Eight years of a bloody conflict, over 5.6 million refugees mostly spread across Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, an estimated $250 billion – according to the United Nations – to rebuild a devastated country, an exhausted population: Syria is undeniably the most consuming crisis in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), whose consequences will long reverberate on the entire region. As such, it will likely continue to occupy a prominent place in Russia’s MENA policy for the foreseeable future. Yet, to what extent is Syria a top priority for Russian foreign policymaking? As the conflict winds down and the country is slowly moving towards a new phase, what are Moscow's real interests and expectations?
Much ink was spilled to investigate and understand Russia’s Syria policy over the past four years, since the military campaign was launched in late September 2015. Some analysts have pointed to a Russian strategy for Syria, aimed at consolidating Bashar al-Assad’s allied regime to reinforce Moscow’s influence in the country and to impose its vision of a “Russian Pax” for the country and the broader Middle East. Others have depicted the Russian interventionism in Assad’s defence as rather opportunistic, aimed at exploiting the Syrian crisis to present itself as a constructive, problem-solving player, so as to gradually re-position Moscow on the global chessboard after its marginalization, which followed the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Frequently, observers have also outlined how Russian president Vladimir Putin used gains in Syria to boost his popularity at home. Not that president Putin had many rivals to compete with during the last presidential elections; however, successes in the military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and diplomatic gains over Syria contributed to strengthening his position, proving he was able to “make Russia great again”.
Yet one important aspect is often neglected. While Syria may appear to be Moscow’s most significant endeavour in the region and its primary goal, other dossiers are gradually emerging which might rank higher than Syria in the hierarchy of the Kremlin’s MENA policy. For the next few years, Russia will be increasingly interested in fostering economic cooperation with as many countries as possible, mostly in the energy and military fields. For instance, the preservation of the OPEC+ deal with Saudi Arabia on production cuts and oil price arrangements (Vienna, June 2019) will be prioritized in Moscow’s agenda for the MENA region; contrary to cooperation with Damascus, cooperation with Riyadh does represent an economic opportunity for Moscow. Similarly, Russian-Iraqi relations both in the energy (with Lukoil wishing to raise investments in the country) and military fields (as discussions about Baghdad purchasing S-400 air missile systems from Moscow evolve) will be increasingly important. Newly revived military ties with Egypt will also rank among the main MENA dossiers for the Kremlin, which reveal a common desire to strengthen bilateral relations and represent yet another economic opportunity for Moscow.
Syria was instrumental in fostering cooperation between Moscow and key regional actors. Indeed, two are the most significant gains emerging from Russia’s Syria campaign. First, the credibility that Moscow was able to acquire, mainly thanks to the Astana process (initiated by Moscow in partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey and Hassan Rouhani’s Iran in the Kazak capital in 2017). Second, the wide – and robust – network of relations that Moscow was able to build with the numerous stakeholders in the Syrian crisis it established contact with. As in the words of Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow Center), “semi-flexible alliances” with partners like Turkey and Iran, which have been consolidated through the Astana process, represent the biggest success that Russian diplomacy was able to draw from the military campaign. With Turkey, for instance, Moscow can cooperate on the settlement of north-eastern Syria, despite maintaining opposite views on the Damascus regime, while closing military agreements (S-400, July 2019) and nuclear power plants at the same time.
If it holds true that Syria was necessary to expand Russia’s MENA projection, is it sufficient in fulfilling Moscow’s interest in the region? Not at all. In diplomatic terms, Syria has already paid off, and there is not much left for Moscow to build upon. After having won the war, Russia is now put to the test of winning the peace, through the continuation of the Astana talks and further discussions of Syria’s future political assets and refugees return. Whether this will be successful or not, however, remains unknown. As far as reconstruction is concerned, since it is impossible for Moscow to carry such an heavy burden alone, in this case too Russia may profit from its broadened network of partners in the region and outside it (China, for instance); cooperation with major stakeholders in Syria’s reconstruction could bring about concrete benefits for Russian companies. It remains a fact, however, that Syria economically has little to offer compared to other countries. Oil agreements with Gulf countries, military and nuclear deals with Egypt and Turkey, affect Russian finances: Syria does not. Yet, none of these were imaginable before Syria. All roads pass by Damascus, one could say.