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Russia’s Approach to Cross-Border Aid Delivery to Syria

Children walk through a neighbourhood in Zabadani, rural Damascus, in Syria. © UNICEF/Johnny Shahan

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Humanitarian crisis in Syria is among the most severe in the world, and there is little hope that the situation will improve given that the economic situation in the country was deteriorating over the past year. In addition to that, intensifying confrontation between Russia and the West, escalating situation in Ukraine, high oil prices and persisting global consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic present even more complicated conditions for improving the humanitarian situation in conflict zones throughout the globe, including that in Syria.

So far, the UNSC failed to pass the resolution that would extend the cross-border mechanism (CBM) of humanitarian aid delivery to Syria since the UNSC res. 2585, which was adopted a year ago on July 9, 2021, expired on July 10, 2020. Traditionally, Russia and its Western counterparts struggle to reach a compromise to suffice all stakeholders. However, despite the opposition among the permanent members of the UNSC, they have eventually been managing to come to a mutually acceptable text. In 2022, the situation has further been complicated by the growing Russia–West rift and shrinking dialog on all levels, which has not so far resulted in a compromise resolution on the CBM in Syria. Although on July 8 neither Western nor Russian draft of the resolution have been voted on, there is still a small chance that a compromise might be found.

Some context

The cross-border mechanism was established back in 2014 by UNSC resolution 2165 as a temporary measure to increase humanitarian outreach in Syria when Damascus failed to properly address humanitarian challenges, with the country gradually swallowed by radical armed groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. Originally, there were four border-crossings: al-Yarubiyah, al-Ramtha, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam. Since July 2020, there is only one official border-crossing remaining—Bab al-Hawa—which can be used by the UN and affiliated humanitarians to deliver aid to about 4 million people in need in areas controlled by armed groups (including terrorist HTS) and Turkish Armed Forces and their affiliates in the north-west and northern Syria.

Over the past years, Russia opposes the extension of the CBM, trying to make the UN and other INGOs foster their engagement with Damascus on humanitarian aid deliveries within the country across the lines. Oppositely, its opponents (including the EU and the U.S.) are insisting on the CBM to be preserved, and they are even re-opening other border-crossings unwilling to work with the Syrian government, arguing that cross-line can in no way replace the cross-border. Moscow justifies its approach by the changed reality on the ground which requires closer and increased engagement with the Syrian government. Core of these changes are:

  Damascus now controls about 65% of the country;

  More than half (some 65%, or 14 million people, as the UN suggests) of the population resides on government-controlled areas;

  The majority of people in need (about 8.1 million or 55% of the population, according to the UN) still reside in areas controlled by the Syrian government.

As a result, Moscow argues that the UN and INGOs have to engage more with the Syrian government and work within the country. Moscow believes that the CBM is now used at the expense of the cross-line.

On May 20, 2022, during a session of the UNSC, Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, stressed that implementation of the UNSC res. 2585 (2021) was stalling and that Russia saw no ground to prolong the CBM in its current form.

Situation with cross-border and cross-line aid deliveries

Although Russia welcomes all five cross-line humanitarian convoys to Idlib, which happened since July 2021, it remains skeptical and concerned about the progress on implementation of UNSC res. 2585, which envisaged an increase in cross-line deliveries of aid and more early recovery projects. Commenting on the recent UN Secretary-General report to the UNSC on humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s envoy to Syria, underlined that the UN has not done enough to meet the plan envisaged by the resolution 2585. This is why Russia sees no point in adopting a resolution no different from that of the year before.

