Leonid Isaev, a political analyst and a professor in the political science department of the Higher School of Economics, explained Russia's future role in the Syrian war, in an interview with the Russian media outlet Fotanka.ru. The announcement about the end of the Syrian campaign and the troop withdrawal was a major 2017 event. But this is actually the third time that Russia is withdrawing troops from Syria. Isaev explained that Russia's gains from its military intervention in Syria are unclear.
Responding to a journalist's question on what constitutes the Russian victory in Syria, Isaev answered that Russia was not motivated to intervene in order to solve Syria's internal problems or even to save the region from the terrorist threat. He enumerated three reasons to explain Russia's military operation in Syria:
- The first reason was to achieve political consolidation prior to the 2016 parliamentary election. "In the post-Crimean period, it was important to prevent the parliamentary election from ending in another Bolotnaya Square [i.e. the 2012 Bolotnaya Square antigovernment protest in Moscow]. By September 2016, it was important to unify the people around the ruling regime that was waging a fight against the obvious evil – ISIS," Isaev explained.
- The second reason was the economic crisis that emerged in 2014-15, and the deficit-ridden budget. This prompted the government "to re-orient the attention of the population from internal problems towards fight with terrorism".
- The third reason for the Syrian intervention was to provoke the West into a dialogue. "We won't be able to come to an agreement concerning Ukraine, so we need other platforms for negotiations with Europe and the U.S. We are told that the sanctions are connected to Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and we propose to connect them to something else, no less important to the West. To Syria, for instance, where we don't have any long-term strategic interests," Isaev said.
Concerning the defeat of ISIS, which the Russian leadership claims credit for, Isaev dissents from the official line and claims that it was actually the Kurds, who were the first to deal "a heavy blow" to ISIS. "They were the first to debunk the myth about the invincibility of ISIS," Isaev opined. He then stressed that the defeat in Mosul – ISIS's stronghold – also happened without Russia's participation and was primarily an American achievement. If so, who then did Russia defeat in Syria? Isaev answered: "That's a big question. It is supposed to [be securing] the territory under [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad's control. But as I have already said, we do not have enough leverage over him."
Expanding on Russia's negligible influence on the Syrian President, Isaev said that as soon as Assad feels he does not need Russia, he will turn his back on Moscow. Isaev complained that the more Russia aided Assad in the war, the less he was interested in real dialogue. Isaev however described Assad as a "liquid asset," and explained that Russia will ask a "very steep price" for abandoning him. "Assad is not an end in himself. We have achieved certain success, now we must sell it," Isaev said clearly .
Isaev added that Assad's resignation would have satisfied Russia. "The events have developed in such a way that Assad's name itself has become a byword. So, the scenario where he leaves the presidential office could be the beginning of a compromise. Maybe it would be better for Syria itself. Some other candidate could win then, even if it's another Ba'athist– A moderate figure that would suit all the players. The regime would gain access to international aid. The country would begin the rebuilding process. In fact, I don't think it's impossible to arrive at such an arrangement. Assad has become a problem for everybody. Even for himself," commented Isaev.
Concerning Iran's influence in Syria, Isaev predicted that if Assad was forced to choose between Iran and Russia, he would definitely choose Tehran. Isaev said: "Iran provides religious legitimacy for the Alawites in Syria. It was thanks to Tehran that Alawites came to be recognized as Muslims – they were considered a branch of Shiism. Besides, in contrast to Russia, whose interests in Syria are situational, Iranian interests there are strategic."
Below are excerpts from Leonid Isaev's interview with the Russian media outlet Fotanka.ru:
Leonid Isaev (Source: Fotanka.ru)
On December 11, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. (Source: Kremlin.ru)
Isaev: 'The More We Helped Assad In This War… The Less Interested He Was In The Real Dialogue'
Q: "In 2017, Russia ended its combat operations in Syria; Putin announced the withdrawal of troops. I'm having a deja vu: this is our third conversation that starts with a question about that."
