Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin's "mission accomplished" visit to Syria where he announced the partial troop withdrawal the general mood by officials and commentators has been self-congratulatory. The mood of self-satisfaction extends to Moscow's allies in Syria – the Assad regime and Iran (and to a lesser extent Turkey). Russia by its military intervention had reestablished itself as a Middle Eastern power with credibility that put America to shame. Russia's Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu took pride in the performance of the Russian forces and the new weapons systems field-tested in Syria.
Two Middle East experts, Anton Mardasov and Kiril Semyonov, both of the Institute of Innovational Development, challenge the conventional wisdom. In an article titled "The Kremlin Must Tame Damascus and Tehran", They warn that the current policy of allowing Assad and Iran a free hand in Syria including flouting agreements that Russia itself has underwritten will end badly. It will prolong the fighting in Syria, deter foreign donors needed for Syria's reconstruction and could trigger a new war involving Israel. Paradoxically, they argue that Moscow's best bet is to draw closer to the Syrian opposition that is the only force capable of balancing Iran.
Below are excerpts from Mardasov and Semyonov's article.
Anton Mardasov (Source:Riafan.ru)
Kiril Semyonov (Source: Institute-innovation.ru)
"Russia’s declaration about the end of the military operation in Syria and the beginning of withdrawal of its troops does not signify the end of the civil war. There are many factors indicating that the military conflict may enter a new phase. Damascus, securely covered by Russia and Iran, persists in attempts to exploit the situation and take control over the territories that are part of the de-escalation zones. The situation in the country is becoming similar to the one in late December 2016, i. e. before the start of the ceasefire regime.
War On Schedule
"The unilateral mechanism of punishment for violating peace arrangements, the absence of any significant pressure on the government of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) on the part of Moscow, and the attempts to hush up Assad’s unauthorized military operations, which are in direct violation of the agreements signed by the Russian side with the opposition factions in Cairo and Geneva, - all these give Damascus a feeling that it has freedom of action. It has no incentive to continue its participation in the peace process in its current format, which was vividly demonstrated by the last round of negotiations in Geneva. Sunni countries, tired of the Syrian war and busy with the conflict in the Persian Gulf, tried to form an opposition delegation that would be as close to compromise as possible. But Damascus refused to negotiate with his opponents, although the condition put forth by the opposition – Assad’s resignation – did not sound like a precondition but rather like a declaration about real changes.
"In addition, the Russian Aerospace Forces made it clear that they were ready to continue to provide help to Damascus’s military operations against the opposition. It was after the announcement about the end of the active phase of the military operation that the Russian air forces mounted strikes in North Hama; yet not against the radical alliance of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which incorporates Al-Nusra (banned in Russia), but against the factions of the Free Syrian Army – Central Division and Jaish al-Izzah, which tried to respond to attacks by regime forces.
"Assad’s other ally – Iran – is even more interested in continuing operations in Syria: they delay reforms and the withdrawal of his foreign 'proxy forces', which means strengthening the influence of Tehran. Thus, the appearance of offices of Khomeinist pro-Iranian organizations, staffed with armed Shiite militia groups, on the territories wrested from the Sunni opposition has already become a tradition. No matter how hard you try, with the help of officers from the North Caucasus, to decrease this 'Shiitization' of the predominantly Sunni pre-war Syria (75% population) and turn a blind eye to the 'cosmetic rotation' of pro-Iranian forces, this will contribute nothing to solving the ethno-confessional problem. And its solution is a key condition for a real and successful anti-terrorist fight. Here, the problems that come to the fore are those related to the repression of radical groups that either infiltrated the Syrian insurgent movement, or, like the ancestor of the Islamic State (banned in Russia), developed in Syria even before the war under the tolerant eye of the Syrian security services in multi-thousand Iraqi refugee camps and on the tunnel-riddled territory along the Syrian-Iraqi border.