In his report, Antonio Guterres highlighted the obvious progress with cross-line aid deliveries to the northwest of Syria, stressing at the same time that it was not enough to replace the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Such statements are perceived in Moscow with much apprehension. Since the adoption of the resolution in July 2021, only five humanitarian convoys of 70 trucks (as of June 16) went to Idlib de-escalation zone via cross-line, while 6,804 trucks went to Idlib via Bab al-Hawa border crossing since June 2021 [1]. Even if we compare this with cross-line deliveries to north-east Syria, where “the UN and humanitarian partners maintained regular and sustained humanitarian access” (according to the report), they are heavily exceeded by the deliveries through Bab al-Hawa: 1,746 trucks in 10 months of 2021 (January-October) to north-east Syria versus 2,386 trucks in 5 months (July-November) to northwest Syria. Apparently, cross-line aid deliveries do not meet cross-border by volume and frequency, and the situation has remained unchanged since the adoption of the UNSC res. 2585 on July 9, 2021. In this context, Russia cannot agree with the comments on “the obvious progress” in cross-line aid deliveries, when the situation has hardly improved.

Russia’s main concerns about CBM and prolongation of UNSC res. 2585

To wrap up all mentioned above, Russia’s main concerns about the CBM and its prolongation revolve around six main arguments.

1. There is next to none projects of early recovery and post-conflict reconstruction freed from political demands. D. Polyansky underlined this, suggesting that the West must cease its attempts to link obligations under UNSC res. 2585 to political preconditions. He also mentioned increasing violations of res. 2585 and called on the parties to stop imposing political conditions on international reconstruction efforts in Syria. Russia is concerned with the way the UN does assessment of the needs and allocates funds. It urges to focus on those who need new housing, who need to send their kids to school, to hospitals, and those who must obtain access to tap water. So far, according to the Russian diplomats, the UN has done extremely little on this track, which is why Moscow urges donors to re-consider their approaches to humanitarian assistance in Syria. Besides, it is important to underline that Russia publicly welcomed the decision of the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to amend NGO General License to expand exemptions for NGOs seeking to improve humanitarian access and early recovery activities in Syria. It happened on Dec. 20, 2021 during the UNSC session on Syria.

2. A lack of progress in organizing systematic cross-line deliveries. Only five cross-line convoys in one year. Russia believes there are no big obstacles to organize cross-line convoys if the UN and its Western donors had a genuine will. A major concern harbored by the EU/the U.S. is that a CBM closure will leave 4 million Syrians in northwestern and northern Syria residing with no access to humanitarian aid. Moscow’s key concern is that humanitarian aid must flow more through Damascus as well as to the areas controlled by the Syrian government, as they host more people in need (8.1 million out of 14.6 million).

3. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an internationally recognized terrorist organization, is still in control of Idlib. It has usurped authority, manipulating humanitarian aid that flows into the province. Russia blames the co-sponsors of res. 2585 for accepting the status quo in northwestern Syria.

4. The U.S. and the EU have imposed unilateral sanctions on Syria, which significantly hinders humanitarian aid deliveries, early recovery and post-conflict reconstruction.

5. The U.S. illegal military presence in northeastern Syria and the U.S. General License 22 (issued on May 12, 2022) exempting northeastern and northwestern areas, which are not under the government control, from U.S. sanctions – all of this precludes an effective restoration of economic ties in Syria as well as the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

6. The UN remote monitoring mechanism is uncapable of tracking the distribution of humanitarian aid inside the province of Idlib. According to Dmitry Polyanskiy, Moscow has no doubts that the UN monitoring mission has control over the shipping of humanitarian convoys until the border with Syria. However, Russia’s main concern is about Idlib, “which is filled with HTS terrorists who largely dominate and control all spheres of civilian life.” The main question Moscow asks is how the UN can ensure an unbiased and independent distribution of aid in such conditions. According to Polyanskiy, it is exactly because of the militants that the aid delivered via cross-line from Aleppo to Sarmada in August 2021 was first distributed only on December 16. This is why the assertions about the UN having an effective remote-control monitoring mechanism in Idlib are absolutely tenuous in Moscow’s eyes.

