Russia’s Special Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentev has just made a statement that is as clear and concise a reflection of Russia’s official Syria policy as any major official has yet to articulate. The announcement is neither novel nor in any way aberrant in the context of Russia’s long held strategy to shift the Syrian conflict from a military engagement to a political process. Nevertheless, the bluntness with which Lavrentev spoke has sent shockwaves throughout the online sphere of Syria experts (as well as “so-called” experts), professional commentators and activists.
Lavrentev called for a phased but “comprehensive” (aka total or near total) withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria before saying the following,
“This is a signal that it will be in the final step, because the Daesh organisation almost been defeated. The talk is about all the foreign military units in Syria, including the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah, and of course the Iranian. On the other hand, except for our two bases, there is nothing, and as the situation stabilises, we will of course have two bases, and actually we do not have any other units”.
These curt remarks unambiguously summarise the following points regarding Russia’s policy in Syria dating back at least one full year:
1. Russia seeks to instigate and complete a political peace process even before the final small pockets of Takfiri terrorism are defeated by Syria and her legal allies. This will allow the UN’s special envoy Staffan de Mistura to effectively rubber stamp this settlement as when it comes to a political settlement, every party to the conflict aside from Russia either does not have a plan or has presented plans that are now objectively laughable in their absurdity.
2. Russia is intent on Iranian troops, Lebanese Hezbollah and other foreign volunteer units conducting a dignified and phased exit from Syria so as to create more international clarity regarding the peace process.
3. Russia respects Turkey’s statements to withdraw from the country once its Operation Olive Branch against PKK terrorists is complete and once Turkey fulfils its other duties in line with the Astana agreements. This last part also would apply to Iran. However, Russia would clearly reject any attempts by Syria to use force to expedite a Turkish withdrawal – something which has at times been suggested by more ‘rogue’ elements of pro-Damascus media.
4. Russia is unambiguous about seeking a US withdrawal from Syria as soon as possible, but is equally clear that such things cannot be accomplished through any faction’s use of force.
5. Russia has intentionally not told the “Israeli” troops which have occupied Syria since prior to the present conflict (1967 to be precise) to vacate Syria. There are several reasons for this:
a. The UN has a clear position which is still technically the policy even of the United States, that the occupied Golan Heights is Syrian. Therefore, Russia felt that there was no need to re-state the obvious in this context.
b. The reason for not wanting to state the obvious is that Russia has clearly struck a deal with “Israel” whereby even the most hawkish elements of the Tel Aviv regime have uniquely in history, agreed that their Arab Nationalist enemy, President Bashar Al-Assad will be allowed to stay in power, in spite of decades of attempts to remove not only the current Syrian President but his father Hafez Al-Assad. This is the first time that “Israel” has backed down in its clear attempts to “regime change” an Arab Nationalist state since 1956 when the US and USSR told “Israel” and what remained of the British and French Empires to withdraw their aggressive troops from Nasserist Egypt. But unlike in 1956 when the US and USSR were on the same side during a rare moment in history, today the deal was struck by Russia alone. In return for “Israel” de-facto recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian President and for Tel Aviv’s public promise to stop its so-called “anti-Iranian” attacks on Syria, Russia said that it would work intensely to help Iran and Hezbollah withdraw from Syria in order to balance “Israel’s” ‘de-Iranianisation’ objective which Russia rightly or wrongly overtly and privately respects. The statement by Lavrentev leaves no room for guesswork in respect of Russia’s intentions in this regard. Furthermore, while Russia would likely have worked with China and the EU to preserve the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), in any case, Iran’s cooperation over Russia’s Syria road map will clearly encourage Russia to take bolder steps to ensure the health of a post-US JCPOA.
c. Russia clearly respects Syria’s total right to liberate the occupied Golan Heights. However, Russia’s ultimately pragmatic advice to Syria is to embrace the “live to fight another day” doctrine, rather than attempt to take on an enemy that even during internally placid times, Syria did not take on in a direct military engagement (not since 1973 to be precise).
This is Russia’s policy and it can be summed up as: Everyone But Assad Must Go!
As for Russia’s own presence, President Putin has go to great lengths to declare “mission accomplished” in order to withdraw Russian troops whose temporary mandate has expired in the eyes of Moscow. Russia’s Mediterranean Naval Base at Tartus which existed decades before the present conflict (since 1971 to be precise) and is subject to a recently extended long-term lease is considered safe and a separate issue via-a-vis the Syrian conflict. The Syrian government has never and likely will never challenge this status quo.
Based on Lavrentev’s words, Russia’s modern airbase in Latakia, the Khmeimim Air Base, will be subject to a similar status as the Naval base at Tartus. This too is in keeping with a Russian announcement from 2017 with the agreement of the Syrian government.
For the sake of doubt, it must be made clear that Russia will at no point use force in its desire to see foreign troops leave Syria. Those who say otherwise clearly haven’t the foggiest notion regarding Russia’s healthy diplomatic relationship with Syria. However, also implicit in this is that if Syria exercises its right to disagree with Russia, Moscow’s political leaders will have little choice but to let the chips fall where they may in the worst case scenario of “Israel” and Iranian (and pro-Iran) forces in Syria fighting a major war on Syrian soil. In the midst of such a war, Turkey would entrench itself in the northwest as it would have no motivation to do anything else and the US would do the same thing and for the same reason in the north-east.
Such a scenario is not want Syria wants. However, if Damascus does not take the steps to fulfil part of the deal that Moscow struck with an “Israel” regime that is incapable of negotiating anything with any major power but Russia(the US as articulated by virtually the entire Muslim world, is in not place to strike deals with “Israel” that Tel Aviv would consider a compromise), the future could either see the total liberation of Syria, including the Golan Heights, or it could see a nuclear armed “Israel” destroying the Syrian Arab Republic, expect for the Russian base at Tartus which not even “Israel” would dare to attack.
The choice is ultimately only for Syria to make. Russia has stated its position and Russia has secured its interests in the region while also fulfilling its mandate and more so. In this sense, Russia is not making any value judgements and from my position as an observer nor am I. Syria must determine its own destiny and Russia has merely laid out the options in an honest manner.