Isaev: "Yes, according to the number of pullouts."
Q: "Why are the troops being pulled out for the third time?"
Isaev: "The first time that Russia announced the troop withdrawal from Syria was in the spring of 2016, but even then it was clear that pulling out of the conflict was more complicated than entering it. I think that without our presence, all the results achieved by March 2016 would have simply been lost by Assad's regime. That is why we had to get increasingly deeper into the conflict. But even now, Putin has said that the troops would not be pulled out completely, that a limited force will remain in Khmeimim and Tartus."
Q: "And on 31 December, that is, after the announcement about the troop pullout, the Russian base in Hmeimim was attacked by insurgents, and two of our military men died. What was that? To whose advantage is it? Will the pullout continue?"
Isaev: "So far, nobody has taken responsibility for what happened. Throughout the year, we tried to introduce de-escalation zones in Syria. But Assad refused to implement these agreements. And I think that this attack is a direct consequence of the fact that we were unable or unwilling to pay proper attention to his refusal. While we were negotiating with the opposition, Assad continued his offensive in East Ghouta, and now he is attacking in the Idlib zone as well. Why should we be surprised that the opposition does not honor the agreements either? Moreover, one should think about how things stand with the defense of our own base. That was only mortar shelling – not the most serious method of attack. We like to shake our heads at the United States, but it guards its military facilities substantially better. The Defense Ministry should be glad this did not happen during Putin's visit to Hmeimim."
Q: "Assad's other ally, Iran, does not have time to spare for Syria now, its own regime is wobbling. How will this influence the peace-building in Syria?"
Isaev: "I don't think that current protests in Iran will result in a new revolution. But if internal situation deteriorates further, it will probably lead to foreign problems being downgraded for the Iranian leadership."
Q: "Is it good or bad for us?"
Isaev: "It could give us more freedom of maneuver in the Syrian negotiation process."
Q: "You and your colleagues have said many times that defeating ISIS (banned in Russia) is impossible, because it is not so much an organization as an ideology. So, have we defeated it in Syria or not?"
Isaev: "We have always said it is possible to defeat the military and political entity. It is not hard, and all the coalitions fighting ISIS have enough resources for that. The problem is different: eliminating the causes for the emergence of ISIS, defeating them as an ideological phenomenon – this is really hard. So far, nobody has been able to find the antidote. But the specific terrorist group called Islamic State has been liquidated by joint effort."
Q: "In Syria."
Isaev: "And in Iraq. But again: the policy pursued by the Syrian government will result in this problem being shelved. It is most probable that nothing similar will reappear in these territories in the immediate future. But later, if the situation in Syria and Iraq continues to develop as it is now, we will get another ISIS replica there. It is a phenomenon brought about by a series of causes, and these causes have not been eliminated. In Iraq, the Sunnis still feel like second-class citizens, marginalized. The same can be said for the Syrian Sunnis. At this stage, Syria needs a real comprehensive national dialogue, not its imitation. Because the reasons for this war, which has been going on for seven years, are rather deep, they require a detailed discussion with the involvement of all the warring parties, all sections of the population. This process must end with a consensus and concessions on all sides. Instead, we see formalization of the negotiation process on the part of Damascus, that considers itself the victor in this war."
Q: "Is it the victor?"
Isaev: "Damascus has won the war, but has not achieved peace."
Q: "Has it won with Russia's help?"
Isaev: "Russia's, among others. But it wants to negotiate with the opposition as the victor with the vanquished. Ba'athists are ready only for insignificant concessions under the pressure of their foreign allies, but are not ready to sacrifice their current privileged status."
Q: "You said that Moscow cannot make Assad establish de-escalation zones. Is it at all capable of putting pressure on him, pushing him to concessions?"
