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September 22, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8940

While Wishing Assad A Happy Birthday, Russia Does Not Want Him To Be An Economic And Political Millstone Like Lukashenko

September 22, 2020
Russia, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 8940

This year 9/11 also marked Syrian President Bashar Assad's 55th birthday. There were glowing testimonials in some Russian media outlets as well as from Russian satellite states such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Dmitry Egorchenkov, Director, Institute for Strategic Studies and Predictions, Peoples' Friendship University of Russia called Al-Assad "an absolutely unique and absolutely historic person in the annals of modern Syria. Without a doubt, he is the son of his great father, the actual founder of modern Syria, Hafez Assad. But he also proved by his own example, by his own deeds, actions and that this is not the only thing that the current head of state merits respect for".[1]

South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov, in his birthday greeting to Al-Assad called him" a true patriot of your country, an experienced politician, a wise leader - you devote all your energy to upholding the state interests of Syria. With honor and dignity, you walk the path of serving the Motherland"[2] However, despite the birthday celebrations there was also evidence of friction between Syria and Russia. One Russian columnist compared Assad to Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus and emphasized the importance of Russia's ability to corral parts of the Syrian opposition despite the resistance displayed by Assad. Other articles spoke of various conflicts in the bilateral relations including Russia's relations with Syria's enemies and whether Russia was entitled to a privileged position in the Syrian economy to recoup its military investment and costs. An analysis of the complexities in the Moscow Damascus axis follows below.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets his Syrian counterpart Walid Al-Muallem

Conflicting Positions Over The Syrian Economy And The Political Reforms Needed To Kickstart It

A day before Assad's birthday, the Russian International Affairs Council published an article by

Professor Aqil Sa'id Mahfoud, who chairs the Political Studies Department at the Damascus Center for Research and Studies.  [3] In the article Mahfoud tactfully voiced the Assad regime's complaints against Russia. In a nutshell, Mahfoud claimed that Syria wanted certainty from Russia as "Many in Syria, as well as a number of external observers, have come to the conclusion that Moscow has started to change its policies towards Damascus and that all of this is part of collusion between the United States and Russia — not to topple the regime in Syria, but rather to force it to make changes at home and return to the framework and requirements of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254, or to change its position on Iran and Hezbollah, a topic that has attracted much attention."

Mahfoud conceded that Syria was in Russia's debt but things were not one sided: "We can state here that Syria owes Russia a kind of 'intangible debt,' although many people in the country believe that Syria’s steadfastness (with the support of Iran and Hezbollah), especially during the period between 2011 and 2015, has given Russia an unprecedented opportunity to launch a new phase in its foreign policy and bolster its position in the world."

Mahfoud feared abandonment by Russia due to Moscow's sometimes conflicting interests:

"It seems that a large part of the Syrian population is “grateful” to Russia whilst at the same time being concerned about Russia's presence in their country and what that means moving forward. For example, the implications of the agreements between Russia, Turkey, Israel and even the United States. This is what makes the Syrian people feel “uncertain” about these moments, something that has been mentioned on multiple occasions."

Syrians were concerned that their debt towards Russia conferred upon the latter a sense of “entitlement”:

"Russia has drawn “invisible borders” around Iran’s presence in Syria, and this is considered part of deep compatibility between Russia and Israel, which is very similar to their agreements with the United States. However, this may threaten and harm Russia itself in the event that its understanding with Israel fails or if its relations with the United States or even Turkey become strained."

Mahfoud hinted that Syria could become an economic vassal and have yo pay in the financial sense by concluding “almost exclusive contracts” in oil, gas, ports, transportation and other sectors with Russia.

Russia is currently more concerned with Syria's economic situation than with security issues. At the end of June, Washington imposed sanctions against 39 individuals and entities in Syria under the Caesar Act. Although the European Union and the United States have introduced restrictive measures against Syrian government agencies and politicians before, the act has a fundamental new provision stating that those cooperating with the Syrians can also be swooped up in the sanctions net. This may affect Russian and Iranian agencies working in  areas controlled by Assad. [4]

Additionally, Russia experiencing economic difficulties herself can ill afford to sustain Syria if it continues to be an economic basket case. This issue was on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's mind during his September 6-7, 2020, visit to Damascus. Kommersant summed up Lavrov's visit:

"Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov has not been in Damascus for eight years. Last time he was greeted with flags and demonstrations of solidarity and friendship, but this time the visit was purely business-like, albeit just as swift - only a few hours. According to the minister, Syria has withstood the fight against terrorism and now it is necessary to solve new tasks - to restore the economy and attract international assistance for this. Sergei Lavrov did not specify how this was to be done under conditions where the principal external donors are demanding political reforms from Damascus in exchange for lifting sanctions and funding."[5]

Russia has tried to tackle the sanctions issue on a few fronts. One way is to step up bilateral investments.

