Novye Izvestia together with the experts studied the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and in the world.
Yelena Ivanova, Natalia Seibil
2014 became a watershed for Russia in cooperation with the West. The relationship between US President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin has never been close. In his efforts to reanimate cooperation between Russia and America, Obama focused on Dmitry Medvedev, who was then president. After Putin came to power in 2012, relations have completely fallen apart. However, European contacts, due to many circumstances, remained close to the Russian authorities, despite disagreements on the Ukrainian issue, over NATO expansion, despite claims of numerous violations during the 2011 Duma elections. The situation changed dramatically after Crimea and the hybrid war in Donbass. Russia was excluded from the G7, its role in international politics was significantly curtailed. Tough economic sanctions were imposed on the country by both the European Union and the United States. Access to technology and capital markets was cut off. Cote d'Azur, London, Miami and New York have become less welcoming and hospitable for the Russian elite. A path was needed by which Russia could return to the benefits of Western civilization without losing face and without disappointing the population, who supported the country's leadership in creating the "Russian world". Therefore, Syria has become a springboard from which Putin could again make Western leaders talk to him.
Europe, terrorists and refugees
According to some European diplomats, Europe misjudged the scale of the Syrian crisis, considering it a peripheral conflict. Former French ambassador to Damascus Michel Duclos says the Syrian conflict has become a catalyst for irreversible processes and events in Europe itself. Terror attacks committed by extremists from ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation - "NI") fell on European cities. Europe had to open its borders to millions of refugees, prompting a rise in nationalist and anti-migrant sentiments. The ultra-right and populist parties took advantage of this and dramatically increased their electorate. It was these people who greeted the Russian planes that bombed Syrian cities.
The refugee crisis has forced European leaders to change their attitude towards human rights. The population demanded security from politicians. The attacks and migrants were viewed by many as a threat to their own lives and well-being. I had to, gritting my teeth, bow to the autocrats. First, there was the infamous deal with Turkey, when the European Union paid Erdogan to keep Syrian refugees on Turkish soil and not move further to Europe. Then I had to talk with Russia, which connected ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation) on Syrian territory and, thereby, reduced the risk of terrorist attacks on the European continent. In addition, authoritarian rulers have strengthened their positions in Europe itself.
"The time has come for new authoritarian leaders, with Putin at the head of the column", - writes Michel Duclos, referring to Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and Matteo Salvini in Italy. The sanctions on Russia were not lifted, but the dialogue was gradually restored, including thanks to support from within the European Union. If in 2013 the Europeans demanded the removal of Assad, who brutally suppressed the actions of his own people and used chemical weapons against them, today this demand is no longer relevant. Faced with terror at home and opposition to refugee policies, European politicians left Russia to solve the Syrian problem even by keeping Assad in power, as President Putin demanded.
“But wars end in peace”, the poet once wrote. Today is the moment when Syria needs money to rebuild the destroyed country. And it turned out that the requirements for Assad have not changed - the West insists on political reforms and negotiations with the opposition. Only then can the sanctions against the Damascus Regime be lifted and funding will begin.
Russia became the savior of Assad, but not Syria.
"Russia won in the sense that there is still a Russian flag there. And this is the main achievement. Putin is always striving to prove that Russia is a great power and has interests in the Middle East. What - it is not clear", - says political scientist, head of scientific research of the Dialogue of Civilizations institute Alexey Malashenko.
The United States led the international coalition in Syria back in 2014, so engagement in Russia was necessary to avoid incidents.
“For the Americans, the life and health of servicemen is a sacred matter, and they reluctantly went to develop a detailed special protocol that would exclude the possibility of misunderstanding and clashes between Americans and Russians”,- says military expert Alexander Golts.
Before the departure of Barack Obama, the Arctic cold reigned in the American direction. With the coming to power of a new president, the situation is softening for Russia, despite new accusations of interference in the American elections. At the end of December 2018, the new US President Donald Trump fulfilled his campaign promise and announced the beginning of the withdrawal of American troops from Syria. At that time, the American contingent totaled 2-2.2 thousand people. After the withdrawal of part of the ground forces, the united coalition deployed 1,500 troops in the north-east of the country to protect the security zone for the Kurdish formations. The richest Syrian oil fields are also located there, which are protected and restored by the Americans. The Assad regime does not have access to them.