Looking into the future

Considering a huge lack of trust between Russia and the West, a special verification mechanism can be established to ensure the implementation of obligations taken by the parties. For example, if Russia agrees to renew the CBM as the EU/the U.S. agree to boost UN aid flow through Damascus, the parties can verify whether all obligations are met on a quarterly basis. If the EU fails to increase its humanitarian aid flow via Damascus, Moscow will have the right to revoke its decision to prolong the CBM to Idlib or not to prolong it for the next period. Such verification mechanism could motivate both sides to deliver aid, helping them to build the initial level of trust.

Together with that, there is another important mutual concern, which is the absence of transparent monitoring mechanism of aid delivery. Neither the EU/the U.S. nor Russia/Damascus trust that the aid coming through their channels ends up in the right hands. For this matter, the parties could consider setting up a new joint monitoring mechanism which could verify transparency of UN humanitarian aid delivery.

What could be behind the bargain?

An extension of the CBM is seen by Moscow as a bargaining chip, which can serve its goals. Last year, it appeared that Russia and the U.S. struck a deal envisaging a resumption of the Arab gas pipeline as well as gas and electricity deliveries to Lebanon via Syria. It benefits Damascus and it is seen as a concession on the part of the U.S. By the same token, Moscow will try to get something in exchange for a CBM prolongation, although this looks less likely in the current circumstances. What can it potentially be?

  • On Apr. 23 2022, Turkey closed its sky for Russia’s military and civilian aircraft heading for Syria. It did not seriously affect Moscow’s ability to deliver staff and equipment to Syria but Russia might seek to get things back to normal;
  • Moscow might seek the U.S. to turn a blind eye on Damascus re-establishing economic and business ties with the northeastern Syria exempted from the U.S. sanctions;
  • Russia is always pushing for the lift of unilateral sanctions on Syria;
  • Moscow might be interested in establishing a similar mechanism for Ukraine – delivering UN humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine from Russia. Given the humanitarian needs there, Russia may be open to such an “exchange of CBMs”.

That said, neither Russia nor its opponents will realistically benefit from vetoing an extension of UNSC res. 2585. If the West decides to go along with an alternative way to deliver humanitarian aid cross-border, thereby bypassing the UN authorization, it will take quite a time to make it, causing further difficulties during the implementation. Moscow will lose its leverage while humanitarian aid will continue to flow to Idlib, if on a lower scale, via different mechanisms. Therefore, both parties should be interested in striking a compromise.

On July 8, neither draft of a new resolution passed a vote, with the core difference between the two being the mechanism that prolongs the CBM. The Western draft insisted on a mechanism identical to that of the res. 2585 with an automatic prolongation of the resolution for additional six months once the first six months are over. Alternatively, the Russian text suggested a prolongation of the CBM for six months only, requiring a new UNSC resolution to prolong it for another six months in January 2023 until July 2023. Russia’s unwillingness to vote for almost the same resolution as last year could be explained by the fact that little has actually been implemented since last July. Therefore, Moscow wants to modify the resolution in a way to boost its implementation on the most important issues: establishing of stable, working and increasing cross-line aid deliveries together with more early recovery projects. In other words, Russia wants to see real progress in implementation of the resolution.

Previous experience demonstrates that compromise could always be reached but the current global environment and a lack of implementation of the res. 2585 makes Russia less flexible. At the same time, Moscow leaves the door open, suggesting that it is ready to discuss its draft of the resolution if it is going to be put on the table again.

[1] Data is taken from the UN General Secretary’s reports to the UNSC: 14 convoys (1476 trucks) in June-July 2021, 13 convoys (470 trucks) in Aug-Sept, and 21 convoys (1,900 trucks) in Oct-Nov. 2021, 13 convoys of 1,272 trucks in Feb.-March 2022, and 20 convoys of 1,686 trucks in April-May 2022.

From our partner RIAC

Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.