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Isaev: "At least it's trying. Of course, we want the negotiations to take place, we want some changes to happen in Syria. We are interested in that. But it's hard to make it happen. We did not manage to make Assad leave two years ago, when he was hanging by a thread. How can we make him leave now, when he feels triumphant? If we are talking about the military conflict, a lot is determined there by the Russian military presence. The Russian army's power is enough to defeat any army in the Middle East. Our influence on Assad is conditional upon this fact. But at the stage of rebuilding the country and political dialogue, military resources do not play the decisive role. The most important factor here is money. And here competitors have arisen to Russia from amongst its former 'allies', Iran in particular."
Q: "Does Iran want to pay for the rebuilding of Syria?"
Isaev: "Iran will pay for the rebuilding of Syria. In November, talks took place between presidents Assad and Rouhani. The Iranians announced that they were not going to leave Syria and would do their best to aid it."
Q: "As we know, Iran has its own problems now; where does it still have the money for Syria?"
Isaev: "In this respect, Iran is very much like the Soviet Union: it will feed all its surrounding allies, while being malnourished itself. Yes, we can see the result of this "malnourishment" at the moment. But the Iranians really need it; they are ready to spend enormous resources on solving foreign policy challenges."
Q: "Why should Russia compete with Iran in this? Let it pay, why not?"
Isaev: "We have spent too many resources in order to derive at least some dividends from the Syrian campaign and consolidate our presence there. Now is the right time to convert all this into political and diplomatic successes. Moreover, now an opportunity is arising for closer interaction with new actors beyond the 'Astana troika'. Issues related to the rebuilding of Syria cannot be solved by the joint efforts of Russia, Iran and Turkey, so we are trying to look for partners who have money. It is primarily the EU and the Gulf countries."
Q: "One cannot call them our greatest friends."
Isaev: "And this is precisely why we must exert pressure on Assad – in order to find a compromise with them on this issue. We want him to engage in political dialogue. We must make him honor the agreements as part of the UN Security Council resolutions. The European Union openly says: until they see real progress on the issues of political transition in Syria and carrying out institutional reforms, there will be no cooperation in the sphere of rebuilding of the country. That is why Russia offers its services as a mediator to Europe and the Gulf countries. That is why we are interested in putting pressure on Assad. But it is getting harder and harder to do. The more we helped him in this war, the more he…"
Q: "Got impudent."
Isaev: "The less interested he was in the real dialogue. The European Union needs Russia as a partner who has influence on Assad, but we have fed them so many promises regarding Assad that they no longer believe us."
Q: "Don't they overestimate Russia's ability to influence Assad?"
Isaev: "We are doing our best to show we can do it. Why did we move Assad out Syria again, this time to Sochi? [We did so] to prove that we had exclusive influence on the Syrian leadership. Assad left Syria only twice throughout the period of the conflict: in late 2015 and now. And it was not accidental that we brought him to Sochi before the meeting of presidents Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani. We had to show the Turks and the Iranians who is the boss in this triangle. Then our president reminded Trump, Netanyahu, the Saudi king and some other Middle East leaders about this fact in a telephone conversation."
Putin with Assad in Sochi (Source: Kremlin.ru)
Putin with Rouhani and Erdogan in Sochi. (Source: Kremlin.ru)
Isaev: 'As Soon As Assad Feels He Does Not Need Russia, He Will Turn His Back On Us'
Q: "We have mentioned the defeat of ISIS, but actually, Assad was fighting another enemy – the opposition."
Isaev: "Assad started fighting ISIS only in Palmyra, and even that was on the orders of Russia, because we needed an 'anti-ISIS PR stunt. He did conduct this campaign for us. But then he forgot Palmyra entirely and was again ignominiously kicked out of there by ISIS. That's his attitude to fighting ISIS in a nutshell. They were a secondary threat from his point of view."
Q: "And now he has defeated the primary threat – the opposition."
