Anton Mardasov is a Russian analyst, nonresident scholar in the Middle East Institute’s Syria Program, military affairs expert, and journalist focusing on Syria, Iraq, and extremist organizations. He is also a nonresident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. In early June, Diwan interviewed him to get his perspective on Russia’s role in Syria, in particular a number of recent developments that suggest that Moscow is increasing its power in the country.
Michael Young: Two significant events today in Russian-Syrian relations are the fact that Russia’s ambassador to Syria, Alexander Efimov, was recently named President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the country. At the same time Russia and Syria are discussing an agreement to expand Russia’s presence in Syria, including expanding Russian military bases. Can you explain the significance of these developments and what they tell us about Russian-Syrian ties.
Anton Mardasov: Putin’s appointment of Alexander Efimov serves to tighten the president’s control over the Syria portfolio. It is the Kremlin that determines the composition of the main players in Russian policy toward Syria and evaluates their performance. Putin’s “personalization” of the Syria file also makes decisionmaking less predictable, while introducing a degree of stress into the chain of command to suit the needs of the Russian leader and his interpretation of events. The fact that Putin is in charge of the Syrian portfolio also means that decisions are going to be taken in a reactive manner, as he tends to resolve issues as they come rather than formulating any long-term strategies.
Changes of personnel among Russian officials in Syria also reflect Putin’s desire to receive more comprehensive feedback from the country, soliciting not just the views of the military but also opinions coming from diplomats. Ever since Russia’s return to the Middle East, it has used informal channels of influence—private military contractors and businesspersons—in addition to relying on diplomats and officials. The problem with relying solely on bureaucrats is that they lack the necessary flexibility and efficiency to carry out their tasks and cultivate links with local players. Under conditions where there is no alteration of power in Russia, the Kremlin knows its decisions will not be scrutinized under future administrations. Therefore, it is relaxed about using private actors to its advantage. This means security companies can conduct military activity abroad, while Russian private firms engage in business opportunities using nontransparent practices—therefore pay no taxes.
The work of those private actors in Syria has been overseen by the Defense Ministry’s officers and advisers. By 2017 it became clear that the military and special security services had effectively sidelined diplomats from decisionmaking, first in Syria and then Libya. Moreover, the Russian military has apparently demonstrated an ability to act in a coordinated way in Syria and Libya by helping recruit combatants in Syria to fight on Khalifa Haftar’s side in the Libyan conflict. Military bases in Syria, meanwhile, are now hubs for Russian activity in Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
On the political side, the Russian military encouraged and managed the creation of the so-called “deescalation zones” in Syria, with the purpose of weakening and fracturing the Syrian opposition. All this led to a situation where the Syrian regime at one point came to view the Russian military, intelligence services, and private military contractors hired by certain businessmen as the only players with real political weight who were backing it.
Efimov’s appointment serves to somewhat mitigate this imbalance and goes at least some way toward restoring the importance of diplomats. Given his experience in the region, Efimov can offer a unique perspective on the situation and report directly to the Kremlin, bypassing other institutions. His appointment, therefore, enhances the position of Russia’s Embassy in Damascus, as it will no longer be perceived by the Syrian regime as lacking in power.
As for the possibility of Russia’s expanding its footprint in Syria, Moscow has a tendency to raise issues publicly only after they have already been settled in private. That means that what you described as “discussions” regarding military bases are likely to have already been concluded and that the Russian military will see more territory transferred to its control.
MY: There has been speculation about the rivalry between Russia and Iran, who each seek to assert their influence in Syria. What can you tell us about this?
AM: From a practical standpoint, Russia needs Iran in Syria more or less to the same extent that Iran is interested in a continuing Russian presence. Moscow gave President Bashar al-Assad diplomatic cover, while also providing necessary military systems and air support. Russia also conducts police and special operations in the country and, where necessary, can mediate between the government and the opposition. Iran, for its part, maintains influence through links with Shi‘a networks and local militias such as the Local Defense Forces.
That does not mean that an element of competition is completely absent from Moscow-Tehran relations. In recent years, Moscow has been seeking to tighten its grip on the Syrian military, pushing its own reform agenda and limiting corruption within military ranks. However, Russia still cannot monopolize influence in this area and is unable to eradicate Iranian influence over military formations. Moreover, Iran is still relied upon to provide training to Syrian pilots.
There is also a stereotypical view that Russia seeks to centralize Syrian military formations, while Iran is pulling in the opposition direction. In reality, however, it is Moscow that has backed units that, initially, were not institutionally part of the Syrian armed forces, such as the Fifth Corps, Liwa al-Quds, the Tiger Forces, and some tribal militias. It was only later that some of those structures were integrated into the Syrian armed forces, as the country’s military command was unhappy with their having a special status. For its part, Tehran is supporting two main Syrian security formations, the Fourth Armored Division, effectively led by Maher al-Assad, and the Republican Guard. Iran helps recruit new fighters for these formations from Shi‘s militias such as Liwa’ al-Imam Hussein and the Local Defense Forces.