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Winter sports in Saudi Arabia? An unproven concept except for the surveillance aspect

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Temperatures in north-western Saudi Arabia, on average, seldom, if ever, drop below eight degrees Celsius except in the 2,400-metre high Sarawat mountains, where snow falls at best occasionally. However, that hasn’t prevented Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from envisioning Saudi Arabia as competing for winter sports tourism.

The kingdom would do so by including winter sports in Mr. Bin Salman’s US$500 billion Neom fantasia, a futuristic new city and tourism destination along the Red Sea in a mostly unpopulated part of the kingdom.

In the latest mind-boggling Neom-related announcement, Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee said it was bidding to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in the city, essentially still a project on paper that has a science-fiction feel to it in a country that has no winter sports facilities and whose plans so far envisioned only ones that would be indoors.

The games would be held at Trojena, a yet-to-be-built resort on mountain peaks overlooking Neom slated to be home to 7,000 people by 2026 and annually attract 700,000 visitors. Trojena would be the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort.

Powered by renewable energy, Trojena expects to create an outdoor ski slope by blasting artificial snow at the mountains.

Plans for the resort also include a ski village, luxurious family and wellness facilities, the region’s largest freshwater lake, and an interactive nature reserve. Trojena would also feature a yoga retreat and an art and entertainment residency.

Executive director Philip Gullett predicts that Trojena will offer a “seamless travel experience” in which “we are looking into delivering luggage via drones, using biometrics to fulfill security requirements, and allowing interested parties to explore the site first using the latest virtual reality.”

In Mr. Gullet’s anticipation, visitors will be able to scuba dive, ski, and hike or climb, all on the same day.

At least 32 Asian nations compete in the Asian games that include alpine skiing, ice hockey, biathlon, cross-country skiing, and figure skating competitions.

To be fair, Saudi Arabia sent its first winter Olympics team to the Beijing games in February, where Fayik Abdi ranked number 44 in the men’s giant slalom.

The winter sports bid is part of a big-splash Saudi effort to establish itself as the Gulf’s foremost player in international sports, a position so far occupied by Qatar with its hosting of this year’s World Cup and the United Arab Emirates that, like Qatar, owns one of the world’s top European soccer clubs.

Saudi Arabia recently bought English Premier League club Newcastle United and sparked controversy by attracting with vast sums of money some of the world’s top golf players to compete in a new tournament that kicked off in one of former US President Donald J. Trump’s resorts.

Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a US$700 to 800 million offer to join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series. However, others, including Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau, have jumped on the Saudi bandwagon.

Saudi Arabia has also signed a 10-year, $650m deal for a Formula One motor racing event, partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment for annual shows, and hosted the world heavyweight championship rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.

Less than a year after signing with Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, soccer superstar Lionel Messi has emerged as the tourism ambassador for the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Families of activists and dissidents imprisoned in Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to persuade Mr. Messi not to engage with the kingdom. “If you say ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi, you are in effect saying yes to all the human rights abuses that take place today in modern Saudi Arabia,” they said in a letter to the player.

A Saudi national and former Twitter employee is currently on trial in the United States for spying for the kingdom on Saudi users of the social media platform.

Areej Al-Sadhan said the information potentially provided by the former employee may have led to the arrest of her brother Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan because of his satiric social media posts. Mr. Al-Sadhan was tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Saudi officials killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 in what the kingdom has said was an unauthorized rogue operation. However, others, including US intelligence, assert that it was anything but.

Adding to Neom’s futurism, Saudi sources said last month that the city, funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, would be home to the world’s largest buildings, twin 500-metre-tall skyscrapers dubbed The Line that would stretch horizontally for dozens of miles.

By 2030, Mr. Bin Salman expects some 1.5 million people to live in the skyscrapers.

Everything about Neom…seems fantastical. From flying elevators to 100-mile long skyscrapers to a floating, zero-carbon port, it seems to owe more to Coruscant and Wakanda than to any urban forms outside of science fiction,” said Bloomberg columnist David Fickling, referring to Star Wars’ city-covered planet and Fantastic Four’s fictional country in East Africa.

