August 3, 2021

In Syria, Russia now expects return on investment

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That was twenty years ago. Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father at the head of a State which, at the cost of suffocating its population and strong interventionism in Lebanon, had succeeded in positioning itself as an essential interlocutor in the Middle East. The young president was to embody the promise of progressive liberalization of Syria and openness to the West. Two decades later, the results are clear: the country is nothing more than a ruin disputed by raptors. Turkey is mistress of part of the West and the North. The Americans are present in the East. The Iranians are seeking to position themselves in the South. And the Russians dominate what is left of the territory. Bashar al-Assad won the war thanks to the intervention of his Russian and Iranian allies. But he paid a high price: that of his own sovereignty.

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Today, the Russian Bear is the master of the game. Russia has a military airport in Hmeimim, a base in Tartus, and it controls the regime’s security apparatus. Above all, its presence in Syria is accepted by all major players – Turkey, Israel, the West and the Gulf monarchies.

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“The biggest challenge for Moscow now is to succeed in converting its military successes into economic and political dividends”, summarizes Alexey Khlebnikov, expert on the Middle East at the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the power. Rather than “presenting the bill” to Damascus – which does not have the means to settle it, the Russians preferred to take control of the country’s natural resources, such as gas, oil or phosphate. In 2017, the Stroytransgaz company, owned by magnate Gennady Timchenko, managed to grab Iranians’ nose and beard for a phosphate mining contract. Other companies belonging to Evgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s cook”, hope to start their oil and gas exploration work soon. The world’s leading wheat producer, Russia also plans to transform the port of Tartous into a “green hub” in order to serve the entire Middle Eastern market. Russian hold is not absolute, however. “Russia has a few levers, but it is wrong to say, as we often hear, that Moscow orders and Damascus executes,” said Alexey Khlebnikov. “The Russians seem to have underestimated the fact that Assad has other cards in hand, like Iran, which has been present in Syria for a longer time,” said Ruslan Trad, analyst and co-founder of the The Military Re, a newspaper based in Bulgaria.

This could all change. The war is far from over, but the spirits are already projecting themselves into the “after”. The country is undergoing an unprecedented economic crisis due to the collapse of the Syrian pound, reinforced by the implementation of new US sanctions that jeopardize a reconstruction estimated at several hundred billion dollars. On the political level, the loyalist alliance is crumbling and the divisions are becoming more and more visible. “We are going to see big changes due to disagreements within the ruling clan, but also growing disputes between Russia and Iran,” assures a Syrian-Lebanese businessman. If Moscow and Tehran have, in fact, collaborated so far to save the regime, they are now engaged in a war of influence.

Russia soon to be overtaken by Iran?

To understand these issues, we must go back to January 7, 2020. That day, in Kerman (Iran), the funeral of General Qassem Soleimani, the former head of the al-Quds force within the Revolutionary Guards, takes place. – killed in an American strike four days earlier. At the same time, Vladimir Putin goes to Syria and receives Bashar al-Assad at the headquarters of the Russian armed forces group in Damascus. As with every meeting between the two men, the “Russian tsar” stages his domination over his Syrian protege. “Putin summoned Assad to Damascus,” we say ironically in the ranks of the opposition. The message is clear: Syria must not become the scene of Iranian revenge.

Besides, Putin would like to go further. “The Russians no longer want Iranians in Syria,” assures a Western diplomat stationed in Beirut. Also contested by the United States, Israel and the Gulf monarchies, the Iranian presence indeed threatens the Russian plan to stabilize Syria. From there, for Moscow, to enter into direct confrontation with Tehran? Probably not: the Russians prefer to let the Israelis do the work. Frequently, the Hebrew state bombs Iranian positions in the south, north or east of the country, without Russia activating its anti-defense missile systems deployed in Syria.

But Iran has not said its last word. No question of leaving Syrian soil – a crucial link in the consolidation of its “Shiite highway”, which connects Tehran to the Mediterranean via Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. On July 8, 2020, Damascus and Tehran concluded a military agreement with a view to strengthening the Syrian air defense system. “Iran wants to show that it does not need anyone to defend its interests in Syria,” analyzes Alex Vatanka, an expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. For his part, Bashar al-Assad has an interest in playing on the rivalry between his two allies. “The Iranians are Assad’s life insurance”, assures our Western diplomat.

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Russia is indeed starting to show signs of impatience with the regime. At the end of April, a series of articles published by several local media, strongly criticizing the Syrian state, revealed cracks. The first bursts were fired by the Federal News Agency belonging to Evgeny Prigozhin, which notably owns the mercenary company Wagner, which has a strong presence in Syria and Libya. The articles called Bashar al-Assad a “weak leader” who had lost “the confidence of the financial elite” because he was unable to fight corruption. Note that the Kremlin reacted to these articles “in sufficiently lukewarm terms to leave the feeling that it was not unhappy that a form of threat was addressed to the Syrian regime”, analyzes Michel Duclos, former French ambassador to Syria , in a note published by the Institut Montaigne. A few weeks later, the Russian ambassador in Damascus, Alexandre Efimov, was appointed special representative of the president for the development of relations with Syria, as if the master of the Kremlin wanted to tell his Syrian protege that nothing should escape his control. control. Twenty years after the death of Hafez al-Assad, the fate of the Syrian dictator appears more than ever in the hands of the Russian tsar.


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