(Please read Part I prior to this article)
Decoding The Kremlin’s Signals
The sudden shift in Russia’s Syrian policy, having gone from avoiding any interference in its domestic affairs to openly writing a “draft constitution” and making suggestions to the ultimate law of the land (no matter what its intentions may have been with this), can be explained by one of two interpretations. The first one which will be discussed is the ‘best-case’ scenario which largely correlates to Moscow’s ‘official’ position, while the second one is the skeptical version of events which is gaining traction on social media and beyond.
It’s not the author’s place to persuade the reader to believe either of these narratives, but rather to present the two most prevalent explanations as to why Moscow embarked on this new policy and allow them to reach their own conclusions. The ideal situation, of course, would be if the ‘official ‘scenario turns out to representative of what’s going on. Nevertheless, even in that interpretation, there are still some rather uncomfortable conclusions which can’t be avoided, and the author wants to make it abundantly clear that he doesn’t necessarily agree with them.
Instead, the purpose behind this section is to provide two cold, impersonal, and emotionally detached explanations as to what might be driving Russia’s outwardly bewildering political reversal over Syria, and with that being said, here are the best-case and worst-case scenarios:
The Master Plan:
The most positive interpretation of events aligns with Moscow’s official statements about how it sought to introduce the “draft constitution” as part of its well-intended efforts to kick start the stalled political process and overcome the stalemate that had set in between both sides. As Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova put it, “the work on the Syrian Constitution must not become an ‘arena for meaningless rhetoric and demonstration of ambitions…The Syrian nation must see prospects of moving toward peace. Conditions for this have been provided.’” Her unusually harsh language in referring to an “arena for meaningless rhetoric and demonstration of ambitions” wasn’t meant to infer that Damascus is guilty of partaking in this, but might have been an off-the-cuff remark said out of frustration in responding to accusations that Russia is apparently “trying to force either the basic law or crisis settlement terms outlined in the draft Constitution presented during the talks in Astana on Syrians.”
Proceeding from this, one can infer that Russia decided to be so proactive in this process all of a sudden in order to take advantage of the political transition in the US and President Trump’s immediate preoccupation with satisfying the most pressing domestic elements of his campaign pledges. Sensing a priceless chance to make an unprecedented breakthrough in reaching a political solution to the War on Syria amidst an ever-closing window of opportunity, Russia seized the initiative in writing the “draft constitution” and organizing the Astana talks where it was given to both delegations. The reason why Russia is so eager to reach a political solution to the conflict is because it doesn’t have the will to commit the necessary military and financial resources needed to bring it to a full military end in favor of Damascus, whether due to what it might understand as being legitimate concerns about ‘overstretch’, ‘quagmires’, and/or faith in the ability of the Syrian Arab Army to liberate the rest of the country and sustain its hard-fought gains.
This last point is especially pertinent because Russian strategic, military, and diplomatic planners (the so-called “deep state”) might have developed doubts – whether real or unfounded – about the true level of support that President Assad enjoys in his country, potentially concluding that it’s not at the level required for ‘justifying’ a boost to Moscow’s military and financial commitment in Syria. Russia never second guessed its commitment to fighting terrorism in Syria, but its leadership might have decided to internationalize the struggle through a newfound multilateralism which only just recently became possible through the election of Donald Trump. Concurrent with this planned intent, Russia would need to bring about a swift end to the political aspect of the War on Syria in order to both meet the June 2017 deadline stipulated by UNSC Res. 2254 for rewriting the Syrian Constitution and holding new elections, and also to demonstrate before the eyes of Russia’s “Western partners” the seriousness with which Moscow wants to embark on the presumable multilateralization of the War on Terror.
In pursuit of the political aspect of this grand strategy, Russia might have realized that it’s much easier to institutionalize the on-the-ground status quo within the country through the implementation of “autonomy” and/or “federalism”, which would give each “moderate rebel opposition” group (including the PYD-YPD Kurds, which fall under this broad category) de-facto governing rights over their occupied territories. Russia doesn’t see this as an “internal partition”, but rather as the only pragmatic and possible solution to an intractable conflict, and it could also allow Moscow to gain important trust with a wide range of actors aside from its traditional Damascus and Kurdish allies. This could help in promoting what is Russia’s ultimate goal nowadays, which is to achieve a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War. Although murky in meaning at this early point in time, it could realistically entail the division of Eurasia into undeclared ‘spheres of influence’ between the US and Russia, with such a framework even including a ‘chessboard’ of “autonomous”/”federalized” statelets within Syria itself.