During Lavrov's visit the two sides announced that they would pursue new agreements "in the interest of both countries and to alleviate the impact of the Western countries' sanctions policy against government-held areas of Syria, the statement added.[6]

Lobbying To Lift Sanctions

Russia has also attempted to pushback against the sanctions in the international arena. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Syria Geir Pedersen. Shoigu announced himself perplexed by the Western logic that "professes concern for the Syrian people,” but at the same time imposes sanctions against them, Shoigu said. The sanctions had a negative impact in many areas including the fight against terrorism:

“Significant changes have taken place in Syria, which concern almost all areas of resolving the crisis in the political process, the humanitarian situation and post-conflict reconstruction, and the fight against terrorism. The illegal sanctions of the Western countries against Syria have a negative impact on these processes, " Shoigu told Pedersen.

 “The hand that plunders this country mercilessly is the hand that imposes sanctions. We need to reach the point of granting the Syrian people the freedom to develop, by lifting the sanctions and stopping the theft of oil".

In an implicit threat to the European, who fear another mass influx of refugees, Shoigu claimed bewilderment over the European position that was averse to new flows of refugees but was doing its utmost to induce Syrians to flee their country. [7]


Shoigu meets Pedersen (Source: Kommersant.ru)

Andrei Kortunov: Russia Wants The Syrian Operation To Pay For Itself

Andrei Kortunov Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, in an interview with Izvestia was less sanguine than Lavrov that the military phase of the Syrian operation was complete: "There are at least two more problems there (along with the Islamic State): one is Idlib, which is not controlled by Damascus. And the second one is the territory of the Syrian north-west, which the controlled by the Kurdish formations. What will happen to them is yet unclear, because no agreements are expected between them and the Syrian government. However, he agreed that it was now crucial to address the economic issue. A sanctioned Syria, explained Kortunov, expects to receive significant economic preferences from Russia. Iran, an alternate source of support to Damascus, was also under sanctions. "The Syrians hope that Russia will take Syria under its wing. Moscow [however], would like to minimize its costs for this operation. Ideally, [the Kremlin] would like to make these relations with Syria to be self-sustaining financing-wise. On this issue positions of Moscow and Damascus diverge, it will be difficult to coordinate them, since the countries have different expectations.".

While Russia's military presence in Syria was assured given the long-term lease agreement on military bases in Syria and the presence of Russian military infrastructure on Syrian territory, Kortunov believed that Russia's economic presence was less assured. "History shows that Russia sometimes wins the war, but loses the peace. That is, Russia helps to win, but when it comes to improving the economy, other partners come and 'outbid' it. Bashar al-Assad is trying to flirt with both the EU and the Gulf countries. So far this has not been very successful. It is very important for us to play here not only our own game, but to be part of a team, that is, [Russia] should negotiate with the European countries and the Gulf countries on joint projects in Syria, and on the coordination of our approaches to the restoration of the Syrian economy."[8]


Andrei Kortunov (Interaffairs.ru)

Regnum Columnist Khaldey: Assad An Analogue To Lukashenko, Lavrov Gave Him An Offer He Could Not Refuse

Alexander Khaldey, a columnist for Regnum.ru, was upbeat about Russia's position in Syria and was confident that Russia could outplay all its rivals " In the competition between Russia, Israel, Iran and the United States in the struggle for influence in Syria within the context of the Middle East crisis, Russia undoubtedly wins, and it does not advertise this victory in any way and does everything in silence."

The team of Lavrov and Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, the co-chairman of the Russian-Syrian commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, touched all bases in their visit to Damascus

"Borisov is an official from the military-industrial complex, and his participation in the negotiations highlights the military-strategic aspect of the Syrian talks, while Lavrov participated within the political aspect."