In Mr. Bin Salman’s mind, Neom – derived from the Latin word neo for new and the first letter of the Arabic word for future, Mustaqbal, and built with advanced smart city technologies — will likely not only be an example of artificial intelligence increasing life’s conveniences but also the creation of the perfect surveillance state.

Speaking to Bloomberg in 2017, Mr. Bin Salman envisioned residents and visitors managing their lives with just one app. Neom, Mr. Bin Salman said the city would have no supermarkets because everything would be delivered.

“Everything will have a link to artificial intelligence, to the Internet of Things – everything. Your medical file will be connected with your home supply, with your car, linked to your family, linked to your other files, and the system develops itself in how to provide you with better things,” Mr. Bin Salman envisioned.

“Today all the clouds available are separate – the car is by itself, the Apple watch is by itself, everything is by itself. There, everything will be connected. So, nobody can live in Neom without the Neom application we’ll have – or visit Neom,” he added.

Mr. Bin Salman’s vision of Saudi Arabia as the world’s latest top-of-the-line winter sports destination attracts headlines but has yet to be proven as a concept. That is true for much of the futurism embedded in plans for Neom except for the surveillance state – that is already a reality in various parts of the world.

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How Russia’s Policy in the Middle East and North Africa is Changing After February 24

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Image source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia

U.S. President Joe Biden has now visited the Middle East, and this week, President of Russia Vladimir Putin also pays a visit to Iran, where he is expected to hold trilateral meetings with President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Syria’s Astana process.

On February 24, 2022, the Russia–Ukraine military conflict began. Five months into it, the world has undergone global changes. Under the new conditions, Russia’s foreign policy in regions of the country’s strategic interest is changing as much. Among such regions are the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which are traditionally in the focus of the Kremlin’s attention. Arab countries have taken an intermediate position in responding to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Some of them supported the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia. However, unlike the U.S. and countries of the EU, the Arab world did not impose sanctions of their own. There are some difficulties on trade, but this is due to the desire of the Arab states to reduce the sanctions risks.

In recent years, the claim that the United States is leaving the Middle East has been popular in expert and academic circles. Some of them even spoke of Russia filling the emerging vacuum. However, the likelihood has now increased that Moscow’s activity in the MENA region will also significantly decrease. Nowadays, almost all the attention of Russia, and of the whole world, is focused on Ukraine. Some countries have already managed to use this to realize their own ambitions. In particular, Turkey announced the start of new military operation in Syria. Although Moscow has asked Ankara to abandon the operation, this is unlikely to influence the decision of President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It seems to me that, at least in the coming months, and possibly years, we can expect a sharp decline in Russia’s efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The involvement of the Kremlin in Libyan affairs will also decrease. Moscow may not have the resources to defend its interests in Libya by military-political means in the event of another possible escalation.

Big changes await Russia’s economic cooperation with the Arab countries. On the one hand, due to problems with logistics and sanctions, cooperation may be difficult. On the other hand, Russia is reorienting its economy towards the East, which could have a positive effect on economic cooperation with the Arab East. The most interesting thing is how the food supply situation will develop. Arab countries are highly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain exports. That is why the conflict between these countries has such a strong impact on the MENA region. This will have an impact on how Russian-Arab relations will change in the future.

There is some contradiction. On the one hand, dependence on Russian and Ukrainian food exports continues to persist. On the other hand, in the short term, the conflict creates the prerequisites for a reorientation to other markets—in particular, to buy grain from India. However, it should be taken into account that India, like other major food exporters, may not have enough resources to cover the needs of the Arab states quickly.

Moscow’s influence may be reduced in matters related to military-technical cooperation with the countries of the MENA region. Previously, the United States reacted quite sharply if someone bought Russian weapons. Among the most striking examples are the deal between Russia and Turkey for the purchase of S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems or the agreement with Egypt for the purchase of Su-25 aircraft. Washington opposed such purchases and responded with a threat of sanctions in order to force the countries of the Middle East to abandon Russian weapons. After February 24, the reaction to such purchases will be much stronger, and this may expand from traditional U.S. partners in the region to a wider range of states. Sanction risks are highly likely to lower the level of military-technical cooperation between Russia and the MENA countries.

