MESOP FOCUS : Russia’s Calculations in Syria

By Muhammad Shnety (FIKRA FORUM) – 6 Feb 2015 – The first round of peace talks in Moscow between representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and members of the Syrian opposition ended last week with no surprising results. The two sides agreed to hold a second round in hopes of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, though no date was specified. Most opposition members calling for a political solution and dialogue, such as Moaz al-Khatib, former president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), refused to participate, criticizing the Russia-sponsored initiative for its lack of vision and the absence of a clear outline for ending the civil war and stopping the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Similarly, the SNC and other opposition factions refused to participate, signifying their lack of confidence in both Russia and the Syrian regime. So the question is, why did Russia take the lead in arranging these peace talks?

Russia wants to play the role of peace broker in order to save its ally in Damascus. It is also trying to prove to the West that it is not obstructing a political solution in Syria but actively seeking reconciliation. Russian president Vladimir Putin seeks a mediatory role for Russia similar to that of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Securing a political solution would allow Moscow to forge an alliance between former enemies – the regime and the opposition – and prioritize countering the terrorist threat emanating from Syria.

The current conflict in Syria has been described in many ways: an uprising, a revolution, a civil war, and finally a proxy battle between regional and international actors. For Russia, Syria is of vital importance; it is home to its only military base outside the former Soviet Union. As a result, there has been little action by the UN Security Council on Syria thanks to Russian and Chinese vetoes, forcing the West to stand by idly despite the many signs that the Syrian regime is terrorizing its own people. Furthermore, there are strong indicators that the funding provided by Arab and non-Arab countries to many Syrian rebel groups has been ineffective. And because of Syria’s deterioration, many of these rebels have since radicalized.

But Moscow is aware that the Syrian revolution is no longer a glorified cause. Russia now realizes that it is embroiled in chaos alongside the Assad regime and Iran, in a country where sectarian tensions have reached a boiling point and the environment is fertile for extremism and radicalism. Consequently, it is attempting to paint itself as the long-awaited peace broker and a leader in the war on terror. Much like the Assad regime, which facilitated the expansion of ISIS and is now offering to partner with the West to fight extremism, Russia sees peace talks as a way to regain legitimacy, especially following its invasion of Crimea and the imposition of international sanctions.

Mohammed Shnety is a Syrian writer based in Qatar.