Is Russia in collusion with US against Assad?

In wake of its success in Syria, Russia sees itself emerging in Middle East as re-energised diplomatic player.

2016/04/08 Issue: 51 Page: 3

The Arab Weekly
John C.K. Daly

London-based Al-Hayat reported in late March that US Secretary of State John Kerry informed several Arab countries of an agree­ment with Russia to have Syrian President Bashar Assad depart to another country as part of a future peace agreement.

Russian response was swift. The following day Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow that Kerry’s remarks were US “disinformation” and “wishful thinking”.

That Russian intervention has proved critical in allowing Assad to remain in power has been ruefully acknowledged by US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told an audience in Washington on March 29th: “Let me be honest. I think the Syrian regime was reeling last July or August and is stabilised right now and Assad and the regime is certainly in much better shape than they were before the Russian intervention.”

Dunford’s remarks acknowledge the value of Russian military assistance, which began September 30th, to ensuring the survival of the Assad regime. Beyond propping up a long-time, valued ally, intervention in Syria has provided many benefits to the Kremlin, the most notable of which use of an airbase and a naval base at Latakia.

The Russian use of these facilities raises the question: Why would they be facilitating Assad’s departure behind the scenes as the installation of a new government could put both facilities at risk of cancellation?

Second, the Syrian campaign has boosted Russian arms exports. Many countries have indicated an interest in purchasing Russian equipment after seeing their performance in the campaign, particularly the Sukhoi Su-34 bomber.

According to Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport’s deputy chief executive officer, Sergei Goreslavski, negotiations are going on with countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

The firm expects a $6 billion-$7 billion uptick in sales.

One aspect of the Syrian civil war that remains little commented on beyond illicit Islamic State (ISIS) oil sales is the country’s immense reserves of oil and natural gas. The country’s energy infrastructure, in the event peace is secured, will need massive reconstruction and Russia, having provided support critical to the Assad regime’s survival, would be in a prime position to benefit from lucrative post-civil war energy deals.

In the wake of its success in Syria, Russia sees itself emerging in the Middle East as a re-energised diplomatic player, an “honest broker”, in comparison with the United States and European Union, both of which are heavily influenced by Israeli policies.

Accordingly, Russia will not press Assad to step down but will grant political concessions as regards the composition of any upcoming coalition government. Evidence of this is Assad’s recent enthusiasm, stated in numerous interviews, of his willingness to form a coalition government.

Russia is pursuing its own national self-interest in Syria, being engaged in a tenacious struggle with its own Muslim extremists. The Kremlin remains profoundly concerned about the possible effects of Middle East extremism radicalising its own Muslim population. The Russian Foreign Ministry estimates that 5,000-7,000 Russians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq, training with ISIS militants and preparing to return to Russia.

The same day Kerry spoke, RIA news agency announced that security services in Moscow had arrested 20 ISIS members and sympathisers who were attempting to recruit people into the extremist group. ISIS, which is outlawed in Russia, has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the nation, mostly in the country’s troubled Caucasus region.

Kerry’s assertions run counter to Russia’s well-known distance and dislike of Washington’s fondness for “colour” revolutions and “regime change”, having instead a pragmatic view that regime change in the violent Middle East brought about by armed insurrection leads to a power vacuum that is filled by extremists, as in Iraq and Libya following their liberation from authoritarianism with weaponry supplied by the West.

The idea of US-Russian collusion on Assad extending to his forced removal is wishful thinking and far beyond what has actually been agreed in principle and is yet another example of Washington spin, “disinformation” and “wishful thinking”.

John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.

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