Analysts: Russia won’t give up hold on Syria amid Ukraine war

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 4 (UPI) — Russia, which emerged as a dominant player in Syria after saving the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from collapse in 2015, will not give up its growing influence and strategic interests amid its invasion of Ukraine, Arab political and military analysts say.

With the war entering its sixth week, photos and video of large-scale destruction, bombing of civilians and hospitals and forced displacements in Ukraine are a painful reminder of tactics used in Syria.

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However, Russia’s strategic success in Syria might not work in Ukraine, where an unexpected fierce resistance has forced Russia to adjust its military plans. Moscow is also facing international isolation because of its Feb. 24 invasion.

Whatever the outcome, Arab analysts say Russia is unlikely to abandon its gains in Syria. Moscow has waited a long time to secure a permanent military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, with two military bases in Syria — the Hmeimim air base near Latakia and the navy base at the port of Tartus — and an agreement to sustain such a presence for at least 49 years.

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“Some think that Russia, which is involved from head to toe in Ukraine, will not be able to maintain its distinguished role in Syria. But I think that it will not easily give up or abandon its gains after it invested a lot [to impose] its presence in Syria,” Oraib Rantawi, founder and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies, told UPI.

Ending unknown

While it is still early to know, in the absence of major military developments or a political settlement, whether the Ukraine war will have serious implications for Syria, Rantawi said Moscow will “continue its path” there, but might adjust its plans.

It is hard to imagine that the Ukraine war will end with one party emerging “victorious and the other defeated,” he said. But it could well be “a longstanding confrontation.”

“If Putin scores points in its favor in the Ukraine war, this will consolidate its position in Syria in any way. If he loses in one way or another, this won’t necessarily apply to Syria, where his troops are not involved directly in the battles,” Rantawi said, explaining that most of those fighting in Syria are not Russians, but Syrians and their militia allies.

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He argued that Russia won’t fight Turkey in the northwest area or the U.S. forces in the Kurdish areas in the northeast. Syria’s problems will end with political settlements.

Rantawi warned, however, that “defeating Putin and humiliating Russia could create crises no one knows how they would end.” Putin will not be able to impose his will on the United States and NATO and “the only way out is a settlement that hasn’t taken shape yet.”

Riad Kahwaji, a Dubai-based Middle East security and defense analyst who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said there are no indications the Russian presence in Syria would be altered.

“I don’t see change really in the Russian involvement or position in Syria. I don’t see the direct relation to cause such a thing, with the exception that the military concentration is now in Ukraine,” Kahwaji told UPI.

He explained that Russia is trying to deal with “its showdown with the U.S. and NATO and the economic sanctions” that were imposed by countries opposing its invasion to damage its economy.

Other countries

But Russia is not alone in Syria. There are also Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States with different interests and shifting strategies, especially after the outbreak of the Ukraine war.

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“Moscow needs the Arab countries and cannot actually give up on the Iranians or kick them out from Syria; this is not going to happen. They [would] need them more now,” Kahwaji said.

The challenge, however, will be Russia-Israel relations and Israel’s strategic objective of preventing its arch-foe Iran from consolidating its presence in Syria by constantly targeting its troops and militia allies and obstructing the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

“This is where we could see some changes. If the Israelis decide to proceed with any major operations in Syria, Russia will have to reconsider its position, as they cannot really open up a [new] front at a time they have Ukraine on their hands,” Kahwaji said.

Israel appears hesitant while trying to maintain a balance and avoid favoring one side over the other in the Ukraine war. What Israel mostly wants from Russia is to limit Iran’s influence and presence in Syria, experts say.

Ziad Majed, associate professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris, said Israel wants to preserve its “privileged and very strategic relations” with Moscow so that its air force keeps on targeting Iranian troops and allied militias in Syria.

“But at the same time, they cannot provoke the U.S. They were already criticized for allowing — it seems — some Russian oligarchs to flee with their money to Israel or at least not respecting the sanctions that were imposed,” Majed told UPI.

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Would Israel, which is very concerned about an agreement to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with the United States, feel with time that it can target Iran’s forces more in Syria?

“I think they [Israelis] will keep a kind of status quo in Syria. They will maintain their pressure without accelerating or intensifying the bombing, nor ending it and showing what might be considered as a weakness or hesitant approach,” he said.

Iran is a more complicated issue with the nuclear deal possibly adding to the tension with Russia.

“The Russians did not want the nuclear deal to happen while the [Ukraine] war is taking place,” Majed said. “They don’t want to be sidelined or marginalized. They want to keep the negotiations alive but without reaching a solution.”

Iran doesn’t want to sacrifice its alliance with Russia nor miss the opportunity of concluding the nuclear deal.

“Iran will remain, as always, counting on time and adopting a long-run strategy… consolidating its presence in Syria … and may be retaliating more than before on the Israelis,” Majed said.

Rantawi said it is true that Russia and Iran are allies and have common interests that make them “keep their dispute under the table,” but “they are competing over who has the upper hand in Syria and who has the biggest influence inside its decision-making institutions.”

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“The balance was shifting in favor of Russia, and I don’t think that will change,” Rantawi said.

For Assad, it is time to return the favor and show his loyalty and support to Putin.

However, he is risking “more isolation” by recruiting Syrian fighters to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine at a time his Arab isolation was starting to melt. Earlier this month, Assad paid a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates in the latest sign of rapprochement between Syria and some Arab countries.

“Putin wants to show there are volunteers supporting the Russian cause and that he can rely on them. For Assad, this is a way of showing loyalty and showing that he has a role to play, even if no one takes that seriously,” Majed said. “But this will cost him more isolation and maybe more sanctions later.”