In Syria, Russia is weighing its options against Turkey

Even as Moscow continues to rely on diplomacy, the military establishment is preparing for a confrontation

A picture taken from the town of Sarmin in northwestern Syria on February 21, 2020 shows smoke billowing over the village of Qaminas, about 6 kilometres southeast of Idlib city, following reported Syrian air strikes.   / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
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The military establishment in Russia is determined to contain Turkish ambitions in Syria and put an end to what it sees as excesses being committed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the war-torn country. However, members of Moscow's diplomatic corps are still hoping that the Turkish president would change course and avoid a potentially dangerous confrontation between the two regional powers in Syria's north. Russia's President Vladimir Putin, it is reliably learnt, is hoping to personally influence Mr Erdogan but finds himself in a position where there is pressure to make a decision quickly.

Either way, what is clear is that Russia will not abandon the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad. After all, Mr Al Assad’s government is a key component in furthering Moscow’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

I was in the Russian capital earlier in the week to attend the Valdai Club conference, the theme of which was "Middle East in a Time of Change: Towards New Stability Architecture". There, I met figures apprised of the thinking of the Russian civilian and military leadership groups – especially vis-a-vis Turkey and Iran – and got the sense that a military confrontation with Turkey in Syria is inevitable. For what they are worth, the Astana and Sochi agreements delineating the two sides' interests in the country are now in a state of clinical death.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) attend the inauguration ceremony of a new gas pipeline "TurkStream" on January 8, 2020, in Istanbul. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hosting Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to inaugurate a new gas pipeline, with tensions in Libya and Syria also on the agenda.The TurkStream project, which was temporarily halted during a frosty patch in Russia-Turkey relations, includes two parallel pipelines of more than 900 kilometres (550 miles). / AFP / Ozan KOSE
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the TurkStream inauguration in January. Relations between Moscow and Ankara are strained over Idlib.  AFP 

The military brass in Moscow believes that Mr Erdogan's efforts to undermine Russian involvement in Syria would have damaging consequences for its strategic interests, as well as prestige, and concludes that the time has come to counter his actions. Russian forces have momentum on the ground – and therefore control over timing – for them to swing into action. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to push for a political solution.

Russia defines its intervention in Syria “a war on terror” but it could well turn into a war for Syria. Which would be an important development because, while Russian public opinion might not warm up to the idea at the beginning, that will change when the conflict is framed in the context of a nation preserving its strategic interests and preventing Turkey from undermining its prestige.

Because of this deterioration in these ties, Iran – the third party to those agreements – could acquire greater importance for Russia. The catch, however, is that Moscow’s attempt to strengthen its relations with Tehran in Syria and beyond would invite US measures against Russia – in the form of economic sanctions or even an undermining of its interests in other parts of the world. In other words, Moscow’s two allies in Syria have become burdens – one economic and the other military.

epa08233776 A handout picture made available by Iran's Supreme Leader Office shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) arriving at a polling station to vote in the parliamentary elections, in Tehran, Iran, 21 February 2020. Iranians headed to polls amid a worsening economic crisis and escalating tensions with the United States.  EPA/IRAN'S SUPREME LEADER OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is trying to squeeze out the liberals from the political establishment. EPA

There is certainly anxiety in Moscow regarding Iran’s domestic situation, especially in light of the recent anti-regime protests across the country.

Hardliners in Tehran, led by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – the regime's influential militia arm, see the weekend's legislative elections as an opportunity to squeeze out the so-called liberals from within the establishment. Having already disqualified most liberals from running in polls, the regime has sought a national mandate for harsher policies vis-a-vis the West.

However, while Tehran is keen to assure Moscow that it has things under control at home, the worry is that its attempted purges would reduce any influence President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif might have in the country’s dealings with the rest of the world. This would preclude any negotiations with the US and possibly lead to further escalations in the region.

Given its problems with Turkey, Russia might have little choice but to accept Iran’s assurances and its boastful claim of having helped Hezbollah, Tehran’s ally in Lebanon, to consolidate its power in that country. But it does not encourage the current developments in Tehran.

FILE PHOTO: The Rosneft logo is pictured on a safety helmet in Vung Tau, Vietnam April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
Last week, the US imposed sanctions on Rosneft for helping Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro – another Russian ally – to evade US sanctions. Reuters

There is also the threat of economic pressure on Moscow. Last week, Washington imposed sanctions on the commercial arm of the Russian energy giant Rosneft for helping Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro – another ally – to evade US sanctions. Moscow has described them as illegal and threatened to respond but Russia is nonetheless set to incur financial losses. There is also anxiety that new US laws could impose restrictions on foreign investments in Russia.

Moscow is aware that Washington is determined to get it to end its support of the regime in Tehran, even if that means slapping more sanctions. What it does anticipate fully is an official warning from the US next month, when a key meeting regarding US foreign policy on Iran and its supporters is scheduled to be convened.

In a nutshell, recent events have left Moscow concerned even as it reviews its tactics and partnerships – both existing and potential – as it looks to preserve the gains it has made over the years in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute