Russia holds the keys to Syria thanks to its strong influence and support for the Al Assad government
The Syrian scenario is no stranger to the turbulence created by the war in Ukraine. The country, torn apart by long years of civil war and the fight against terrorism, is more than ever exposed to the dismemberment of its parts and the fragmentation of its geopolitical chessboard, in which Russia, Turkey and Iran have more and more pieces.
The departure of the United States from the scene, which left the keys to Israel before leaving, is conducive to this situation and motivates the remaining stakeholders to take ever broader actions that entrench them in the country and the region.
In this new dance of influence, Russia has changed its position vis-à-vis Turkey and given the green light to Erdogan's new military offensive in northern Syria. The biggest international actor and main supporter of Bashar al-Assad's government was the main obstacle to the Turkish armed forces' operation, which is presenting its offensive as the solution to its security problems with Kurdish militias. The context is the war in Ukraine and the negotiations between Moscow and Ankara to reopen the Black Sea crossing. Several world presidents have already called on Putin and Ankara to get the wheat flowing again, most recently Macky Sall, president of Senegal and current chairman of the African Union. The wheat shortage is particularly acute in Africa, led by governments that have not had the European privilege of completely severing relations with Russia in the wake of the February invasion.
The Turkey-Russia deal comes just two weeks before multilateral meetings in Astana, in which Iran is also taking part, aiming to reach consensus on Syria. During the press conference, Lavrov mentioned the Astana summit on several occasions, which according to Alper Coskun, former Turkish ambassador, in statements to Al-Monitor, signifies a clear interest on the part of Russia to use its presence in Syria as leverage in the Ukrainian dossier. The Astana summit, designed in 2017, has thus regained special international relevance.
Moscow's interest in holding the Astana summit lies in being able to better coordinate a possible gradual exit from Syria. Since Russia entered Syria in 2015, it is believed to have gradually withdrawn from the scene, from a military point of view. At present it still maintains its mission in Idlib, in addition to its important Mediterranean naval base in Tartous. The Astana summit will allow it to narrow down how far Turkey and Iran will be able to grab as Russia withdraws to concentrate on Ukraine.
Another scenario would indicate that Russia does not let go of Syria and remains in the region with the same force. According to a Pentagon official quoted by Jared Szuba, there is no evidence to indicate that Russia is withdrawing from the Levant. Dana Stroul, undersecretary of defence for the Middle East, said, "We have not seen a noticeable change in Russian activities in Syria, nor in their commitment to support [President Bashar al-]Assad and his brutal campaign terrorising the Syrian people." Still according to Stroul, rumours pointing to a redeployment of Wagner's mercenaries from Syria to Ukraine would be false. "We have not seen a large-scale movement like that on the ground," Stroul explained, citing US intelligence assessments. "We continue to monitor that closely," she added in response to claims in several US dailies.
With those conditions in hand, Turkey opens a sea corridor for the vessels and gets Lavrov's "ok" in return. "We understand Turkey's security problems in northern Syria," Foreign Minister Lavrov told a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlet Cavusoglu. He did not do so without accusing the United States of continuing to support and finance the cause of this danger to Turkey, the People's Protection Units (YPG) militias affiliated to the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Although Ankara has repeatedly claimed that it does not need Russia's approval to carry out its military operations in Syria, analysts such as Nazlan Ertan for Al-Monitor are not of the same opinion. Analyses by Nasreddin Ibrahim, secretary of the Kurdish Democratic Party, and Ishatar Al Shami, a Syrian journalist, also agree that it is Russia that controls access to Syria through a strong influence that mixes soft and hard power.
According to Turkish national media reports, Erdogan's planned offensive aims to create a 30km security zone from the Turkish borders onwards. According to Berkay Mandiraci, senior analyst for Crisis Group, the intensive use of F-16s against Kurdish positions is already well established in Turkey's history. The Türk Hava Kuvvetleri, the Turkish air force, employs a battle group of up to 60 of these multi-role aircraft on its southern border. In addition to his own armed forces, Erdogan is supported by the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party, the country's main Kurdish party, which provides Turkey with intelligence and information on PKK and YPG movements.
With these means, Erdogan intends to seize the cities of Tel Rifaat and Manbij, west of the Euphrates. The former is only a few minutes' drive from Aleppo. Both cities are reportedly under YPG control. But according to Nasreddin Ibrahim's analysis by the Washington Institute, Turkey's entry into the area would not bring stability at all, but rather the opposite. The Kurdish politician argues that Turkey employs Islamist militias in the northern region, in addition to its own armed forces, which bring violence to northern Syria. "These factions actively oppose any pluralistic and democratic system in Syria, as their aim, first and foremost, is to seize the helm of power with mechanisms characterised by extremism, fanaticism and terrorism. The name 'opposition to the regime' does not change the content of these groups; they are the other face of the regime, and the difference is to replace the 'Baath regime' with the 'Muslim Brotherhood regime'," says Nasreddin Ibrahim.
The Russian hand in Syria
The power of Russia's presence in Syria is articulated through external action that mixes soft and hard power. The pillars of Russian influence in the country are religion, education and culture, the economy and finally military power. Relations have a long history and are nurtured by a common ideological policy that brought Arab socialism closer to the Soviet Union since the last century, a trend that has continued over the years. However, Moscow has had to articulate new tools and policies to maintain and revitalise this strategic partnership, and to be accepted not only by Bashar al-Assad's government, but also by Syrian society and its different sectors.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with notorious connections to Vladimir Putin's government, has been involved in the efforts that have cemented one such pillar. According to Syrian writer Ishtar Al Shami, it is largely thanks to it that Putin is able to justify his military presence in the region. Christians are still the most persecuted religious group today, and the situation of this minority in the Middle East is one of the reasons for this. In July 2021, Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear that Russia's presence in the region was intended to provide security for these Christians. The image of Russia intervening to save persecuted and tortured Christianity is similar to that used in the Donbas with the Russian population and has been particularly well received by the Russian public. The Orthodox Church embraced this narrative and actively participated in the repatriation of Syrian Christians as well as humanitarian aid.
From another perspective, Putin also reportedly used his client state of Chechnya to reach out to Islam. According to Al Shami, Chechen troops sent by Kadyrov to Syria at Putin's request were reportedly instructed by their commanders to reach out to the Syrian population and soldiers and maintain good relations with them through a shared faith. Kadyrov would later set up a humanitarian aid foundation, the Kadyroc Charitable Foundation, with the aim of flourishing cooperation missions under a Chechen flag and a friendly image for the Syrian population with the help of a Muslim façade. The Atlantic Council, a US think tank, has accused Kadyrov and Putin in a report of instrumentalising these cooperation actions in order to secure a better position in the country. According to Al Shami, this aid is highly politicised, and often appears in the Russian and Chechen media as an example of a Russian 'good intervention' in Syria. Thus a large number of mosques, such as the Grand Mosque in Aleppo, have been rebuilt with Russian and Chechen aid, sending a strong positive message to the local population.
This strong muscle that Moscow has worked hard to develop over the past decades will be decisive in the negotiations in the Kazakh city of Astana, and demonstrates that Putin still holds the keys to Syria, with only Israel and the Gulf states to provide a possible counterweight to his influence in the region.