Alireza Nouri

Russia’s Plan for Post-ISIS Syria

Date of publication : August 5, 2017 12:39 pm
visitor views a smaller copy of the Zenobia Column destroyed by ISIS militants in Palmyra, Syria on display at an exhibtion titled
visitor views a smaller copy of the Zenobia Column destroyed by ISIS militants in Palmyra, Syria on display at an exhibtion titled 'Palmyra in Time and Space' and held at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve

Although the ISIS ideology will continue to exist in the Middle East, with the destruction of the structure and organization of this terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, various involved and interested parties prepare themselves for the post-ISIS space and for bargaining to get a larger share. Some parties, including Russia, have been preparing for this purpose from months ago. The recent agreement between Moscow and Washington over southwest Syria can be seen as such a measure and plan for the post-ISIS period. This agreement reflects the dynamism of tools used in Russian foreign policy and the successful function of the principle of multi-vector policy and selective engagement in this policy.
Committing to the principle of multi-vector policy, Moscow has not abandoned its interaction with any party in Syria at different sub-national, national, regional and trans-regional levels, and has left the door open to interact with “all” parties in different proportions. Simultaneous negotiations held in Astana, Geneva and Amman are a clear indication that this principle is applied. On the other hand, based on the principle of selective engagement, Moscow has not ruled out the interaction with the US in one area, despite the tensions rising in another area, and will not do so in the future as well. For example, the tension over the issue of sanctions or the crisis in Ukraine is an open case, but this tension has not interrupted interactions between the US and Russia in other areas, including Syria.
From this perspective, the agreement between Russia and the United States is the result of Moscow’s multi-layered approach and months of negotiations. The Kremlin has been in the process of negotiating with the US, along with representatives of Arab countries, including Jordan and Israel, in the wider context of Geneva, while interacting with Iran and Turkey in the Astana talks. Since the mentioned countries participate and support this agreement, it will simultaneously fulfill several goals for Moscow:
1. Showing the Kremlin’s simultaneous capabilities in military and political fields and its multi-layered and multi-level crisis management
2. Putting controlled pressure on its allies, including Tehran and Damascus, as well as Turkey, to meet more of Moscow’s demands (by showing that Russia has other options to advance its goals)
3. Showing the readiness and willingness of Russia to cooperate with the Arab countries of the region, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others, arguing that Russia can create a balance for regional inequalities, and can also prevent further destructive and harassment actions taken by these countries in Syria and against the interests of Moscow in the region
4. Demonstrating a partial attention to Israel’s demands, in particular regarding the issue that a new front will not be established by Iran and Hezbollah in the Golan Heights, and thereby Russia reduces the pressure of the global Jewish lobby
5. Proving it is a mistake to assume that Moscow is on the Shia side and against the Sunni in the Middle East and the Syrian crisis and emphasizing on Russian counterbalancing role.
Of course, all of these goals cannot be realized, and in practice, there will be many barriers to operationalizing the agreement and the benefits it brings. But the problem is that in the troubled conditions of the Middle East and Syria, the damage will be doubled without taking any strategy and previous plan into consideration, and Moscow will also adjust its game more intelligently by adjusting some plans. Although the Kremlin has certainly given some concessions on paper to the US, and that is why the agreement was made possible, due to Russian superior position in Syria, it has not yet given much concessions to the US in the field area. With this agreement, Moscow has shown to Washington that it is ready for reconciliation and “equal” engagement. If the US is really willing to do so, and give concessions in other areas, including the issue of sanctions, Ukraine and etc., it must “act” accordingly, then Russia will take further steps.
In this regard, if the agreement proves successful in the field area, there will likely be more agreements over Syria and other areas. Meanwhile, although Russia realizes the US declining hegemony, it is well aware that some of its positive, negative and harassment capabilities will be preserved till the near future, therefore, engaging with the US would be less costly for Russia to earn benefits and eliminate threats, including threats in Syria. This approach is influenced by a Russian foreign policy principle, according to which it is possible to solve and manage regional and international conflicts in terms of (joint) global governance only through the interaction of major powers (including Russia and the US). At the same time, Moscow, unlike in the past, is not simply willing to give concessions to Washington, and Russia tries to get the most out of the US when it is weak.
Meanwhile, it is possible to calculate the consequences of the agreement reached between Russia and the US for Iran by taking into account the main interests of Tehran in Syria, including the maintenance of Syrian territorial integrity, its sovereignty over all parts of the South, guaranteed Iranian presence in Syria and ties with Hezbollah and no intervention by the US and Israel in the Syrian affairs, especially regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad. Of course, all of these cases are not met/ will not be met in the agreement reached between Russia and the US. The fact that Iran and the US pursue different goals is clear, and Moscow has its own goals as well, and the contradiction between these goals with those of Iran has been seen at various times.