Isaev: "ISIS has also been defeated. Only this was done mostly by the coalition headed by the United States. They were the ones who started the Mosul operation a year ago. They took Mosul and liberated Iraq from ISIS. We did not do anything in Iraq. Raqqa was also taken by the Americans and the Kurds. A huge part of the eastern Syrian provinces was also liberated by the anti-terrorist coalition. We joined the effort at the last moment – in late 2017, when it was not so much a war against ISIS as much as pursuit of the resources under its control."
Q: "Well, they could not defeat ISIS without us for many years. And as soon as the Russian army joined – the victory came."
Isaev: "It was the Kurds who first dealt a heavy blow to ISIS. They were the first to debunk the myth about the invincibility of ISIS. The defeat in Mosul – ISIS's geostrategic home front – occurred without our participation. We had nothing to do with the capture of Raqqa – the capital of ISIS. And the liberation of the territories in the east was very similar to what was happening in Europe in 1945: it was a race – who will be the first to get to the 'spoils of war'. Everybody understood that if Kurds liberate some part of the territory – it will be territory under their control; Assad's power de facto will not spread to that territory. If Assad takes it – neither the Kurds nor the Americans will set foot there. So, they chased ISIS from both sides of the Euphrates, competing with each other. If we did not join this 'competition' at the last moment, the territories under the Kurdish and American control would be much larger now. But ISIS would no longer exist in any case. Because after the capture of Mosul, it became clear that the U.S. managed to do what nobody had managed without it. In 2016 in Mosul, it managed to unite, in the face of the common enemy, the Shiite and the Sunni militias, the Kurds and the Iraqi army – those forces that seem to be at war with each other on an existential level. After that it became clear: the capture of Mosul, and of Raqqa, the defeat of ISIS – it's a question of time and sacrifices. But the main step had been made."
Q: "In 2016, Russia was already taking active part in the events in the Middle East."
Isaev: "We were liberating Aleppo from the opposition at that time. There was only a small unit of Jabhat al-Nusra on the outskirts there, but it became the cornerstone of our military operation. What prevented us from fighting ISIS as well at that time, instead of focusing on Aleppo?"
Q: "We liberated Palmira, you have said so yourself."
Isaev: "Yes. And the General Staff said that it opened the strategically important road to Raqqa."
Q: "Which it did, by the way."
Isaev: "Only nobody used that road then."
Q: "So, whom did Russia defeat in Syria? Where is Russia's sphere of influence?"
Isaev: "That's a big question. Supposedly it is the territory under Assad's control. But as I have already said, we do not have enough leverage over him. Moreover, Iran considers these territories to be its own control zone. How can we divide the zones of Russia's and Iran's influence?"
Q: "If Assad has to choose between Moscow and Tehran, whom will he choose?"
Isaev: "I don't think it will come to that. But Assad's sympathies, I think, are more likely to be with Iran. Iran provides religious legitimacy for the Alawites in Syria. It was thanks to Tehran that Alawites came to be recognized as Muslims – they were considered a branch of Shiism. Besides, in contrast to Russia, whose interests in Syria are situational, Iranian interests there are strategic."
Q: "I will try to sum up. Firstly, we did not get any territory in Syria where we could exercise indisputable influence. Because in the same place, there are Hezbollah, Iran…"
Isaev: "There are many aspirants there."
Q: "And Assad himself."
Isaev: "Who is not planning to spend the rest of his life as a Russian puppet."
Q: "Secondly, we did not succeed in making Assad our puppet. He will not rush to protect our interests. The only thing he did was recognize Crimea."
Isaev: "I will give you an example. In 1973, the role of the Soviet Union in the war between Egypt and Israel was crucial: in fact, we saved Cairo from yet another painful fiasco. The Israeli army was by the Suez Canal, which is a little over 100 kilometers from Cairo. It not for the Soviet Union, we don't know if the state of Egypt would have survived in its existing borders or not. But already in 1976, the USSR unilaterally denounced the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with Egypt because of the political turnaround by president Anwar el-Sadat. I can bring a lot of similar examples from the history of Soviet-Arab relations. So, I harbor no illusions about Assad: as soon as he feels he does not need Russia, he will turn his back on us."