Refuting The Critics:
While it might superficially look like Russia is “selling out” Syria, that’s not at all in fact what’s happening, and the larger geopolitical dividends which Moscow is aspiring to achieve all across Eurasia would more than compensate for any perceived ‘losses’ in Syria, to say nothing of better reinforcing international security in general and preventing “another Syria” from ever happening again.
Through the drawdown of NATO troops on Russia’s western borders to the relaxation and eventual elimination of the sanctions which are upsetting Russia’s influential economic elite and negatively affecting certain strategic sectors of the economy, Moscow could emerge from this New Détente even stronger and more secure than before, thereby allowing it to play an enhanced future role in Eurasia in assisting its Chinese and Iranian allies in their impending showdown with Trump. The first step in making this happen, however, is for Russia to take the initiative and ultimately be successful in bringing peace to Syria, capitalizing off of its recent military victory in Aleppo in order to bring about a political solution.
In short, Russia saw its entire long-sought-after plan suddenly fall into place in early December ever since the Liberation of Aleppo, and it accordingly decided to act on all of its strategic gains. As Bismark once remarked, “the Russians are slow to saddle up, but ride fast (once they eventually do)”, which in this instance means that it took a painfully long time for Russia’s envisioned end game solution to materialize, but once it became faintly visible across the horizon after all of the hard work that went into advancing this master plan, Moscow immediately jumped into action and shocked the world with its present swiftness.
(It personally pains the author to write the following text, but in the interest of fairness and presenting an alternative “populist” interpretation of empirical evidence after such a scandalous event as Russia writing the “draft constitution” for another country, it becomes a duty to do so in order to allow the reader to reach their own conclusion about what might really be going on behind the scenes in these fast-moving times, though the author of course doesn’t endorse what follows and optimistically believes that the claims laid out below are debunked by the abovementioned best-case scenario.)
Desperation For A New Détente:
This scenario presumes that Russia is desperate to reach a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War, for whatever the reasons might be (though possibly linked most heavily to sanctions relief for the influential economic elite and the removal of threatening NATO troops from its western borderlands), and it is aware that the only realistic opportunity to do this is in the first few months of the Trump Era. Seeing as how this necessitates reaching a deal with the US, Russia resorted to copying the proposal first put forth by the neoconservative Brookings Institution in its summer 2015 policy proposal about “Deconstructing Syria: A New Strategy For America’s Most Hopeless War”, which aggressively lobbies for devolving the centralized Syrian state into a “confederation”.
Making a quick cost-benefit determination and realizing the financial and military futility of a committing to an indefinite liberation war in Syria, Moscow concluded that it would be best to ‘actively advise’ (“pressure”) its Damascus counterparts to cut a deal for (con)”federalization” and “autonomy” which would allow Russia to retain influence along the western coast while cede undeclared influence to the US and its allies in the much less populated northern and eastern parts of the country.
The way that Russia might be understanding the present situation is that Moscow has already secured the rights to develop Syria’s oil and gas reserves (including offshore, it’s presumed) as well as two bases (naval and air), so it doesn’t have any further geopolitical interests in the country besides ending the war and leading a multilateral coalition to crush terrorism (possibly co-led by the US in a PR spectacle to commence or encourage the New Détente).
“Federalization” is also beneficial to Russia’s Western and newfound Mideast “partners” because it could allow Turkey and ‘Israel’ to establish and sustain their hoped-for “buffer zones” in northern and southern Syria respectively (disguised as “safe zones” in the beginning), while its American, Saudi, and Qatari ones would have full reign in the eastern part of the country and thus be able to finally fulfill their plans for building a Gulf pipeline to Turkey and thenceforth to the EU. Since the Syrian government would most likely be forced to recognize ‘Israel’ as part of its responsibilities in abiding by the “principles of good neighborliness, cooperation and mutual security”, it follows that the new Damascus government wouldn’t’ object to Russia selling Syrian offshore oil and gas to an ‘Israeli’-Cypriot-Greek pipeline to Europe.
