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Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

As we recount the many tales of woe from the Arab Spring, we are left with a disheartening sense of defeat. As we know, the Arab Spring has failed to deliver on the aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It seems as though those painful, deadly events took place a long time ago, when in reality, a mere decade has passed since the uprisings took the capitals of the region by storm, causing irrecoverable devastation and bloodshed. Many of us are left wondering, was our region still not ready for the Arab spring or was it already too late? Would it be accurate to assume that our region will always be resistant to change? What I know for certain is that, during the Arab Spring, we have seen the international community eagerly inciting and spurring on the rebels, without providing any real political, legal, or humanitarian support when it was needed.

In truth, we can blame many of our misfortunes on the Arab Spring; for instance, we can blame it for all the militants and extremists who took it as an opportunity to spread their mindsets and terrorize societies. This state of chaos has driven security forces to act drastically in an attempt to dispel fear and put an end to the ‘Spring’ entirely. We can blame the Arab Spring for many of the woes that befell the Middle East. However, the fallout has been particularly immense in Syria, where the regime endured, yet the country has fallen into shambles.

An entire decade has passed since the Syrian uprising erupted, and the country has been in disarray ever since with militias waging vicious battles amongst themselves and foreign powers constantly intervening, which has led to dramatic losses and widespread devastation.

It can be said that the Syrian regime was lucky. Iran’s influence was in its favor. Despite the fact that Iran’s rhetoric has long been centered around claims of defending the oppressed, Iran still decided to hinder any real change in Syria from the get-go, and actively worked on preventing the Syrian Spring from achieving any change in the regime’s status and its regional positioning. Any changes in the Syrian situation would simply mean jeopardizing the country’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is Iran’s largest regional investment. This can easily be proved if we take a look at Hezbollah’s role in role in regional conflicts.

Syria’s devastating civil war has drawn in multiple foreign powers, and these foreign interventions seem to be multiplying. Weapons and convoys of fighters met in a confrontation that was marked by its brutality, especially after relying on what is known as the “scorched earth” warfare strategy, whereby armies destroy everything in their path in order to deprive enemies from gaining a foothold in the country. However, experience has shown, after the opposition’s attacks approached the center of Damascus, that the Iranian-backed militias are unable to prevent the fall of the regime by themselves. It was necessary to seek an ally that would save the regime from falling, and later, give it the opportunity to recover its capabilities to restore vital areas in the country.

There is no denying that Tehran’s hate for the Arab spring in Damascus is no match for that of Putin’s. Many reasons encouraged the Kremlin’s puppet master to deliver the final fatal blow to the Arab Spring in Syria. Vladimir Putin is not in favor of revolutions, civil society organizations, or international human rights organizations. He considers them a mere ruse by Western countries to allow them to violate a state’s sovereignty. A more relevant reason is that the Syrian revolution became militarized and its front ranks were seized by fighters, whose infiltration into Syrian territories was facilitated by Turkey, raising the slogans of “ISIS” and “al-Qaeda.” Among them were a large number of expatriates from countries emerging from the Soviet rubble, and Putin saw an opportunity to pursue them on Syrian rather than Russian soil.

Russia’s intervention has turned the tide, and the Syrian Spring is but a faint memory. Overthrowing the regime is no longer on the table, and Western countries can only hope that President Bashar al-Assad, who is very close to winning a new presidential term, agrees to show some flexibility in terms of reaching a political solution, even if this solution does not meet all the requirements called for by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Since Syria has been considered an open arena for interference, Turkey, in turn, has stepped forward to undermine the Kurds and to reserve, much like Iran, a seat at the upcoming negotiations table.

The Syrian conflict is becoming even more complex. For instance, Russia’s victory is clear, but it is incomplete. Iran is a difficult ally, and it has infiltrated the Syrian military and security institutions, and even its society. Israel is waging a relentless war against the Iranian presence in Syria, and Putin considers Netanyahu a partner and a friend. Turkey has been a recognized partner ever since the launch of the Astana process with Russia and Iran. As for the US military presence on Syrian soil, it aims to offer support in the fight against ISIS, as well as to block, or at least monitor, the routes connecting Tehran to Beirut.

Russia’s victory is incomplete because Moscow is neither able to lead a reconstruction process in Syria, nor is it able to rehabilitate the regime and facilitate its Arab and international reintegration. The regime’s victory is incomplete as well, it is no longer threatened by the possibility of a military defeat, but the horrendous economic collapse is a dire threat that is no less dangerous. Moreover, it is no longer feasible for the regime to declare this as a victory given the extent of the destruction and the staggering numbers of casualties, refugees, and displaced persons.

In light of all this, and with the presence of a new US administration that is still finding its footing in the Middle East, Sergey Lavrov carried out a Gulf tour, which included Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The Doha Russian-Qatari-Turkish tripartite meeting resulted in the launch of a joint attempt to promote a political solution in Syria in parallel to the Astana process.

It is clear that Russia, which is currently engaged in Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria, cannot resolve these conflicts on its own. It needs the support of the US as well as the Gulf states. The Syrian regime is aware that it is incapable of changing its current reality without taking steps to encourage the Arabs to accept its return to the Arab League, and encourage the West to support it in these efforts.

Russia has the strongest presence in Syria today, but it is not the only one there. Russian intervention is a must in order to resolve the conflicts in Syria. Russia’s involvement is needed to save Syria from its current state of devastation and economic collapse, and to open the door for reconstruction and the return of refugees. However, in order to achieve this, American, European, Gulf, Turkish, and Iranian interventions are also needed.

It is safe to say that resolving the Syrian crisis is not a simple matter, and Russia and Syria know that the Biden administration, which is currently focusing on the nuclear deal with Iran and competing with the rise of China, may not be interested in allowing Putin to achieve such success in Syria without a price. The question remains, can al-Assad facilitate Russia’s efforts?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.