Q: "So explain please, what is our victory in Syria."
Isaev: "Well, we did not go in there to solve internal Syrian problems, to save the region from the terrorist threat. Our leadership is very pragmatic. So I see at least three reasons that motivated Russia to start the operation in Syria. The first is political consolidation before the parliamentary election. In the post-Crimean period, it was important to prevent the parliamentary election from ending in another Bolotnaya Square. By September 2016, it was important to unify the people around the ruling regime that was waging a fight against the obvious evil – ISIS. The second reason was the economic crisis that emerged in 2014-15, and the deficitary budget."
Q: "So let's spend this budget on war?"
Isaev: "No. It was necessary to re-orient the attention of the population from internal problems towards fight with terrorism. With Ukraine, the situation was ambivalent; many Russians have connections there, relatives, somebody may get alternative information from there. But with Syria – what are the alternatives? We were told we are fighting terrorists – what can you reproach the country's leadership with? Nobody but us wants to fight them; on the contrary, they are only being pampered; Russia is the only country capable of defeating ISIS. That's why we need good military budget. And this idea did bear certain fruit. The results of the election are excellent from the point of view of the authorities; the president's trust rating is at the right level."
Q: "And the third reason?"
Isaev: "The third is an attempt to provoke the West to a dialogue, which we have desperately needed since 2015. Of course, we won't be able to come to an agreement concerning Ukraine, so we need other platforms for negotiations with Europe and the U.S. We are told that the sanctions are connected to Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and we propose to connect them to something else, no less important to the West. To Syria, for instance, where we don't have any long-term strategic interests."
Q: "Everything succeeded, except for the removal of sanctions."
Isaev: "And this is the essence of our victory in Syria."
Q: "According to you, in Syria we tried to solve problems that we had previously created ourselves."
Isaev: "For two years, we performed the job of a broker in Syria: we tried – and we are still trying – to sell liquid assets that we managed to earn there. From this point of view, Assad is yet another liquid asset."
Q: "And we will sell him, if the opportunity arises?"
Isaev: "But we will ask a very steep price. Assad is not an end in himself. We have achieved certain success, now we must sell it."
Q: "As a result of agreements on Syria, democratic elections will apparently take place there. We already saw this in 2014: Assad was elected by 88% of voters. During the new election, will Assad be elected again, even under the supervision of international forces?"
Isaev: "I think everybody understands this now, including the opposition. This is primarily because the people in Syria are very tired of war. Even those who were against Assad now want peace, quiet, and stability. All the political issues that were so topical in 2011 have receded into the background."
Q: "Assad will become a perfectly legitimate president, and the international community will have to acknowledge this fact. What was this seven-year war for?"
Isaev: "Maybe, there will already be no Assad by the end of the new year. At least, [there will be no Assad] not in Syria and not in the role of president. [This could happen] especially if things will not be in order in Iran."
Q: "Will he move to Rostov-on-the-Don?"
Isaev: "At least, his resignation would have satisfied many, Russia included. The events have developed in such a way that Assad's name itself has become a household word. So, the scenario where he leaves the presidential office could be the beginning of a compromise. Maybe it would be better for Syria itself. Some other candidate could win then, even if it's another Ba'athist. A moderate figure, who would suit all the players. The regime would gain access to international aid. The country would begin the rebuilding process. In fact, I don't think it's impossible to come to such an arrangement. Assad has become a problem for everybody. Even for himself. So much centers on one man, even though the problem does not reside in him alone. Why not find some consensus? Maybe in late 2018 we will be discussing a new presidential candidate for Syria."
See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7233, Reactions To Putin's Troop Withdrawal Order From Syria, December 17, 2017.
See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7197, Russian Media Comments Following Tripartite Sochi Summit: A New Yalta That Excludes The Americans, November 27, 2017.
 Fotanka.ru, January 6, 2018. The interview was conducted by Irina Tumakova.