Even though it might sound like Russia is risking its newly clinched partnership with Turkey through the obvious promotion of a Kurdish “federal” unit in northern Syria, Ankara might be planning to use its in-country military forces and associated proxies to kick the PYD-YPG Kurds out of power and replace them with a pro-Ankara group backed up by Erdogan’s Kurdish ally in northern Iraq, Masoud Barzani. Additionally, since no details have been revealed yet about the governing privileges and range of responsibilities that Damascus would cede to any prospective “autonomous” or “federalized” statelet, it’s possible that the regional authorities might be empowered to invite foreign troops into their territories, especially if they’re allowed to have their own official militias (which would de-facto function as a “standing army”) and the Syrian Arab Army is denied a presence in these areas.
After all, almost the exact same arrangement is currently in force in northern Iraq, and it led to the tense December 2015 standoff whereby the local Kurdish authorities “invited” Turkish troops into their region despite the central Iraqi government in Baghdad deeming this an “invasion” and demanding their immediate withdrawal. Something similar could conceivably happen in northern Syria, too, if the Kurds are granted “autonomy” or “federalization”.
The one regional Great Power conspicuously left out of this grand strategic framework of Russian-led deal-making in facilitating a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War is Iran, which is a major energy rival of Russia’s as well as the US and ‘Israel’s’ hated foe. Although Russia is aligned with Iran in the sense of fighting terrorism in Syria and partaking in the newly formed Tripartite of Great Powers between both of them and Turkey, there’s a lot of bad blood between them due to their impending competition in the global energy market and unforgettable offense that the Russian leadership experienced when the Iranian Defense Minister abruptly kicked them out of the Hamadan base and publicly insulted them. Hossein Dehghan said at the time that the “Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly (attitude) in this field”, which was perceived in Moscow as an unforgivable slight which would one day warrant a response.
This eventually came in the run-up to the Astana talks, when Moscow unilaterally invited the US to attend and thus prompted predictable outrage from Iran, which in turn triggered Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to publicly tell the BBC of all outlets that “Iran’s position is complicating the issue… Iranians are not welcoming this…This is probably the cause of some disagreement between Moscow and Tehran.”
Tehran was understandably offended because it’s not accustomed any of its partners speaking out against its positions in such a manner, especially when its political and diplomatic cultures encourage such disagreements to be discretely resolved behind closed doors. Recognizing that in accordance with this scenario (to remind the reader, not necessarily in reality, but per one of the “populist” narratives that’s been going around) Russia and Iran are mutually suspicious partners at best and impending all-around rivals at worst, Moscow wouldn’t necessarily have any compunctions against working together with Washington and Tel Aviv to progressively expel Tehran’s influence from Syria, especially if this was a demanded prerequisite in order to reach the hoped-for New Détente.
In any case, Russia might figure, Trump and Netanyahu’s forthcoming unconventional aggression campaign against Iran will give Tehran no choice but to look towards Moscow for strategic relief, thus preserving what Russia might believe to be its dominant position in the relationship. Therefore, Russia could be predisposed to working with the US and ‘Israel’ against Iranian interests in Syria, which brings the scenario along to making ‘sense’ of the many controversial clauses in the Moscow-written “draft constitution”.
A Russian-American-‘Israeli’ Plan?:
The US and ‘Israel’ want Hezbollah out of Syria, but this can only be achieved if Iranian influence is curtailed and eventually removed, though there’s no way that this will ever happen so long as President Assad is still in office. If Russia has doubts – whether real or unfounded – about the Syrian leader’s popularity and ability to be a consensually accepted ‘national reconciliation/unity’ leader, then it might not care too much about his political fate.
After all, cynics would point to the fact that Russia already secured its ‘Great Power interests’ in Syria by gaining de-facto control over its natural resource reserves and two coastal military bases, legal agreements which any successor government would presumably be obliged to honor per a ‘grandfather’ clause inserted in the “draft constitution”. Therefore, in order to progressively phase out Assad’s presidency and thus avoid the state collapse that immediately followed Hussein and Gaddafi’s sudden removal from power, Russia included the passages about how parliament can decide “the removal of the president from office”, anticipating that this would be the unstated political recourse which could be relied on in the event that President Assad runs for and wins another term.
