The Spread of the Coronavirus and the Economic Crisis in Syria Constitute a Strategic Challenge for Russia
By Ksenia Svetlova | May 3, 2020
The Coronavirus arrived in Syria, a country devastated by war with a huge refugee population. The pandemic has already had its effect. The Syrian Lira has crashed to an unprecedented low; in a number of cities, long lines form outside bakeries and hospitals that were not destroyed during the civil war; and basic equipment is in short supply. This new crisis in the socioeconomic realm constitutes a significant challenge for Moscow, as well, which up until now has successfully maximized its military capabilities in Syria and gained a military victory on behalf of its protégé, Bashar Assad. In the meantime, it appears that despite the Coronavirus and the economic challenge, Russia continues to build up its military capabilities in Syria.
Russia vs. Assad
The Coronavirus crisis and the growing economic crisis in Lebanon constitutes an additional challenge to the regime of Bashar Assad, who while he controls the majority of Syrian territory, is unable to rehabilitate his country or stabilize its economy. While in the meantime, Russia is infusing Syria with much advanced weaponry while providing a small quantity of humanitarian aid, should this crisis throw the country into a massive state of disarray that would threaten the stability of the regime in Damascus, Russia would be forced to intervene and assist Bashar Assad, in order to ensure the survivability of the Syrian regime that provides Russia with official authorization to act within Syrian territory.
It appears that Russia will need to increase its humanitarian assistance to Syria in order to stabilize Assad's regime, but even if Moscow indeed sends the required sums and increases its humanitarian aid, Russia does not possess an exit strategy for economic rehabilitation and rebuilding the war-ravaged country. From this perspective, Moscow is in a 'catch-22' situation in Syria. It can't give up on Assad because he is the source of the legitimacy Russia needs; on the other hand, Assad's continued presence at the helm is also what prevents international investments and aid to Syria.
Moscow's limited fiscal resources do not enable Russia to take upon itself responsibility for Syria's rehabilitation. In the meantime, Russia has also not seen any substantive economic dividends for its commercial firms in Syria, and Moscow's frustration over the behavior of Bashar Assad (who has hardly promoted Russia's economic interests in the country, and is unable to carry out reforms) is growing.
A new survey conducted by the "Fund for Defense of National Values" showing dissatisfaction with Assad's performance was released by Yevgeny Prigozhin (a Russian business figure and intimate of President Putin, who is behind the Fund). The survey could be one of the harbingers testifying to dissatisfaction/unhappiness WHICH with Assad among the Russian elite that lead the country. Prigozhin has clear economic interests in Syria and he is also behind the private security firms (dubbed 'Wagner') operating in Syria and Libya. According to the survey, Syrian citizens responding to the telephone survey were very concerned with spreading corruption in the country, more than their concern over personal security as in the past, and only 47 percent would want to see Assad reelected. It is possible that publication of the Russian oligarch's survey is an attempt to put pressure on Assad to promote the Russian economic agenda in Syria.
Over the years, Russia has weighted replacing Assad with another candidate, but has rejected this idea—not out of any great affection for Assad, but rather in deference to the structure of Syria's social hierarchy. Russia needs full collaboration that will allow it to establish itself in Syria, and maintain Syria's military dependence on Moscow. Even if Assad is far from ideal, for the present he fulfills this function and serves Russian interests in Syria.
The conclusion: Russia is dissatisfied with Bashar Assad and would like to see better collaboration in the economic realm, to maximize the profits of Russian firms operating in Syria, and to increase their numbers. Under prevailing conditions Russia is liable to deviate from its ongoing policy, and to send more humanitarian aid to Syria in order to stabilize Assad. At the same time, from a strategic standpoint, there is no change at present in regard to Russia's conduct in Syria; Moscow continues to further establish itself and build its military presence on Syrian turf.
Russia vs. Iran
Russia collaborates with Iran in Syria to reach its own objectives and achieve military victory for Bashar Assad, but it also competes with Iran in the military and economic spheres, and it has a clear interest in curtailing Iran's clout and influence in shaping the face of Syria for the future. American sanctions on Iran; the assassination of Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of the year; and now the Coronavirus crisis raging in Iran are liable to assist Russia in its mission. Already in mid-March, in the face of the spread of the virus, Russian forces in Syria isolated pro-Iranian units fighting with Syrian army units. While this move does not suggest a total ousting of Iran is sought—both a mission impossible and apparently also an undesirable outcome from a Russian perspective since Iran provides essential personnel for the disintegrating Syrian military. At the same time, it is clear that Russia wants to greatly curtail the influence of Iran when it comes to reorganization of the Syrian military, a mission Russia is presently engaged in. It is possible that the Coronavirus crisis in Iran and Syria will make this mission easier to achieve. In addition, Iran has sustained significant economic losses due to sanctions and the crash in oil prices, and at the present moment Iran is not able to provide substantial relief or humanitarian aide to Syria, and while Russia is not exactly in a sterling economic state, Moscow will be able to 'market' itself as Syria's sole savior and guardian angel in the Coronavirus age.
The conclusion: Russia is interested in curtailing Iran's role in Syria, particularly in the Syrian military. Furthermore, Iranian firms are in competition with Russian firms for franchises and lucrative contracts in Syria. Under current circumstances, Russia has more opportunities to realize its visions and to curtail the Iranian presence and clout in Syria.
Russia vs. Turkey
In March, Russia and Turkey prevented a military clash in the Idlib region, and safeguarded their shared interests in arms sales, energy and commerce. At the same time, the situation in Idlib remains tense as ever, and each of the sides continues to be fearful of unexpected moves by the other side. The situation is liable to worsen due to the spread of the Coronavirus, and the inability of either side to control-contain the virus. If the situation in Idlib worsens due to a humanitarian catastrophe, Turkey and Russia will again find themselves inching towards military conflict that could set in motion a huge flood of refugees from Syria to Turkey. At this stage, Turkey has chosen to delay making Russian-made S400 defense systems operational, both due to apprehensions of America sanctions in response to such a move, and due to the uncertainty of the situation in Idlib.
Russia vs. Israel
Since Israel's freedom of action in Syrian airspace hinges heavily on what Moscow wants and agrees to, Russia will continue to be a significant actor and an 'address' for Israel in Syria. The two sides have reached a high level of backchannel 'understandings' to avoid conflicts in Syrian airspace, but this doesn't include cooperation in intelligence matters between the sides. There has been no change in this regard, and one can assume that as things stand at the moment, the new situation created by the outbreak of the Coronavirus will not influence the conduct of the two sides.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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