Of course, the Arab countries take into account the risks of sanctions in economic matters, which can negatively affect trade as well as investment cooperation with Russia. At the same time, Russia and the MENA countries have a number of large long-term infrastructure and industrial projects. There are many projects in oil and gas, as well as in nuclear energy. Let’s pay attention to the position of Saudi Arabia. It shows that Riyadh values cooperation with Russia under the OPEC+ deal. It did not increase oil production despite requests from Washington.

Some political cooperation will continue. This is especially evident in the example of the Arab countries of the Gulf. Not so long ago, the 5th Ministerial Meeting for Strategic Dialogue between GCC and Russia took place. The meeting discussed the situation in Yemen and Libya. In addition, the participants considered issues of further elaboration of Russian proposals for the creation of a collective security system in the Gulf zone. Thus, Russia’s political influence in the region still remains, and it is possible that Moscow will be involved in a number of political projects. However, in my opinion, in the long term, this influence will be reduced gradually. The main question now is how much Russia will be considered a security provider after February 24.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia and Iran in Syria: A Competitive Partnership?

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Authors: Igor Matveev and Yeghia Tashjian*

Russia’s ongoing special military operation in Ukraine has sparked broad and intensive debates about future modalities of the relations between Russia and Iran in Syria. Western and Israeli analysts predict an essential growth of the political, military, and economic presence of Tehran due to Moscow’s attention switching from Syria to Ukraine. This, in turn, may re-shift the whole dynamics of the Russian-Iranian relations on the Syrian dossier.

On the contrary, despite reports of minor pullouts from Syria along with international media leaks about transfers of military sites to Iran and Hizbollah, Russian representatives consistently reject such forecasts, referring to a “routine rotation” but “absolutely not a withdrawal” of the Russian troops. Those speculations have intensified on the eve of the next tripartite meeting of the Iranian, Russian, and Turkish leaders on Syria scheduled for July 19, 2022, in the Iranian capital.

There are also grave concerns among experts that the Ukrainian crisis might create a political-military vacuum in Syria doomed to be filled by the Iranians. Otherwise, any unilateral Russian withdrawal could have had harrowing consequences similar to America’s pullout from Iraq. This could provoke an Iraqi scenario with the nightmares of a sectarian war, terrorist militias, massive killings, and further outflows of refugees and IDPs placing Syria on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Under such risky circumstances, at least two main options emerge. Either Russia will no longer constrain the expansion of the Iranian military influence and Tehran’s major role in Syria’s post-conflict economic reconstruction as long as Moscow’s strategic interests in maintaining control over the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartus are observed, or Russia may try to coordinate more closely with Turkey in the north and Israel in the south to contain the Iranian expansion.

In the past, Russia’s leading role has been limiting the scope of Iran’s activities in Syria altogether with the “balanced” partnership with Israel and the “co-opetitative” relation with Turkey, thus preventing a major war in Syria. The Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015 was a turning point as it provided decisive air power to the Syrian and Iranian-backed ground forces, solidifying the state’s hold on power and expanding its territorial control through concomitant diplomatic efforts.

Throughout the Syrian war, regularized military and political exchanges have served to strengthen the Russia-Iran relationship. With the changing military dynamics in Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey spearheaded the Astana Process as a parallel track to the UN mediation. Moscow’s diplomatic and military gains on the ground have also embroiled them in a broader regional geopolitical competition between the United States, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran.

