In the shadow of new American sanctions, Russia continues to expand its influence in Syria
By Ksenia Svetlova | June 29 2020
Russia continues to expand its presence and influence in Syria in the air, on land and sea, the interest being to curtail Iranian influence in Syria. The Russian requirement to achieve more control over Syrian territory comes days before the American Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act takes affect, which imposes significant sanction on Syria and its partners. Parallel to this, Moscow is signaling its desire to become an influential player in the Palestinian arena as well, aspiring to consummate the controversial airplane deal with Egypt, and is broadcasting a message of deterrence to the west through adoption of a new document vis-à-vis use of atomic weapons, even in the event Russia is attacked 'only' with conventional weapons.
Russia in Syria
Almost five years after Russian forces entered Syria to protect the regime of Bashar Assad and Russian interests in the country, Moscow is working vigorously to gain control of more and more Syrian territory - overland and maritime - for the benefit of Russian forces deployed in the country. At the end of May, President Putin instructed his minister of foreign affairs and defense minister to open talks with the Syrian government on transfer of additional territories to Russia. The presidential order that was published on Russian governmental websites did not cite the reason for this decision, however Russian experts argued that the need for additional holdings and maritime access stems from the desire to protect Russian bases scattered throughout the country.
In essence, this step is an inseparable part of Russian strategy to expand its influence in the Middle East, while establishing itself as a dominant actor in Syria, scattering land-based and naval bases that are transforming Syria into a mother-base from which it can project Russian influence on the Mediterranean basin, as well as the Middle East. Russia is interested in rehabilitating - and in practice establishing the Syrian military from scratch, in a form that will make it solely subject to Russian influence, and minimize as much as possible Iranian influence on Syrian security services.
In the economic arena as well, Russia is competing right now with Iran, aspiring to promote the business operation of Russian firms in order to maximize the benefits of its presence in Syria. This comes in the face of mounting complaints from Russian businesspeople that many lucrative contracts are ending up in Iranian hands.
The publications in Moscow about the presidential decision to transfer additional territory in Syria to Russia is designed to send a clear message to Iran, to Turkey and also to other countries operating in the area: Russia continues to expand its bases in Syria and it's the one who controls the Presidential Palace in Damascus. This week, the Russian cultural center in the capital - which was closed at the height of the fighting in 2013 - was reopened. While the Center is to offer course in the Russian language and music, more than anything else, the event is a symbolic act: Damascus is safe enough to allow Russia to reopen its cultural center which was closed due to the war. From Moscow's perspective, the war in Syria is over: Time has come for the dividends.
It goes without saying that the Russian demand to transfer more territory for the benefit of its military takes place only a few days prior to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act taking effect, which imposes harsh sanctions on Syria and any entity conducting business or other ties with the Syrian regime. The forecast is that the law will intensify pressure on Iran and Russia, and will deter potential investors such as China and the Emirates in the Gulf. It is possible that Russia, that a portion of its politicians and businesspersons are already subject to American sanctions, will execute more pressure on Damascus with the Caesar Act coming into effect, in order to promote political and economic reforms, since the law presents a serious obstacle to Russia's aspiration to rehabilitate Syria and attract foreign investment to the country. Five years after Russia entered the war in Syria, it has succeeded in realizing a substantial portion of its designs to increase its influence in Syria and the Mediterranean, but without rehabilitation and investments, Moscow will have to deal with chronic instability of the Syrian regime, from violent insurgencies and uprisings. power struggles within the Alawite elite, and chipping away at its own status by other players - Turkey, Iran, the Gulf States and the United States.
The Palestinian Arena
Following the remarks of a number of senior Russian officials who expressed their unconditional opposition to Israeli annexation, the Palestinians expressed hopes that Russia would become the mediator between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Parallel to this, reports were published that soon Russian would host an emergency summit on the annexation issue. The Palestinian Authority would like to see Russia more deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - as a balancing force to the United States, and it repeatedly called for Russia to take the reins and begin to mediate between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
But is Moscow interested? Today is 2020, not 1967. Nowadays, when Russia operates in the Middle East, it is driven by interests it has come to promote, and not necessarily a political or ideological agenda. The Palestinian issue was considered one of the most important in the Soviet era, and its symbolic importance still exists. Russia conducts ties with all the Palestinian factions from Fatah to Islamic Jihad and, of course, Hamas - while in practice refraining from taking the plunge and playing a more significant role in this arena.
There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, Moscow believes that the likelihood of a solution to the conflict is low. So, while Russian supports Palestinian demands and entreats Israel to act according to 'international law', Moscow does not intend to go forward beyond this, among others, because in the estimate of Russian diplomats, this would not bring even a minimal shift on the issue. The other reason is America's long-standing engagement and Israel's commitment to Washington. Even if Ramallah wanted badly to see Russian mediation, can Moscow drive a wedge between Israeli-American relations on such a matter of principle? So far, Moscow hasn't succeeded in engineering a summit between Putin and Abu-Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), not even a meeting between the two during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It is probable that Russia will continue to voice positions closer to Ramallah than to Jerusalem, and will stand out due to such statements, however, there is huge gap between Moscow's public support for international resolutions, and adoption of a new and more activist policy. Right now, Russian still isn't there.
The two countries historical ties and Egypt's geopolitical position and size are extremely important for Moscow that seems to be very keen to move closer to Cairo, a faithful American ally for many decades. In recent years, Russia has increased its arms sales to Egypt, but presently there is an important deal on the agenda that constitutes a quantum leap and is liable to impact not only on the balance of power in the region, but also on the configuration of regional alliances.
In the meantime Egypt is staying mum, but Moscow continues to update that the huge fighter jet deal with Egypt is on the way, even if the matter riles the United States Two weeks ago a publicity wave in the Russian media began, revealing that Russian manufacturers had already begun production of the SU-35 fighter jets designated for the Egyptian military. This 'media campaign' went on, and state-controlled Russian networks such as the Sputnik news agency had brought expert sources in Egypt to their news coverage to confirm the deal's existence.
If the fighter jet deal with Egypt will eventually materialize, the US could (theoretically) impose sanctions on Cairo in order to deter other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere from following suit. Another possible scenario suggests that that in order to placate one of its key allies in the Middle East, the United States will supply Egypt its own advance fighter jets that as of to date have not been available to Egypt in order to preserve Israel's military superiority.
In the World
Russia is sending a threatening message to the west through a new document that outlines terms for use of atomic weapons. The document states that even if Russia or its allies would be attacked with conventional weapons that threaten to annihilate the country, Moscow is liable to respond with a nuclear strike. Only recently, the United States discussed resumption of nuclear testing as a vehicle for pressuring Russia to return to negotiations for a trilateral arms control agreement between Russia the United States and China) for monitoring non-conventional weapons. In the end, resumption was rejected by the Administration but signing of the trilateral arms control agreement is not expected in the near future. It appears that in the meantime, tensions between Russia and the United States will only continue to increase.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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