The United States continues to strengthen its position in the Middle East. Half of U.S. arms exports in 2019 went to countries in the region. In May 2019, President Trump personally promoted a $ 8 billion deal with Saudi Arabia.In the five years of the Syrian war, the United States increased its arms exports by a quarter. Russia cannot boast of such successes.
The most high-profile incidents of the Syrian campaign are related to Turkey. After the Turks shot down a Russian plane in 2015, there have been many minor incidents between Russia and Turkey. The latest, big deal happened this winter, when Assad's Syrian army launched an offensive against Idlib, killing 35 Turkish troops. Ankara considers the Idlib enclave its zone of influence. Under the terms of the Sochi agreements in 2018, a demilitarized zone should be created in Idlib, which should be guarded by Turkish military units. In fact, the partition of Syria has already taken place, and Erdogan will not give up Idlib. However, Turkey does not want to quarrel with Russia either.
"Moscow is the only player capable of curbing Damascus at any moment and stopping the implementation of Assad's hostile plans towards Turkey. Turkey also wants to maintain close relations with Russia due to the increasing international isolation of Ankara, especially in the issue of interaction with Western and Middle Eastern countries", - said Professor, Middle East Specialist Joseph Daer.
Therefore, political problems will be solved by negotiations, and the military - by means of hybrid warfare.
Experts believe that Turkey has not yet managed to become the main player in the Middle East. Turkey does not determine the political structures in the region, since it does not have sufficient weight for this.
- It will be very difficult for Erdogan to reach the level of the decisive element in the Middle East and Mediterranean. He lacks political flexibility and economic background. His passionate decisive actions came as a surprise to those around him, until the players mobilized”, - says Andrey Chuprygin, an Arabist orientalist, senior lecturer at the School of Oriental Studies at the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics, National Research University Higher School of Economics.
Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties, the Russian president is best able to "sort out" the situation with Erdogan.
“The model of the relationship between Putin and Erdogan appeals to both of them, because it reproduces the set of relationships between the powerful of this 19th century, when major powers gather to decide the fate of small ones”, - notes Alexander Golts.
Following clashes between the Turkish military and the Syrian army this winter, Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan met in person to establish a joint patrol zone for Idlib. Such meetings have become commonplace.
- In the geopolitical scenario, nothing has changed either: everything that was is what remains. The balance of power is changing: Turkey loses and wins. Now there are two "great powers" - Russia and Turkey. 25 years ago, could you imagine such a thing? There are two regional powers competing there. God forbid, there will be something in Karabakh. But I think that Turkey will not be allowed to do this, - says Aleksey Malashenko.
Five years in Syria have strengthened Russia's position in the Middle East. Experts note that the attitude towards our country has improved. This is noticeable in communication and on social networks, says Andrey Chuprygin.
- The trend to take the place of a mediator in Middle East issues and then project it onto Africa is the only reasonable position that Russia can take, exploiting the successes that have been achieved in Syria.
Russia is brought closer to many Arab countries by the similarity of political systems, when decisions can be made quickly, on the basis of personal agreements. However, the lack of an institutional framework could upset the results achieved, warns Middle East expert Dmitry Frolovsky. Assad cannot carry out real reforms. Reconciliation between the warring parties is impossible, especially against the background of the fact that the Kurds are supported by America, the Sunnis by Turkey, and Assad by Russia. The number of conflicts in the region is growing rapidly. The population is becoming impoverished and radicalized. Any external player can find itself at the epicenter of complex political events. But it will get even more difficult.
"Explosive population growth, dictatorship and widespread corruption, the absence of working social elevators, the decline of the oil era, irreplaceable technological backwardness, intensifying religious enmity and the socio-economic consequences of climate change - these factors will directly affect the dynamics of the development of the Middle East in the very near future and will bring an immediate threat to external forces within the region, including Russia", - Dmitry Frolovsky believes.
No one has support for external forces in the region. Success is illusory and changeable, like a mirage in the desert. Therefore, the answer to the question of what the Syrian campaign brought Russia, Alexey Malashenko has a very short answer:
- Only the flag. Flag as a factor that we are a great international power. We are present everywhere.