How Russia, Iran and Turkey see the future of post-war Syria
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has announced that specialists from Russia, Turkey and Iran are working on drafting a joint action plan for Aleppo following a meeting of the three nations’ defense ministers in Moscow on Dec. 20.
The final document of the meeting, the so-called Moscow declaration, will lay out urgent steps to promote a settlement of the civil war in Syria following the recapture of the country’s second largest city by government troops.
Despite their desire to put an end to the Syrian hostilities, each of the three actors has its own vision of how the crisis should be resolved and how a post-conflict Syria should look. It also appears, if Russian analysts are to be believed, that Syria's post-war future will become reality fairly soon.
“The hostilities will continue for about another year, after which the first signs of Syria's future state system will become visible,” Vladimir Yevseyev, a military expert and deputy director of the Moscow-based CIS Institute, told RBTH.
Yevseyev believes there will be a redistribution of political power between the offices of president and prime minister in Syria, making the latter a more influential figure. In addition, some of Syria's regions will gain more rights and autonomy, but the country is more likely to remain a republic than turn into a federation.
Moscow wants the situation in the region to stabilize, and also wishes to limit its involvement in the Syrian conflict, according to Russian experts.
“Russia is calling for elections to be held after the end of the crisis, and for the drafting of a road map to restore Syria,” said Yevseyev. “We will continue to involve [Syrian] settlements into the peace process, and to create corridors for the withdrawal of militants.”
Russian experts say that Moscow's primary objective is not only to achieve security in Syria but also to restore the country economically. On the other hand, Russia does not want to go it alone on this: It expects other nations to share the burden.
However, according to Yevseyev, there is also a certain self-interest in Russia’s ambitions for Syria, with the boosting of Moscow’s military presence in the region another priority.
“We also want to establish a foothold in the eastern portion of the Mediterranean,” he said. “We already have Khmeimim air base in Syria; in the future we will turn our naval supply and maintenance base at Tartus into a full-fledged navy base.”
During the Moscow talks, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik described the operation to take back eastern Aleppo from rebels opposed to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as having been “very successful”.
Nevertheless, a number of Russian experts are skeptical as to Turkey's contribution to the Aleppo offensive. Semyon Bagdasarov, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Central Asia, said in an interview (in Russian) with the online news publication Vzglyad that pro-Turkish units had actually taken part in the defense of eastern Aleppo, and also that it was the Turkish military that had organized counter-strikes from the direction of Idlib and Homs, and had attempted to breach the government blockade around the city.
Bagdasarov enumerated Turkey's key objectives in the Syrian conflict: overthrowing Assad; setting up a Turkish-controlled quasi-state with its capital in eastern Aleppo; and also destroying the foothold established by the Syrian Kurds.
According to him, Moscow in principle is prepared for the emergence of a Kurdish quasi-state in Syria, but there are fears that such a state would be constantly at war with Damascus, “with all the associated problems that would entail”.
Not all Russian experts agree with this view. Prof. Sergei Druzhilovsky of the Department of Oriental Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations told RBTH that Ankara's position has changed significantly in the past six months, since the failed coup in Turkey, and that the Turkish authorities have even found common ground with Iran, whose views used to be diametrically opposite.
“Al-Assad represents Syria's Alawite ethnic minority, which accounts for about 10 percent of the population, and there are 12 to 15 million Alawites residing on Turkish territory,” said Druzhilovsky. “Domestic conflicts have prompted [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan to revise his policy on Syria, as well as on some parts of his own country's Shia population.”
Druzhilovsky believes it is important for Iran that Al-Assad retain his presidency: “Any other president is likely to change Syria's policy on Tehran dramatically,” he said.
Syria's attitude towards Israel is a sensitive issue for Iran, Nikolai Surkov, assistant professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, told RBTH.
“Iran would like Syria to fight Israel, and to provide its territory for supplying arms to Hezbollah,” said Surkov. “Tehran's position is that any figure to replace Al-Assad should be prepared for maximum cooperation with Iran.”
Vladimir Yevseyev, however, does not believe that Iran will have any direct influence on Syria's future policy: “For the time being Iran remains Syria's economic sponsor; it plays but a secondary role militarily,” he said.