Can Russia play a constructive role in Syria?

While Syria was not the top priority during the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva last week, Syria remains an unavoidable challenge for both the United States and Russia, and the Middle East nation will come up again in substantive ways in follow-on American-Russian talks.

For its part, Russia’sinterest in Syria and the broaderMiddle East and North Africa (MENA)dates back to the times of Imperial Russia. The Russian attraction with the MENA region did not waiver during the Kremlin’s foray into Communism or duringthe post-Soviet period dominated by President Vladimir Putin.  Russia’sinterest has remained intact over many generations, during various conflicts in the region. The Syrian uprising, which is now a decade old, set the stage for Russia toprove itself once again as a superpower on the global stage.

Syria hasprovenimportant to Russia for several reasons. Firstly, Russia took control of Tartus, a Syrian port on the eastern Mediterranean coast line, which now serves as a Russian naval base.  The base has expanded the potential reach of the Russian fleet. Russian forces also took control of the Humaymem airport,where theirforces deployed a radar station and advanced missiles. This airport serves as the command center for Russian forces in Syria. These strategic points of access, in the water and in the air,have placed Russia squarely in control of potential gas and oil routes coming from the East, whichhas hadthe potential of providing an alternative to Russian oil and gas sold primarily to European markets. 

Syria also provides Russia a narrative attractive to some in the West as a nation fighting Islamic terrorism despitepropping up Bashar Assad’sgovernment, which the West has sought to sideline.   Assad’s “war on terrorism” is the Russian government’s favorite storyline in supporting the Syrian president, but the fact is that Bashar’s father, Hafez,came to power bymilitary coup, and he maintained hisdictatorshipwith an iron fist, the likes of which the world hadn’tencountered since Nazi Germany.

Russia also sees Syria as a theater for the world to see it as a military power that cannot be defeated, notwithstanding its denials of war crimes in the country.  In some instances, Syriaitself serves as a real life military exercise for Russian forces. In fact, Russia has relentlessly bombed hospitals and other civilian targets across Syria in order to prove that its weapons systems are effective.  Earlier this year, Russia unintentionally admitted that it bombed a hospital near Aleppo amid a dispute with Armenia, which claimed that Russian-made weapons it purchased in its war with Azerbaijan were ineffective. Russia’s military engagement in Syria hasincreased its global weapons sales, an important source of revenue for the Russian state. 

Russia now controlspiles of rubble inwar-torn Syria with hardly anyresources to rebuild the country it so willingly helped destroy. The Kremlin intentionally chose to keepthe Syrian regime alive, leaving almost no onein the international communitywilling to engage in dialogue with the Syrian regime.  Although Russia seemingly achievedsome goals in Syria, the real benefactor of the current situation in Syriais Iran.  Indeed, Iranian militia in Syria are the ones that controlSyrianterritory while President Assad himself is protected by Russia.  A true manifestation of a super-power is the ability to help rebuild a worn-torn country and bring a nation back to the community of nations. 

Russian military engagement and diplomacyhave not secured their sought-after goals in managing the conflict in Syria.  Agreements with nations engaged in Syria have been struck by Russia, but these nations have conflicting interests in Syria. Russiahas tried multiple times to break the cycle of failure in rehabilitating the Syrian regime and provide it the resources it needs to rebuild the country. The lack of support from the United States and her allies has made the Russian task nearly impossible. 

President Biden recently said that he continues to have trouble with President Assad because the latter violated the Chemical Weapons Convention.  The Syrian president cannot be trusted, Biden made clear.  On the other hand, the conflict in Syria also presents both the US and Russia an opportunity to pursue mutually beneficial goals.  For Russia, it is about rebuilding Syria. For the United States, it spells humanitarian assistance and stabilization in Syria.

Where do we go from here? 

An incremental approach by the two powers indeveloping a working relationship that benefits Syria is timely, and the US and Russia should cease it.  Bilateral cooperation in Syria can accomplish a number of mutually beneficial goals: 

  • Sideline Iranian-backed militia and the Iranian Revolutionary GuardCorps (IRGC) and force them both out of Syria;
  • Coordinate with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS to ensure all remaining ISIS pockets are eliminated;
  • Engage and empower local Syrian communities and help in the development of civil society across the country,
  • Open new humanitarian corridors forSyrian refugees and internally displaced persons that help millions in need and provide them the opportunity to return to their homes;
  • Release of political detainees held by the Assad regime;
  • Guarantee the safety of peaceful Syriansassembly and demonstration;
  • Commitment from the Assad regime to stop targeting civilians and bombing hospitals, schools and refugee camps;
  • Resumption of Syria’s educational system by safely re-opening all schools across the country with the support of the international community;
  • Initiate programs to rehabilitate Syria’s youth and young people and support their return to a level of normalcy in education and professional life;
  • Initiate military reform that precludes ethnic or religious over-representation; and
  • Revive the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Taken together, American-Russian cooperation will begin to facilitate a Syrianrebirth and provide the war-torn nationsome breathing room in the months ahead. 

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