However, since the very beginning, the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria has faced both achievements and challenges amidst Iran’s steps mostly driven by ideology as compared to Russia’s actions motivated by pragmatism, even though both Moscow and Tehran endorsed President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against the Islamists. During the course of the war, Moscow did its best to avoid a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria, as Israeli jets bombed Iranian military cities in Syria. Based on agreements with Washington and Israel, Moscow made attempts to prevent Tehran from reaching the Israeli border near Daraa and Al-Quneitra and tried to limit Iranian expansion in Eastern Syria near the borders with Iraq between the cities of Al-Mayadin and Abu Kamal, where the Russian side was concerned of the risk of clashes between pro-Iran militias and U.S. military stationed on the other side of the Euphrates. Moreover, while Iran was having tense relations with the monarchies of the Arab Gulf, Russia managed to establish closer ties with them, pushing for Syria’s reintegration into the Arab world. Thus, the Qatar-Russia-Turkey diplomatic “triangle” aimed at generating assistance for Syria’s peace process and post-conflict reconstruction was inaugurated during a working visit paid by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Doha in March 2021.

For good reason, experts pay attention to different, if not opposite, approaches of Russia and Iran toward restoring sovereignty of the Syrian state. While Moscow has always been insisting on ensuring the state’s integrity and workable apparatus with exclusive prerogatives for violence and arms control under Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, people close to Iran’s Supreme Leader advocate a parallel system of security run by non-government actors (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxies) with numerous fragmented territories under Iran’s control.

Remarkably, Moscow still has the upper hand in developing friendly contacts in the local security community sharing the goal of institutional centralization with Damascus, which serves the interests of the Syrian government. Many observers rationally linked this imperative with a deep reshuffling of Syria’s special services in July 2019 whereas the National Security Bureau and four of Syria’s intelligence directorates placed under a new leadership. Unsurprisingly, all the five individuals promoted—Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun along with Generals Ghassan Ismail, Hossam Louka, Nasser Deeb, and Nasser al-Ali—enjoyed close relations with Russia while having no—at least, public—affiliation with Iran.

It is clear that both Russia and Iran have long-term goals in Syria. Almost any Iranian project here is linked not just to the duration of the conflict but rather to the consolidation of Tehran’s potential of deterring the Israeli influence in the Eastern Mediterranean (Levant). Reports indicate that convoys of the IRGC and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units often enter the Syrian territory through the city of Abu Kamal heading for the eastern Deir Ezzor province and the northeastern Al-Hasakah province. Hence, Tehran wants to secure its positions in Syria, even after President al-Assad leaves or if Russia suddenly changes its policy toward Syria.

Taking into consideration all mentioned above without questioning a certain impact produced by the Ukrainian crisis on the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, a better understanding of the existing contradictory assessments mandates a complex approach. Therefore, the future of the Russia-Iran tandem in Syria should be analyzed by reviewing other important factors on global and regional levels. Among them:

-a high degree of military escalation between Russia and the U.S. American experts have already mentioned Syria as a casus belli between the two nuclear powers;

-detente between Tehran and Washington which depends on a compromise on the Iranian nuclear program and meeting Israel’s security concerns. On the one hand, heavy bargaining is still in place, heated by President Biden’s recent threats of force (this could be recognized as “a stick”). On the other hand, any U.S.-Iran reconciliation meaning a lift of anti-Iranian sanctions (“a carrot”) could envisage Iran’s certain reluctance in terms of boosting economic cooperation with Russia in general and in Syria in particular;

-critical dialogue between Russia and Israel. If the latter extends its support for Kiev, Moscow will apparently become less tolerant of Israeli raids in Syria (for instance, using modern S-300 SAMs for counterattacks). At the same time, Russia could become more supportive of the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces (the IRGC, Hizbollah, and even proxy militias) across the country including Southern, Eastern, and Northeastern Syria, as well as in the northern Aleppo province;

