Sunday, February 21, 2021

After the swap: Russia’s role in Syria and Israel’s policy

Russia played a key role in releasing an Israeli woman held in Syria. The full details of the exchange are not known, but the central role of Moscow is clear. This is a reminder of Russia’s overall role in Syria and how it is able to facilitate aspects of the conflict. It’s important to understand how Russia does this to potentially see where Syria is going in the future.

Russia has been an ally of the Syrian regime and of the Assad family for decades. It has a naval base in Tartus in northern Syria and an air base in the same area, called Khmeimim. This Russian presence and support for the regime led Moscow to intervene in Syria in 2015. Russia claimed to be intervening to fight ISIS and other “terrorist” groups. A year after Russia intervened, its role in keeping the Syrian regime intact was clear. Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, fell in December 2016. 

By the summer of 2018, Russia had helped broker the collapse of the southern Syrian rebel strongholds near the Golan and Quneitra. Rebels left areas in Damascus and also pockets they held between Homs and Hama in May 2018. Russian intervention was not like the US intervention in Vietnam.
Despite American policy makers like ambassador James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s Syria envoy, who claimed the US could make Syria a “quagmire” for Russia, there was no quagmire because there was no massive Russian presence. Russian sent air force assets, drones, special forces, contractors and military police – but no huge divisions of men were coming.  
Russia’s real intervention was on how it could shift the Syrian conflict to leverage it into having regional influence. Moscow encouraged the Astana talks with Turkey and Iran; soon they were running to Moscow and the resort city of Sochi to ask Russia what to do next. Russia sold Turkey S-400s to create daylight between Ankara and Washington, feeding on Turkey's growing authoritarianism and conspiracy-minded leadership.
As Ankara became more pro-Russia and more pro-Iran, Moscow moved to be the arbitrator of who could have what. When Turkey demanded Afrin and the ethnic-cleansing of Kurds, and needed the airspace to use its F-16s, Russia consented in January 2018. The tradeoff would be that the Syrian regime would get more slices of Idlib.
Russia, Turkey and Iran conspired to remove the US from Syria by trying to break US relations with its partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. In October 2019, it appeared they had gotten what they wanted as then-US president Donald Trump agreed to leave Syria.