According to this line of ‘reasoning’, Astana was supposed to be the moment when Russia convinced the Syrians to accept or at least publicly approve of everything in the Moscow-written “draft constitution” prior to its public unveiling, anticipating that it would be a major soft power victory for Russia to get both sides to agree on something as politically game-changing as this document (and in the run-up to UNSC Res. 2254’s June 2017 deadline for this to happen). That obviously didn’t transpire, but Moscow might have thus decided to turn up the pressure on Damascus in response by humiliating it and publicly disclosing to the world that Russia is “drafting” their constitution because the Syrian authorities have turned the process into, as Zakharova phrased it, an “arena for meaningless rhetoric and demonstration of ambitions.”
Worse still, while the Syrian state was in shock at this unprecedented humiliation, Lavrov declared that “Russia believes that the forthcoming intra-Syria talks in Geneva should focus on specific issues, including drafting the Syrian constitution.” What this translates to in practice is that all of the many Geneva participants will be able to influence their “moderate opposition rebel” proxies in “suggesting” more and more demands for the “draft constitution”, anticipating that the pressure will pile up on the democratically elected and legitimate Syrian government to the point that it politically capitulates and accepts whatever is required of it.
This absolute worst-case scenario assumes that Russia understands contemporary International Relations as representing a 19th-century Great Power chessboard in which only its similarly sized/influential peers matter and small-medium states are negotiable pawns in a larger neo-realistic game of power and interests. For yet another time, the author must reiterate that he does not endorse this viewpoint or anything mentioned above pertaining to this scenario, but that it was conveyed to the reader with the intention of serving as a foil to the best-case and presumably ‘official’ narrative of why Russia so suddenly reversed its positions towards Syria’s conflict resolution process and other important issues thereof.
There’s no way to know exactly what the Kremlin’s calculations were in publicly disclosing that it had surprisingly and unprecedentedly written a “draft constitution” for Syria, nor why it convincingly appears to be promoting the idea of “autonomy” and/or “federalization” for the Kurds, but it’s an analyst’s job to countenance the most likely possibilities in eventually figuring out what may have been going on behind the scenes.
The purpose behind such exercises – which all intelligence agencies (whether state or private), media outlets (whether mainstream or alternative), and independent individuals (whether professional or private) engage in – is to reveal unstated motivations which could hint at future actions, thus allowing one to more accurately predict how a given subject will behave and thus acquire a picture of how forthcoming events could reasonably play out.
In this particular case, it was so shocking to many observers that Russia would apparently reverse its long-standing position and offer up proposals contradicting fundamental interests of the democratically elected and legitimate government of the allied Syrian Arab Republic that there was no way to avoid discussing controversial (and very likely, inaccurate) narratives, which the author included in order for the reader to come to their own conclusions and hopefully end up rejecting the “populist” interpretation of events.
Looking forward and regardless of the narrative which one chooses to accept (whether dogmatically as one or the other, a flexible hybrid thereof, or neither), Syria’s future is fraught with political uncertainty. There’s no telling whether or not the Russian-written “draft constitution” will be accepted, let alone in its entirety, though all indications thus far seem to indicate that it is very unlikely that Damascus and the “moderate rebel opposition” will both agree on its unmodified original version.
That wasn’t Russia’s intent either, since it openly said that its initiative was meant to revive the stalled political process and accelerate much-needed and long overdue progress in this direction, so it’s clear that all sides are preparing for a frantic pace of upcoming diplomatic activity in hammering out the most mutually agreeable terms for reaching a sustainable deal between the Syrian government and its opponents. At the end of the day, however, nothing can enter into practice without the consent of the Syrian people, which is why both Syria and Russia have each reiterated on multipole occasions that a constitutional referendum will absolutely have to take place as one of the final steps to the conflict resolution process.
This means that Syrians could possibly even reject whatever it is that Damascus and the “opposition” eventually agree to at Geneva and Astana, which could lead to completely unpredictable consequences especially as it relates to a possible New Détente between Russia and the US in the New Cold War. However, as the saying goes, “sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal”, and the future of Syria will ultimately be decided by the astute judgement of the wise Syrian people in deciding what is best for their multi-millennial civilization-state.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the views expressed in this article are not endorsed by the author but are being presented in order to deliver a thought-provoking narrative contrast intended to allow the reader to independently come to their own conclusions. Nothing written within this article should be assumed to represent the official position of any of the author’s professional and personal affiliates unless explicitly and unambiguously stated otherwise by them.