Lavrov's role was critical because "The main problems of the Syrian settlement are the reluctance of the Syrian leadership to compromise with the Syrian opposition, which in some way turns Assad into a Syrian analogue of Lukashenko. All of Russia’s attempts to somehow find common ground and enter the constitutional process encountered a bitter reaction from Assad and an equally harsh reaction from the moderate opposition. At the same time, forcing Assad to come to an agreement with the opposition and end the civil war is critically important for Russia - without this, it is impossible to push the United States and Turkey out of Syria.

"The opposition structure in Syria is multi-layered, like an onion. It includes religious and ethnic segments. Assad’s power includes a close circle and periphery, he relies on the Ba'ath party, the Alawite minority and the army. These structures are carrying out forceful suppression and marginalization of the Syrian opposition, which until 2017 demonstrated the ability to consolidate against Assad (thanks to the coordinating role of American curators).

"Russia’s influence in Syria is determined not only by military victories, but mainly by the ability to force Assad and the opposition to come to an agreement and launch a peace process. Achieving a peaceful settlement of the Syrian problem means winning the final victory achieved through diplomatic means. Without a political solution, all military successes remain temporary results, which cannot be ...turned into political gains.

"The UN's role as a legal instrument of Syrian conflict resolution turned out to be unconstructive. The UN has become a platform for confrontation between Russia and the United States, and therefore the negotiation process is being conducted within the framework of other formats. Seizing the initiative in reaching consensus among the ranks of the opposition is the main task of Russian diplomacy at this stage.

"That is why in Moscow on August 31, on the eve of Lavrov’s trip to Syria, important negotiations were held between several leaders of the Syrian opposition, mediated by the Russian Foreign Minister. Information about this meeting was not published anywhere in the media and was only briefly covered on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry. However, its significance was probably more important than the subsequent Lavrov and Borisov’ visits to Syria. Obviously, the results of the meeting were important for the negotiations with Assad and subsequent decisions on constitutional reform.

Lavrov officially received a group of representatives from the Syrian opposition in Moscow - Ilham Ahmed, Co-Chairman of the Executive Council of the Council for Democratic Syria, which includes representatives of northeastern Syria and the “Front for Change and Liberation”, and Secretary of the People’s Will party, Qadri Jamil. The talks were conducted in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and were devoted to 'topical issues of a Syrian settlement on the path to comprehensive inter-Syrian agreements.'

"As a result, the Moscow Memorandum of Understanding between the Council for Democratic Syria and the People's Will Party was signed at the meeting. Under the auspices of Moscow, part of the Syrian opposition has been consolidated and common positions on the dialogue with Assad were developed.

"Russia immediately used this as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Assad. Further events unfolded swiftly and stealthily... Building on the success of August 31, on September 7 Lavrov and Borisov flew in for talks in Syria (let’s note that the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry had not been in Syria for 12 years). This means that for the first time there was a significant reason for the visit."

As a result of these preliminary steps, "on September 10, the process of working with the opposition has already moved into the practical sphere". Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met (let’s note the name [of the meeting’s format]) with the head of the “Moscow Platform” of the Syrian opposition, Qadri Jamil.  Russia thus successfully "broke Assad’s monopoly." The carrot that Russia held out to Assad was the creation of a Russian Defense Ministry company "Oboronlogistics" that is less exposed to sanctions than private Russian companies. Oboronlogistics will handle the delivery of goods to Syria and plans call for a December signing of a trade and economic cooperation agreement between Russia and Syria.

"That is why Lavrov reconciled the opposition in Moscow, after which he flew to Assad and made him an offer, which he could not refuse."[9]


Aleksander Khaldei (Source: Ruskline.ru)

 

[1] Riafan.ru, September 11

[2] Sputnik-ossetia.ru, September 11, 2020

[3] Russiancouncil.ru, September 10, 201i

[4] Iz.ru, September 13, 2020.

[5] Kommersant.ru, September 8, 2020.

[6] TheMoscowtimes.com, September 7, 2020.

[7] Tvzvezda.ru, September 3, 2020.

[8] Iz.ru, September 13, 2020.

[9] Regnum.ru, September 12, 2020.

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