TUNIS — From rescuing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad from defeat in 2015 to dictating the fate of Syria’s remaining rebel-held province in 2018, Russian military power has proven decisive in determining the course of Syria’s civil war.
Just as critical as the military heft that Moscow took to the conflict, however, is the confidence that Russia has instilled in the Syrian citizenry, allowing it to intervene as an apparently honest broker in battlegrounds where goodwill has seemingly evaporated.
As the Syrian war morphed from national insurgency to international powerplay, Russia established itself as one of the defining influences in the conflict.
Moscow’s soft power has drawn the focus of negotiations away from UN talks in Geneva to the Kremlin-mandated peace processes in Kazakhstan and the southern Russian resort town of Sochi.
Within the region, Moscow has established itself as the primary intermediary of the conflict, as able to engage with the leadership of Israel as it is able to break bread with the president of Iran.
In Duma, when the regime was accused of actions bordering on genocide, Moscow intervened and brokered a deal between Duma’s defenders and Damascus.
The Russians’ role has been “decisive in a sense that they helped keep Assad in power and create a perception of Russia’s centrality to conflict resolution,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
Faced with US ambivalence and an international community as fundamentally opposed to Assad remaining in power as the Syrian president was to retain it, an opening emerged that Russia exploited.
“Moscow always engaged with those members of the opposition that did not require Assad to step down as a precondition for talks.” Borshchevskaya said. “Indeed, it’s at Moscow’s insistence that the 2012 language of the Geneva communique is ambiguous about which opposition groups can be involved in the transition government. It is this ambiguity that Moscow first helped create and then used to engage groups and individuals that did not demand Assad’s departure.”
On the ground, too, Russia’s soft power has become a tangible symbol of Moscow’s presence in Syria. While Moscow calls for international support for the reintegration of Syria’s vast refugee population, as well as the reconstruction of its war-battered cities, its aid programme is shoring up the image of Russia’s positive role in Syria.
“Turning the de-escalation zones into humanitarian support zones is an opportunity,” Grigory Lukyanov, an expert on Russian foreign policy and conflicts at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told the Financial Times. He said Russian humanitarian groups were “hastily being created and gaining power.”
Tonnes of Russian aid have been delivered to Syria, with Russian NGOs and military programmes engaging and competing with international aid agencies to deliver Russia-branded relief.
“[I]t’s important to note that the military policy Moscow deployed consisted of North Caucasians,” Borshchevskaya said. In part, casualties among a predominantly Caucasian force are likely to be of less concern to a European Russia still scarred by the memories of the Soviet Union’s disastrous foray into Afghanistan during the 1970s and ’80s.
However, this underscored the point that these were Russia’s Muslims going to the aid of their Syrian counterparts, rather than the delivery of Western charity and Christian pity
“More broadly, regionally, the Moscow message can find many receptive audiences,” Borshchevskaya continued. “It plays on anti-Western sentiments in the region… It also plays on the sentiment among some in the older generation in general that thinks back fondly, even if inaccurately, to the days of the Soviet Union.”
Russia has established itself as an indispensable aspect of any discussion on Syria’s future. By ensuring its intervention into one of the world’s bitterest conflicts reflected the sympathies of the indigenous populace, Russia effectively cleared the ground of local resentment for its military presence in Syria.
Simon Speakman Cordall is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.
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