Establishing safe zones in southern Syria as guaranteed by the US is the first undesired case for Iran. The humanitarian clause in the agreement also allows the US to intervene. On the other hand, one of Israel’s demands is to create zones free from the presence of Iran and Hezbollah in southern Syria, especially on the borders of the Golan Heights, which seems to be possible through the agreement, regarding that Moscow and Washington guarantee it. Although this does not necessarily mean that it is possible to drive Iran and Hezbollah out from southern Syria by the agreement and its guarantors, it will naturally put pressure on these parties.
As for the future of Bashar al-Assad which is a sensitive issue for Tehran, it should be said that though the agreement reached between Russia and the US seems silent in this regard, in their major agreements on Syria, they referred/ will refer to this issue in terms of a transitional or national government. Although the United States seems to have accepted in this agreement the territorial integrity and the presence of Bashar al-Assad in the medium term, his gradual and soft removal in a political process is not ruled out. Repeatedly emphasizing on the issue that it was not seeking in Syria to preserve Bashar al-Assad, but to maintain the legitimate government of Damascus, Russia also showed that it was not as sensitive as Tehran to this issue.
However, until the agreement is operational, it will have a long way to go, and there will be so many obstacles on its way. In addition, none of the past agreements reached for collective peace in Syria has finally come to a tangible end, and “force” has been the factor behind the field developments. Given the fact that the ISIS in Syria and Iraq is approaching its end, it seems that the new agreement should be considered as the one for the post-ISIS period, and it should be reviewed more seriously. Undoubtedly, Russia with a (partial) plan for the war, also has a (partial) plan for the post-war space - a likely plan such as making an attempt to integrate the agreement reached between Russia and the US and the Astana-Geneva agreements (Iran, Russia and Turkey), in other words, connecting the safe zones of the South with those of the North.
Although it is difficult to achieve this goal, it can be met in case of the US practical support and under the conditions that Turkey, Israel and Arab countries seem not to oppose it. In this situation, for potential opposing parties, i.e., Tehran and (possibly) Damascus, there remains little room for resistance, especially since Iran, unlike its field capability, is weak in making concessions in the political field. Moscow, on the other hand, is well aware that the final realization of the agreement reached between the three non-western countries - Russia, Iran and Turkey - on an Arab state is not acceptable by the Syrian rebels and Arab countries. But integrating this agreement with the agreement over southwest Syria, with the presence of Jordan (an Arab state) and the US and the partial support of other Arab countries, is more acceptable.
If there is such a comprehensive agreement, it is unlikely that Turkey, Iraq, and even the government of Damascus will be opposed to it, since there is an implicit and obvious emphasis on the Syrian territorial integrity, and the important Kurdish issue has somehow faded away in this agreement. In spite of Netanyahu’s opposition, Israel will partially achieve its goal to have Iran and Hezbollah confined, especially since Russia and the US guarantee this issue.
If this plan is achieved, Russia will be able to claim victory both in the field and political areas, which will be a great achievement for this country. Moscow has shown that it considers the interests of Iran, and in practice, it cannot and will not be indifferent to the interests of Tehran because it needs its cooperation, but naturally, in its major and regional plans, Russian particular interests will prevail those of Tehran. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Iran’s interests will be violated, but this refers to the issue that more caution should be exercised regarding the multi-layered policy of Russia in the post-ISIS period, which is a micro-policy out of its macro regional and international policies.
It is important to note that the agreement over southwest Syria can serve as a catalyst for reaching more agreements between Russia and the United States. As it is clear, they disagree on various areas ranging from the issue of North Korea to NATO, anti-missile shields, European security, large-scale arms control treaties, cyber security, Ukraine, sanctions, bilateral relations, and etc. Among these numerous disagreements, Syria is a much better ground for achieving the initial agreement and extending it to other areas. On the contrary, Moscow and Washington realize that if the compromise is not started from a point, and if the recent agreement is not met just like the previous agreements, it is possible that their relations would be strained in other areas as well.
Of course, the shaky position of President Trump inside the US and the double pressure on him by opposition parties who accuse him of having illegal pre-election relations with Moscow may prevent any broad understanding between the US and Russia. But the fact is that the pressure on President Trump due to the interference of Russia in the US presidential election is only a pretext to manage his imbalances, and in practice, there is a logic behind the actions taken by Moscow and Washington to resolve regional and international affairs, and manage their bilateral relations, which does not rule out reaching a compromise in cases such as Syria and the Middle East.

© Network for Public Policy Studies

Alireza Nouri, an analyst of Russian politics, is the fellow at IRAS.

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