in the framework suggested in the Geneva formula, which is based on setting up a governing transitional body with full executive powers [that will strip Assad of the authority that he now has]. Moscow has buried this formula of the Munich-Geneva process.
"Moscow is also aware that the next president in Washington, of which ever party, will be much harsher towards Russia, and will adopt a much clearer Middle East policy. Therefore, Russia's window of opportunity [to achieve its goals] will not remain open for long."
 The Valdai Discussion Club was founded in 2004 as an annual discussion platform for the Russian and foreign political analysts.
 At its February 11-12, 2016 meeting in Munich, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) determined that that week humanitarian aid would begin to be brought into to all Syrian areas, and that within a week there would be a comprehensive cessation of all hostile activities, excluding ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Indirect talks were to have begun in Geneva between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition on January 29, 2016, pursuant to UNSCR 2254 that delineated a road map to resolve the Syrian crisis. The regime and opposition delegations arrived in Geneva, but the talks did not effectively begin due to difficulties and terms put forward by the delegations. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1208, The Sultan vs The Tsar: The 21st-Century Round - The Clash Of Imperial Ambitions For Regional Hegemony, December 10, 2015.