Russia and the United States have traded barbs at an ill-tempered emergency session of the UN Security Council called by Moscow after the US army launched a barrage of cruise missiles against a Syrian government airbase. Syria's army said six people were killed in the early hours of Friday morning after the US fired nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat airbase, in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town that killed scores of civilians. Vladimir Safronkov, Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, "strongly" condemned the US for what he called a "flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression". "The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious," he told the Security Council. For her part, US Ambassador Nikki Haley said the missile strikes were "fully justified" and warned that Washington was ready to take further military action. "The United States took a very measured step last night," she told the council. "We are prepared to do more, but we hope it will not be necessary." Given the current context, Mahmoud Shoori, head of Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic Research (CSR) and senior fellow at IRAS, told Khabar Online (in Farsi) about Russia’s policy toward Syria and Moscow engagement with the US on the Syrian crisis. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is the current priciple of Russia’s Syria policy?
“Russia has entered into the operational phase in the Syrian crisis with specific objectives, and its goals actually aim at removing the ISIS threat, on the one hand, and establishing interests that Russia believes to have in Syria, on the other hand - this action took place. But that how long Russia can continue this trend will depend on various factors. I do not think that the military presence in Syria carries a high economic burden for Russia. It is true that it can incur costs on the not so powerful economy of Russia, but we should not think that the cost is so high that the Russian will be forced to withdraw.
“At one point, the Russian had a stronger military presence, and launched massive air strikes in Syria. But now that the cease-fire has gone into effect in some areas, and in general, the level of conflict has dropped in Syria, the Russian military spending in Syria has also declined. Of course, this does not mean that Russians can stay in Syria for an unpredictable future. There are, however, questions and pressures raised both from within Russia and from the international level on this issue that how long Russia is willing to stay in Syria.
“It seems that as long as the ISIS is posing a serious threat to Syria, the Russian military presence in Syria will not decrease. Now there are also fields and grounds to consolidate this presence. A 49-year agreement on the Hmeimim air base in Syria was signed between Russia and the Assad government which legally allows Russia to stay longer in Syria in the future. The ISIS and its presence in Syria have posed a serious security threat to Russia, and as long as Russians are not ensured that this danger is removed, they will maintain their military presence in Syria.”
Do you think that US intention to give information to Russia after the Syrian airbase strike is accurate?
“The US attacks on this base could have another meaning as well, and it could actually be considered as a declaration of war on Russia. This action could be a great risk that would take the conflict in Syria to a higher level. However, I think that there is an unwritten agreement between the two sides on the issue that the conflict should not be taken to a higher level. With regard to this issue, America carried out its military action, and given this issue, the type of Russian reaction should be defined. Neither were the American attacks of the kind to change the military conditions or the balance of power in Syria, nor was the Russian response of a kind to make the situation on the battlefield uncontrollable.
“This action was just carried out as a short display to show the seriousness of the American to different sides of the battle. That is why it is said that before the attack, Russians were informed. Certainly, they had been informed to have their troops unharmed. If these forces had been harmed, conditions would have become very difficult. I think Americans were looking for a show of power that will certainly not be continued. The American wanted to reassure their allies, have a show of power in the region, and declare that they are not going to leave the scene. Maybe the Russian can tolerate this action to this extent, but more than that can undermine all the achievements of Russia. Of course, this could serve as an issue for more talks between Russia and America to prevent the crisis going beyond its present level.”
Don’t you believe that Russia may take some concessions from Washington and in turn, give up its support of President Assad?
“The US cannot offer anything worthy to the Russians to have them leave Syria. Russia views the issues of Syria and the international system on a larger scale. The Russian game has developed more compared to a few years ago, and this implies that Russia pursues longer-term goals. Russians are not in Syria to just be given a concession, and then leave the country. As mentioned, Americans do not also have much to offer the Russian to convince them abandon their goals in Syria. The only common issue [between Russia and America] is the discussion on [how to] deal with the threat of the ISIS in which again the priority issues are important for the Russian, because they had to pay a high price for [not paying attention to] the priority issues in Libya. For this reason, it is unlikely that the Russian are willing to move forward with the American priorities in Syria.”
What is the current status of Iran-Russia relations and cooperation in the Syrian Crisis?
“I do not think that something will happen in the near future in Syria that could create a distance between Iran and Russia. The Astana talks will be continued, and within the framework of negotiations, Iran, Russia and Turkey will have some degree of consultation and dialogue. It is unlikely to see a solution to the political future of Syria in the very near future which is satisfying to Russia, but not desirable to Iran. Only will Iran and Russia be separated in Syria, if Russia accepts conditions that are not desirable to Iran.
“It is unlikely that the political future favorable to Russia in Syria would be unfavorable to Iran, and also be available in the short term. Even if we put aside the issue of Iran, we still have to say that there is no option on the table that would allow Russia and groups opposing the Assad government to reach an agreement on a single issue. There is also no prospect in the short term on the issue that Russia and opposition groups themselves can reach an agreement on the future of Syria.”
To comment on this interview, please contact IRAS Editorial Board