Russia Won’t Forsake Assad—And We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

It should not have surprised anyone when Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disappointed his counterpart Rex Tillerson by insisting on standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has unhesitatingly thrown its weight behind Assad since the start of the Syrian conflict, allocating massive resources to guarantee the Assad regime’s victory. But despite Russia’s publicly declared position, both the Obama administration and its successor have clung to the belief that Russia could give up on Assad—against all evidence to the contrary.

Russia knows that Assad is a difficult person to work with. It has therefore invested in its own military and non-military presence in Syria, expanding and modernizing its Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province to ensure the base’s independence and freedom of action in Syria, under a contract signed with the Syrian government on August 26, 2015.

Russia is using the base to impose itself as the central decision-maker in Syria and to control or at least rein in the regime. For example, Moscow ordered a restructuring of regime forces, aid distribution, coordination and even a revamp of the domestic opposition. Russia also sometimes uses the Hmeimim base as a Russian-Syrian media center. The Syrian army’s chief of staff, General Abdullah Ayoub, on October 8, 2015 used the base to announce the formation of the army’s new Fourth Corps and, a year later, the Fifth Corps, which Russia is using to ease the regime’s dependence on Iranian-backed pro-Assad militias. The Fifth Corps was formed to start rebuilding the Syrian army, which had effectively collapsed, and to increase Russia’s military decision-making clout on the ground in Syria. The base has also issued daily reports on the website of the Russian defense ministry and has a Facebook page that publishes Russian propaganda in Arabic aimed at pro-Assad Syrians.

On February 23, 2016, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov announced the establishment of a reconciliation center to promote peacemaking between warring parties in Syria. “Under the Russian-American Syria agreement of February 22, 2016 to implement a ceasefire and a truce-monitoring mechanism, a coordination center was opened in Russia’s Hmeimim base for reconciliation between warring parties in the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said. Major-General Konashenkov said the center would “take part in negotiations to promote reconciliation between the Syrian authorities and opposition factions, with the exception of terrorist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), to bring about ceasefire agreements and guarantee the delivery of aid.”

Syrian official and pro-regime media, as well as the Russian Defense Ministry’s Arabic language website, have begun publishing daily updates on the work of the center in negotiating truce and “national reconciliation” deals and news on humanitarian aid deliveries by Russian forces in areas that these reconciliation deals cover.

The presence of the center, despite Russia’s air campaign, its statements of support for Assad, and its defense of the regime at the United Nations, raised American hopes that Russia was willing to negotiate and that its aims differed from those of Bashar al-Assad. 

But the center has worked hand-in-glove with the Russian-Syrian military campaign. The areas covered by the “National Reconciliation” project have faced a scorched-earth policy or been placed under total siege and starved until the regime can claim a “victory over terrorism.” The center publishes daily news on reconciliation deals and the names of dozens of towns and villages where such deals have taken place, under the supervision of the Hmeimim center.

One example was the news that Russian forces played a role in solving the issue of Qudsayya and al-Haameh, villages in the Damascus countryside. Members of a rebel negotiating committee visited a hotel in Damascus (Dama Rose) to meet a Russian official responsible for the area, only to find that the Russian officials knew nothing about the area they were discussing. But after the meeting, there was a change in the responses of the Syrian regime (represented by Qays Farwa, an officer in the Republican Guard) towards the negotiations. Events accelerated and many changes were made to the original deal. Before the delegation’s meeting with the Russian officer, talks focused on the withdrawal of rebel fighters from Qudsayya to the Barzeh area of Damascus, an area that was in a long-running truce with the regime. Just twenty-three fighters were on the original list, but after the meeting, those leaving were forced to head for Idlib and the list extended to some 135 fighters and their families.

Wadi Barada has a similar story. Russian military operations intensified in the area during a ceasefire imposed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran ahead of the Astana talks. The Russians effectively vetoed the ceasefire deal with air strikes on Wadi Barada, especially Ayn al-Fija. Russian General Gennadi Rigov, the head of the Reconciliation Center for the southern region, oversaw the talks between the rebels and the regime in December and January. He had harsh words, saying the area’s residents must reconcile with the regime and raise the Syrian flag in the area or it would be turned to ruins. Rigov’s threats were not idle talk. Russian planes, according to local sources, had been intensely bombarding the areas of Ayn al-Fija and Busaymeh. The offensive on Wadi Barada ended with a deal to halt the fighting with a withdrawal of rebels to Idlib. Whoever did not agree to the “reconciliation,” were also forced to head to Idlib. The regime ripped up several deals immediately after they took effect, on Farwa’s orders and in Rigov’s presence, so that harsher ones could be implemented.

Russian reconciliations have a regional political role. One example is the reconciliation deal between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and regime forces, covering areas of the northern Aleppo countryside, signed under Russian auspices. The negotiations took place in the Hmeimim base. The deal provided for all forces in the area to operate under a single flag, the regime’s, and be coordinated by an operations room commanded by the Syrian regime, in order to fight extremist groups with Russian support. The goal was clearly to block the advance of Turkey-backed Operation Euphrates Shield forces. Russia thus halted an enemy of the regime and strengthened its relations with the Kurds.

The so-called reconciliation office in Hmeimim is essentially an extension of the Russian military, used to build popular support for Russia in parts of Syria and with the international community to paint the Russian forces as doing more than propping up a dictator.

Some political figures still claim that saving the Assad regime is simply a pretext for a wider Russian strategy, and therefore Assad is disposable to Russia. If that were the case, what will the Americans use—whether carrots or sticks—to “peel” Russia away from Assad? So far, Russia has obtained everything it wanted, from strengthening its clout in the region to embarrassing the United States and undermining it in the region. It has everything to gain from staying course, and nothing to lose from doing so.

Youssef Sadaki is a research assistant at the Orient Research Center. He previously worked in international and Syrian development organizations in Syria and southern Turkey.

Image: Photo: Syrians that evacuated eastern Aleppo, reach out for Russian food aid in government-controlled Jibreen area in Aleppo, Syria November 30, 2016. The text on the bag reads in Arabic: "Russia is with you." And shows the Syrian national flag and the Russian national flag. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki