Is Russia afraid of losing Syria?

Is Russia afraid of losing Syria?
From Al Jazeera - November 29, 2017

The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seems to have ended. Although the armed group is unlikely to disappear, its territorial control has been almost completely wiped out after its two "capitals" - Mosul and Raqqa - were liberated and most of its territories in Iraq and Syria were recaptured.

In Syria, besides the few remaining areas under ISIL control, there is Idlib province which is dominated by Ha'yet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front). Russia, Iran and Turkey are likely to launch a joint operation against the HTS there and then divide the province into spheres of influence.

The rest of Syria is either under the control of the regime or the US-allied Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Thanks to two years of Russian intervention and attacks by ISIL and HTS, a significant part of the real armed opposition was liquidated, and we can say that the period of active hostilities has come to an end. The issues of peace and stability have become much more important to Syrians than problems of power and the future political order.

As Syria enters a new de-escalation phase of the conflict, the role of Russia in it comes into question. Soon the Syrian regime will no longer need military backing as much as financial support. And that Russia might not be able to provide.

Russia's post-conflict strategy in Syria

Today,Bashar al-Assad can consider himself the "winner" in the civil war very much thanks to Russian backing and its military intervention. Yet, this does not necessarily guarantee Moscow a comfortable presence in post-war Syria.

In the course of the armed conflict, the value of Moscow for Damascus was the military assistance and deployment of its forces which played a key role in the military advances of the regime. But with the transition to the post-conflict period soon to begin, the significance of the military factor would steadily decrease, giving way to the financial and economic aspects of cooperation.

Russia, however, does not have the financial capacity to invest heavily in Syria after the end of the conflict.

Iran has already declared that it will assist Syria financially. In a recent telephone conversation with Bashar al-Assad, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani assured him that his country "is prepared to actively participate in Syria's reconstruction".

Russia, however, does not have the financial capacity to invest heavily in Syria after the end of the conflict. In this context, its positions in Syria no longer seem so convincing. This has forced Moscow to realise that alliances with Tehran and Ankara in Syria might not be so beneficial in the future and that it needs to find new allies for the post-conflict period. As a result, the Russian government has upped its efforts on keeping the negotiating process under its control to make sure it is not ousted from its position as kingmaker in Syria.

It is the desire to demonstrate its exclusivity and irreplaceability that dictated the latest Russian initiatives on Syria: from Vladimir Putin's statement about the need to hold the Congress of the Syrian people in Sochi to a series of meetings that the Russian president held last week with the leaders of Middle Eastern countries.

The danger for Moscow is that at some point Damascus might stop responding to Russian pressure.


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