I do not think that Russia is ready for any decisive action against Iran in Syria. Nor do I believe that Moscow will attempt any dramatic intervention, even if Tehran should use Syria as a new military theater—along with Lebanon and Palestine—to escalate pressure on Israel. Russia is, more or less, trying to be on good terms with all the key players in the region. What it might be prepared to do, however, is to show greater tolerance toward an Israeli escalation of its bombing campaign in Syria against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian proxies. Israel is unlikely to allow Iran to grow too powerful in Syria and will use the lack of integration of the country’s air defense systems to its advantage by attacking Iranian positions.
MY: How do Russian-Iranian and Russian-Israeli relations play out in the Syrian context?
AM: Following the decision of the United States to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, and Israel’s taking a more robust line vis-à-vis Tehran, the Iranians have been trying to make their activities in Syria less visible. To this end, Iran provides civilian and economic cover for its military projects in Syria, while buying property in the country to serve as hubs for pro-Iran loyalists in Damascus and other large cities.
Tehran has also been trying to legitimize operations outside Shi‘a groups by mixing them with Syrian formations, such as the Fourth Armored Division, comprising former rebels. Nevertheless, Iran will continue to exercise influence in Syria and infiltrate the country using Hezbollah and its contacts with local groups. Demographic changes in Syria, including Shi‘a settlements on the border with Lebanon, create additional infiltration opportunities for Tehran.
While it was Iran’s decision to lower its profile in Syria, Russia would prefer this to be seen as the product of its own efforts to contain Iranian ambitions, without taking sides between Tehran and Israel. Moreover, this purported “containment” of Iran helps Russia’s relationship with potential investors in the Syrian economy among the Arab states, most notably the United Arab Emirates. Damascus, too, benefits by maintaining the appearance of a Russian-Iranian rivalry and using it as leverage to extract benefits from both sides.
MY: President Bashar al-Assad is up for reelection in 2021, and some Russian media outlets have hinted that he may not return to office. Do you believe that the presidential election will represent a significant new moment for Russian policy in Syria, or not? And if so, how might Moscow choose to act?
AM: The importance of the anti-Assad campaign in Russian media outlets is overestimated. As far as I can judge, while it is true that this campaign had resonance and was provocative, many analysts have misinterpreted its meaning. I do not believe that the anti-Assad mood in some fringe publications should be construed as Russia’s official position. Perhaps those publications might benefit some special interests within Russia. More pertinently, however, this wave of criticism against Damascus became an opening shot in Assad’s presidential campaign. I am reasonably confident that the publications served as political spin for Assad and his campaign. Namely, debate around the publications created the appearance of an open society in Syria, where the regime can both be criticized and respond to criticism, like some proponents of the government did by urging Moscow to respect Damascus’ autonomy. It is notable that Mahdi Dakhlallah, a member of the leadership of Syria’s Ba‘th Party, referred to the debate in Russian publications as proof that free speech in Syria had reached a new level.
It may sound counterintuitive, but another episode that can benefit Assad in manipulating public opinion is the story involving his cousin and Syria’s wealthiest man, Rami Makhlouf, who has fallen out of favor with the regime. Makhlouf’s Facebook videos might help bolster the narrative of a Syrian system open to dissenting voices and create the image of a Syrian president opposed to corruption. The reality is more nuanced. Assad’s aim is not to eradicate any corrupt practices as such, but first and foremost to consolidate all financial resources in his hands and ensure that businesses contribute to the state budget in taxes, or contribute to Assad-linked financial entities, such as the Martyrs’ Fund.
On a broader point regarding Russia’s strategy, I do not expect Moscow to shift its position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime in any significant way or abandon Assad. As the presidential election looms larger, Russian officials and advisers may try to nudge Assad toward creating the appearance of real competition at the polls. This would serve as a contrast to the previous presidential election in 2014, or the municipal elections of 2018, both of which were dull and did not offer competition, even on superficial level. The question is what Damascus will do and whether it will be ready to acquiesce to Russian demands.
MY: How will the imminent implementation of the Caesar Act—U.S. congressional legislation designed to sanction the Assad regime and all those cooperating with it—play into Russian calculations in Syria?
AM: I do not believe that the Caesar Act can seriously affect Russia’s position, not least because of the fact that a lion’s share of Russian business activity in Syria is managed by Kremlin-linked businesspersons already on the U.S. sanctions list. However, current circumstances can further incentivize those businesspersons to engage in smuggling activities to minimize risks associated with sanctions. Overall, Moscow’s main task, at least for the time being, is to preserve the balance within the current Syrian institutional settlement. Otherwise, there is a risk of political structures unraveling and political and economic opportunities being lost. All this would require Moscow to commit more resources to stabilizing the situation. Meanwhile, both Moscow and Damascus place high hopes on receiving financial investments from the Persian Gulf countries, thus mitigating the impact of the Caesar Act. In order to attract those investments, Moscow and Damascus have created an appearance that they are limiting Iran’s reach, while also containing Turkey.