Analysts: Russia won’t let go of Syria amid war in Ukraine

An Israeli soldier prepares a Merkava tank for training exercises on Wednesday in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights near the Syrian border. What Israel expects above all from Russia is to limit Iran’s influence and presence in Syria, according to experts. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License picture

BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 4 (UPI) — Russia, which became a dominant player in Syria after saving President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from collapse in 2015, will not give up its growing influence and strategic interests amid its invasion of Ukraine. according to Arab political and military analysts.

As the war enters its sixth week, photos and videos of large-scale destruction, shelling of civilians and hospitals and forced displacement in Ukraine are painful reminders of the tactics used in Syria.

However, Russia‘s strategic success in Syria may not work in Ukraine, where unexpected fierce resistance has forced Russia to adjust its military plans. Moscow also faces international isolation due to its February 24 invasion.

Whatever the outcome, Arab analysts say Russia is unlikely to give up its gains in Syria. Moscow has waited a long time to secure a permanent military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, with two military bases in Syria – the Hmeimim air base near Latakia and the naval base at the port of Tartous – and an agreement to maintain such a presence for at least 49 years.

“Some think that Russia, which is involved from head to toe in Ukraine, will not be able to maintain its distinguished role in Syria. But I think it will not easily give up or give up its gains after investing a lot [to impose] its presence in Syria,” Oraib Rantawi, founder and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Policy Studies, told UPI.

End unknown

While it is still early to know, in the absence of major military developments or a political settlement, whether the war in Ukraine will have serious implications for Syria, Rantawi said Moscow will ‘continue its course’ there. , but could adjust its plans.

It is hard to imagine that the war in Ukraine will end with one side “victorious and the other defeated”, he said. But it could well be “a long-running confrontation”.

“If Putin scores points in his favor in the Ukraine war, it will cement his position in Syria in any way. If he loses somehow, it will not necessarily apply to Syria, where its troops are not directly involved in the battles,” Rantawi said, explaining that most of those fighting in Syria are not Russians, but Syrians and their militia allies.

He argued that Russia will not fight Turkey in the northwest region or US forces in the Kurdish regions of the northeast. Syria’s problems will end with political settlements.

Rantawi warned, however, that “defeating Putin and humiliating Russia could create crises that no one knows how they will end.” Putin will not be able to impose his will on the United States and NATO and “the only way out is a settlement that has not yet taken shape”.

Riad Kahwaji, a Dubai-based Middle East security and defense analyst who heads the Near East and Gulf Institute for Military Analysis, said there was no indication that the Russian presence in Syria would be modified.

“I don’t really see any change in Russian involvement or position in Syria. I don’t see the direct relationship to cause such a thing, except that the military concentration is now in Ukraine,” Kahwaji told UPI.

He explained that Russia was trying to deal with “its confrontation with the United States and NATO and the economic sanctions” which were imposed by the countries opposed to its invasion to harm its economy.

Other countries

But Russia is not alone in Syria. There is also Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States with different interests and changing strategies, especially after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

“Moscow needs the Arab countries and cannot really abandon the Iranians or expel them from Syria; that will not happen. They [would] need it now,” Kahwaji said.

The challenge, however, will be Russian-Israeli relations and Israel’s strategic goal of preventing its nemesis Iran from consolidating its presence in Syria by constantly targeting its allied troops and militias and obstructing the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

“That’s where we might see changes. If the Israelis decide to do major operations in Syria, Russia will have to reconsider its position, because they can’t really open a [new] ahead at a time when they have Ukraine in their hands,” Kahwaji said.

Israel seems hesitant while trying to maintain a balance and avoid favoring one side over the other in the Ukraine war. What Israel expects above all from Russia is to limit Iran’s influence and presence in Syria, according to experts.

Ziad Majed, associate professor of Middle East studies at the American University of Paris, said Israel wanted to preserve its “privileged and very strategic relationship” with Moscow so that its air force would continue to target the Iranian troops and allied militias in Syria.

“But at the same time, they cannot provoke the United States. They have already been criticized for allowing – it seems – certain Russian oligarchs to flee with their money to Israel or at least not to respect the sanctions that have been imposed,” Majed told UPI.

Would Israel, which is very concerned about a deal to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with the United States, think over time that it can target Iranian forces in Syria more?

“I think they [Israelis] will maintain a kind of status quo in Syria. They will maintain their pressure without accelerating or intensifying the bombardment, or ending it and showing what could be seen as weakness or a wavering approach,” he said.

Iran is a more complicated issue, with the nuclear deal perhaps adding to the tension with Russia.

“The Russians didn’t want the nuclear deal to happen when [Ukraine] the war is on,” Majed said. “They don’t want to be sidelined or marginalized. They want to keep the negotiations alive but without reaching a solution.”

Iran does not want to sacrifice its alliance with Russia or miss the opportunity to conclude the nuclear agreement.

“Iran will continue, as always, to rely on time and adopt a long-term strategy…consolidating its presence in Syria…and may retaliate against the Israelis more than before,” Majed said.

Rantawi said it is true that Russia and Iran are allies and have common interests that make them “keep their dispute under the table”, but “they are in competition over who has the upper hand in Syria and who has the greatest influence in his decision-making institutions.”

“The balance was shifting in favor of Russia, and I don’t think that will change,” Rantawi said.

For Assad, it’s time to return the favor and show his loyalty and support for Putin.

However, he risks “further isolation” by recruiting Syrian fighters to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine at a time when his Arab isolation was starting to melt away. Earlier this month, Assad made a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates in the latest sign of rapprochement between Syria and some Arab countries.

“Putin wants to show that there are volunteers who support the Russian cause and that he can count on them. For Assad, this is a way of demonstrating loyalty and showing that he has a role to play, even if no one takes it seriously,” Majed said. noted. “But it will cost him more isolation and maybe more punishment later.”

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