Since 2015, Russia has had a significant military as well as political presence in Syria and remains the key guarantor of the Assad Regime. Yet with the war in Ukraine, Russia has been dealt a severe blow to its military capabilities and has been shunned even by some of its closest allies, leading to isolation on the world stage.
Before 24 February 2022, Russia was seen as a country that had risen to global dominance by challenging the world order and the hegemonic United States. As Russia became economically stronger due to its rich energy resources, its deterrence grew accordingly. Russia was able to re-exert control over the Central Asian countries, the Caucasus, as well as the Western Balkans. The annexation of Crimea with nearly minimal international repercussions only emboldened Putin’s aspirations.
The civil war in Syria was an opportunity for Russia to become an important actor in the wider Middle East. After its long-lasting and costly Afghanistan war, Russia had no intention of overextending its presence in Syria. Instead, the Russian army was concentrated in certain strategic areas that allowed it to achieve its goals with minimal losses, and Moscow took control of the airspace in the western and central parts of Syria. Moreover, by signing a deal with the regime, Moscow was granted a military presence in the strategic Eastern Mediterranean for the next half-century, fortifying its already existing Tartous naval base and creating a new air base in Khmeimim.
Coming back to the present, we see that the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine has not bornethe desired results. The Russian military has shown a lack of capabilities in conventional warfare. The Ukrainian army, with support from the West, has inflicted huge losses on the Russian side. Over the past month, Russia had to retreat from the northwestern parts of Donetsk and Kherson, enabling Ukraine to retake more than 5,000 km2 of its land. This, together with the cold shoulder Putin received from the leaders of China and India during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, led the Russian leader to take an abrupt decision for the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporijiya and Kherson. Nevertheless, his declaration of partial mobilisation and threats of nuclear war in the same week were perceived as weakness in the West.
Even though Russia, in grave violation of international law, annexed 15% of Ukrainian territory, the war is not yet over. Ukraine is continuing its counter-offensive, with much success. Russia has not been able to mobilise its new troops and Ukraine is taking advantage of this situation before winter conditions make it more difficult to make continued progress.
The prolonging of the war has led Russia to give its full attention to the battleground in Ukraine; Moscow is said to have relocated some of its forces from Syria to Ukraine, although as the number of Russian troops in Syria has never been known, the number sent to Ukraine also remains a mystery. Regardless, many reports indicate that Russia has reduced its presence in the south and central parts of Syria, including that of the mercenary Wagner Group and some members of the Fifth Corps, an ally of Russia which includes Syrian former opposition members who have come to termswith the Assad regime.
Iran, Assad’s long-lasting regional ally, is trying to fortify its presence to consolidate its power in Syria. For Iran, Syria is the strongest link in its “Shia belt”, without which the resistance against Israel and the United States is incomplete. For Syria, Iran is essential for its survival in the region. The increased presence of Iran in the al-Hasakah and Deir-Ezzor Governorates, as well as the south near the Jordanian border, is visible. Yet today, Iran itself is in a vulnerable position. Iran sees the need to re-evaluate its relationship with Russia amid Russia’s increasing isolation and the need for a new nuclear agreement, vital for Iran’s economy. Furthermore, the Russian relocation of its S-300 missile defence systems to Ukraine has made Iranian forces more vulnerable to attacks from Israel. The recent protests all around Iran have openly shown the discontent of the Iranians with the Mullah Regime.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement refusing to recognise the Russian annexation of the four Ukrainian regions. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also recently stated that Iran has not and will not supply arms to Russia, despite recent claims that Iran has supplied drones. These two statements are a significant indication that Tehran might be seeking to distance itself from Moscow.
Nevertheless, like Russia, Iran will do its utmost to maintain its gains in Syria, especially at a time when Israel has become a greater threat to its security with the current wave of normalisation between Israel and various Arab countries. The improving ties between Turkey and Israel only add to Iran’s fears. How Iran will continue to remain a key actor in Syria, however, is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, the United States is maintaining its limited number of troops in northeast Syria with the aim of fighting ISIS. The US military recently conducted an operation against an ISIS terrorist near the town of Hasaka. The US, benefitting from the lack of authority in the north and northeast of Syria, together with the PYD/YPG controls the oil fields of Syria that were formerly in the hands of ISIS. The United States seems to be happy with its gainsand appears to have no intention of leaving Syria anytime soon.
Türkiye’s security concerns have led to four major cross-border operations. Among the main actors on the ground, Türkiye is the sole actor that truly wants peace. Its position vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war is unique in that it has a 911 km border with Syria, PYD/YPG terrorists constantly threatening its national security, and 3.7 million Syrian refugees. Therefore, it is only natural for Türkiye to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and push for a comprehensive political solution.
Where does this leave Syria and the future of Assad?
Although Russia and Iran remain in Syria, as the war in Ukraine goes on and Russia continues to suffer from sanctions, this will have a direct impact on Syria and Iran. Assad will most probably find himself in a very difficult position.
Internally, it is true that Assad still controls an important part of Syria; however, in addition to Russia, Iran the United States and Türkiye, there are dozens of small groups supported by different parties that pose a threat to the Syrian people. The existence of these groups and the lack of state authority have created fertile ground and a safe haven for terrorists.
The UN resolution allowing cross-border aid to be delivered to Syria will be discussed by the end of this year. Because of Russia’s intransigence last July, the resolution was adopted only for six months. This time, Russia might reject the resolution, risking starvation for nearly three million people during winter conditions. Furthermore, Syria is highly dependent on Russian as well as Ukrainian grain. Although a grain deal was struck between the two countries with the facilitation of the UN and Türkiye, the sustainability of the agreement is based on the will of the signatory parties. There are reports in the media alleging illegal wheat deliveries to Syria by Russian vessels. This only complicates the story. Therefore, in addition to its dire economic situation, Syria could face severe afamine.
Regionally, even though Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and some other Arab countries have normalised their relations with the Assad regime, US sanctions remain the biggest obstacle in fully normalising Syria’s relations with other Arab countries.
Nevertheless, the Middle East is rapidly changing, and more and more countries in the region want lasting peace. The desire on part of the Arab countries to reconcile their differences, has created positive momentum. Syria should not miss this opportunity. More importantly, Assad desperately needs Arab Gulf money for the reconstruction of his country.
Looking at the issue from a wider perspective, the United States and the West are very much focused on the war in Ukraine. The international community has failed Afghanistan. The situation of women in the country and the barbaric rule of the Taliban barely make headlines these days. Syria must not share the same fate. The Syrian people are facing a very difficult winter and they should not be abandoned.
Until now, when faced with a dilemma of either maintaining the status quo and letting the country suffer or risking his own future for the sake of saving Syria, Assad has chosen the former. It would be naïve to think that he will change his mind.
Moreover, the opposition is divided and disillusioned. With the war in Ukraine, it is difficult to predict if the Astana Process and the Constitutional Committee meetings will continue.
A comprehensive political settlement based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is the only way to establish and sustain peace in Syria. However, with all the different actors having their own agendas and Assad’s continuing intransigence, it seems that the conditions in Syria will get worse before they get any better.