"But Assad and his entourage would like the Shiite factions from among the Iraqi, Lebanese and other Shiite groups to find soon 'something to do in the confrontation with the common enemy'. Otherwise, the possibility cannot be excluded that they will attempt to claim their rights from official Damascus. In the context of 'militiazation' of the Syrian army, the choice of combat-capable units that are ready to carry out orders from Damascus only and not from Tehran, is very limited, – it’s the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, to which one may add Tiger Forces and the 5th Attack Troop Corps, broadly supported by Russia. In this situation, the Syrian regime is Tehran’s hostage, and the Russian troops in Syria are hostage to the support for the Syrian regime, whose mistakes are so numerous it would be preferable to distance oneself from them, rather than be associated with them.
"Today, there is much talk about the challenges of rebuilding the country, which involves enormous expenses. It is clear that for Russia or Iran to do so on their own account is an extremely heavy burden. It is also clear that all the talk about China’s preparedness to invest 'vast sums' into the SAR economy and rebuild the country is more [an act of] 'self-consolation' by regime supporters than a realistic assessment. Countries that are ready to allocate money will not do so until at least the opposition in Syria has representation as a real force, capable of influence. But at the moment, the Syrian regime is interested in continuing operations against the opposition so that there would be no alternative left to the Ba’athist government and in delaying real measures to rebuild the country by its 'global conspiracy' rhetoric.
"Currently, there are three fronts of operations of the pro-government forces against the insurgent factions. One is in the Idlib de-escalation zone, where the regime continues its attacks in the direction of the Abu al-Duhur air base in order to cut off the opposition force situated to the east of the Homs-Aleppo railway. If this operation is successful, one should expect further efforts to 'cut off' different 'bulges' of the territory of Greater Idlib under opposition control, until finally only the Turkish border enclave remains.
"Attacks on the East Ghouta de-escalation zone continue as well. These territories near Damascus have been encircled for five years; about 250–400 thousand civilians live there, with 25-thousand strong opposition contingent. Despite constant declarations by Assad’s representatives that the Syrian opposition in East Ghouta are merely common bandits, the situation in this suburb is different: in spite of the long siege and the tensions between two largest insurgent factions – Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman – quite efficient oppositional local government bodies and civil authorities have been created; there is a functioning judicial system, the manufacture of many products and medicines and their distribution to the population have been set up, there is also production of ammunition and even some types of arms.
"Also, with the US recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, renewal of combat action in the South-Western de-escalation zone is not out of the question. It is this area that serves as a buffer between the pro-Iranian Shiite groups and the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. This is a potential conflict-igniting factor: using the demonstrative stability of this zone, guaranteed by Russia and the US, both Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia) and various pro-Iranian groups have been building up their influence among the local population. Another 'vicious circle' is created here. The opposition does not engage in active combat with the radicals because it is concerned it might overlook an attack by the regime forces. And the penetration of experienced preachers and Al-Qaeda operatives is a good pretext for launching an operation and expanding the influence of foreign and local pro-Iranian groups. In this case, further involvement by Israel in the Syrian conflict is inevitable.
"At the same time, it is clear that Damascus does not have the strength to maintain operations in all area simultaneously, and it will try to execute them successively. In this situation, the opposition may respond by a consolidated strike in several areas, which may bring the conflict to a new stage.
"A lot will depend on Russia’s and America’s commitment to maintaining the peace process. The fact itself of the Russian-American negotiations causes alarm both in Tehran and in Damascus. The Iranian expansion in the region is a threat to Russian interests in Syria. Incredible as it may seem, the Syrian opposition, which is ready for dialogue with Moscow but not with Damascus or Tehran, so far remains the only instrument of resistance to the Iranian influence. Bringing it into the Syrian government and the renewed army could establish the necessary balance in the country and prevent Syria from becoming a staging area for the promotion of Iranian policy, which may end up with another war in the Middle East."
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7197, Russian Media Comments Following Tripartite Sochi Summit: A New Yalta That Excludes The Americans, November 27, 2017; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7171, Russia's Policy In The Middle East: 'We Have Crossed The Rubicon', November 9, 2017; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7129, Russian Expert Bordachev: Over The Two Years Of The Syrian Campaign, Russia Gained Power And Prestige. October 11, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7268, Putin At The Expanded Meeting Of The Defense Ministry Board: The United States' Defense Strategy Is An Aggressive Strategy, January 7, 2018.
 Ng.ru, December 25, 2017.