Ksenia Svetlova, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel and former member of the Israeli Knesset, spoke with Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on May 20 about Russia’s interests in Syria.
Svetlova began by dispelling widespread speculation among outside observers that Russia wants to get rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime it has propped up through direct military intervention since 2015. This speculation was sparked last month by a series of reports in a Russian media outlet owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch “very close” to President Vladimir Putin, saying that Moscow was considering alternatives, one of which cited a public opinion survey saying only 32 percent of Syrians would vote for Assad in the 2021 presidential elections.
Svetlova dismissed both the idea that a serious opinion survey could be conducted in Syria and the suggestion that there are democratic elections. The reports were likely published to pressure Assad, as the rampant corruption in his regime makes it impossible to attract outside investment needed to rebuild the country (and from which Prigozhin and others hope to profit). Prigozhin, whose privately-owned Wagner Group deploys mercenaries to fight alongside the regime (for which he has been rewarded with contracts to exploit oil and gas fields) and other Russian oligarchs who hold contracts in other sectors of Syria are immensely frustrated with “the kleptocratic regime that is in power.” But the Russians understand that “there is no substitute” for Assad, not least because he formally invited their intervention. “They understand very well who he is, and they might despise him, but for now, Assad is staying.”
Aside from the Assad family, Russia must juggle relationships with the Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, Israelis, and Americans, all of whom have “conflicting interests in Syria.” Until now, Moscow has been “extremely successful in having good relations with all the parties that are involved in the Syrian conflict,” but Russia’s problems with Turkey began mounting in 2019 over the issue of Idlib province in northeastern Syria, the only area of the country still held by Sunni Arab insurgents. Around three million Syrian civilians live there under Turkey’s protection. Already incurring huge costs harboring 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey won’t acquiesce to the Assad regime’s bid to regain control of the province. Although the fighting has waned recently, the complicated stalemate won’t be easily resolved.
The situation of Syrian Kurds presents a “win for Russia,” as they have become dependent on Moscow for protection against both Turkey and the Assad regime following the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from northeast Syria last year.
Svetlova characterized Moscow’s dealings with Iran as a “masterpiece of diplomacy” in playing a double game. On the one hand, Iran’s heavy involvement in Syria has limited the need for and risk to Russian troops on the ground in Syria. The Russians have been “using the Iranians to fight the battles … [so] it’s not a very expensive expedition for them.”
On the other hand, Iran is competing with Russia for economic, political, and strategic influence in Syria as the war winds down. Moscow’s tacit encouragement of Israel’s air campaign against Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria aids its effort to contain Iran’s presence and stabilize the war-torn country. Paradoxically, Russia sold, delivered, and deployed S-300 missiles to the Syrians, but has exercised control over their operation and has not allowed them to be launched against Israeli aircraft, greatly angering Tehran.
While Israel and Russia engage in “de-confliction, … it’s not cooperation. Israel has one strategic partner in the world, and [it] is the United States,” said Svetlova. Israeli air strikes serve Moscow’s purposes up to a point, but Russia doesn’t share Israel’s goal of pushing the Iranians entirely out of Syria:
The Russians do not need the Iranians as much as they used to … [but] they still are not willing to actively do anything to ban them from Syria. They cannot really uproot them from Syria, it’s impossible. Iran is too deeply rooted in Syrian soil.
Nevertheless, “Russia is the dominant power in Syria, and it will remain there.” The Russians have “chartered the Tartus seaport for the next 49 years” and “invested … half a billion dollars” building it up to fulfill their historical dream of having “their own Mediterranean fleet … [with] proximity to [NATO] members and to everything that is going on in Europe.”
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.