-all three relationships seem to stay interconnected in the foreseeable future. Specific scenarios in Syria will depend on whether Russia and the Western powers agree to put a prompt end to the Ukrainian crisis on conditions acceptable to Moscow. In such a case, Russia will most likely try to keep the status quo in its relations with both Iran and Israel. Otherwise, Russia’s strained relations with Israel could be accompanied by a broader, although still selective, coordination with Iran. For Tehran, it is bargaining with the West, especially the U.S., and not the Ukrainian crisis, which de-facto – despite hostile anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric – has been producing a significant impact on the “rules of behavior” in the whole area recognized by the Iranian leadership as the “Shia Crescent” zone. (Building a strategic land corridor through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and using the port of Lattakia for transporting weapons, militants, and goods). The same factor will influence Iran’s pragmatic approaches toward Russia.

Yet, military rapprochement between Russia and Iran is unlikely to constitute a complete convergence of their attitudes towards the political reconstruction of Syria. This is why recent speculations of Iranian experts about the current growth of Tehran’s influence limited to the political sphere as well as about Russia delegating to Iran some of the security functions in Syria during the Ukrainian crisis look quite disputable.

It is also worth mentioning that rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran, if a relevant arrangement is reached at the July 19 summit, could definitely enhance the Russian-Iranian pragmatic economic cooperation in Syria, including the realization of large-scale common projects (like constructing a railway from the Syrian coast to Iraq through the parts of Eastern Syria controlled by the Iranians). However, this will not lead to a complete disappearance of economic competition: Moscow still seeks exclusive access to Syria’s mineral resources (phosphates, oil, and gas) while the Iranians do not intend to cease efforts to ensure their own long-time economic presence as a tool serving Tehran’s strategic interests under the slogan of the anti-US and anti-Israeli “axis of resistance.” Besides, Moscow will hardly refrain from proposing the so-called Russian “security matrix” (use of the Russian military police in combination with the accumulated experiences of facilitating local reconciliations – musalahat in Arabic) as a security “umbrella” for carrying out economic projects by third countries, for instance, from the Arab Gulf (within a policy of “re-opening Syria” by Arab investors – al-infitah in Arabic). Some of those projects could contradict Iranian interests.

On the other hand, the Iranians themselves could follow Russia in conducting pragmatic and balanced diplomacy on the Arab Gulf track producing a certain impact on the Russia-Iran tandem in Syria. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Mohsen Shariatinia, an assistant professor of international relations at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, said that Iran is deploying geo-economics as means of soft power hence, to maintain its position in the fragile balance of power in the region, and to intertwine its economy with those of its surrounding environment. Besides, pro-Iranian militias and Kurdish fighters were reported to establish a joint operations room, named “North Thunderbolt” located at a Russian base in the village of Hardatnin in the northern countryside of Aleppo. It aims to coordinate and secure lines of withdrawal and supplies for the YPG troops in case of a Turkish invasion. This correlates policies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE aimed at counterbalancing Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” expansionism in Northern Syria.

In a nutshell, diverging views of Russia and Iran related to Syria are unlikely to cause a true breakdown of their tactical partnership which could be named a “marriage of convenience” or a “competitive partnership.” According to Nicole Grajewski, an international security fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, “just as Russia and Iran have managed to resolve tactical disagreements between local proxy forces in the military campaign through bureaucratic and military channels, Moscow and Tehran will likely delimit spheres of interests within Syria as both seek to reap the political and economic benefits of close linkage to Damascus.” Therefore, Russia’s relationship with Iran demonstrates Moscow’s ability to compartmentalize its foreign policy by concentrating on areas of cooperation to mitigate tensions elsewhere in the relationship. This strategy adopted by Moscow is similar to the “co-opetitative” relationship between Russia and Turkey. Therefore, it is misguided to overstate disagreements between Russia and Iran in Syria as indications of a deteriorating partnership. Competition in this particular case doesn’t mean a clash or the start of hostilities.

*Yeghia Tashjian, MA in Public Policy and International Affairs from the American University of Beirut (AUB). Associate Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB; Middle East-South Caucasus expert in the European Geopolitical Forum

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