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Situation Assessment 14 August, 2018

Can Russia Rehabilitate Assad on the World Stage?

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


In the wake of the Helsinki Summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on 16 July, 2018, Moscow embarked on a huge international PR campaign, attempting to demonstrate that the war in Syria was over, or nearing an end, and that the time had come to start reconstruction efforts and refugee repatriation. During a joint press conference with Trump, the Russian president called for US-Russian cooperation in addressing the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian crisis and facilitating the return of Syrian refugees and displaced persons to their homes.

Moscow immediately sent a task force to Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon; the three countries hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, to discuss a Russian repatriation plan. The head of Russia’s National Defense Control Center Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, who appears to be in charge of coordinating regional efforts for the repatriation of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries, noted that, "According to data provided by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 890,000 civilians are expected to return to Syria in the coming months." He added, "Lebanon’s government has established a working group to set up a joint committee on cooperation with Syria in matters concerning the return of refugees. Lebanese regional refugee centers have reported receiving about 10,000 applications from Syrian citizens willing to return to their home country." He also claimed that "The government of the Hashemite Kingdom has taken a number of steps which have encouraged more than 200,000 Syrian citizens to express a wish to return to their places of permanent residence.”[1]

But this Russian attitude, which decided its own self-serving interpretation of the OCHA employees’ position, one that could justify its early optimism, was met with an unenthusiastic response from the United Nations and its specialized agencies, including OCHA and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These agencies found the Russian plan to be unduly rushed, prompting the Russian coordinator to respond by criticizing the various United Nations agencies and accusing them of being "guided by the West’s stance and wait[ing] until this position changes"[2]. The Western reluctance is incomprehensible to Russia, which had calculated that the return of Syrian refugees would be an important magnet for Western policy, or at least for Europe. Immigration has been at the center of Europe's policies since 2015, when it saw unprecedented waves of refugees and immigrants, many of whom were Syrian.

Is the plan really to repatriate the refugees to their "destroyed" homes? Or is their return a front for the international political rehabilitation of the Assad regime?

Background

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution in spring 2011, Russia has represented the face of the Syrian Regime on the world stage. [3] Russia has protected the regime in the Security Council since October 2011, when along with China, it first vetoed a resolution condemning gross human rights violations in Syria and threatening measures against Bashar al-Assad's government. Russia has since relied upon its veto 12 times in the Syrian crisis, each time to protect the regime from any Security Council condemnation. Not only did Russia provide diplomatic cover but it also supplied the regime with various weapons before intervening militarily in September 2015, under the pretext that the Washington-led international coalition had failed to eliminate the Islamic State Organization (ISIL). Since then, Russia has been able to prevent a systematic defeat of the regime, upset the balance of power in the conflict to its advantage, and become a key player in determining the future resolution in Syria. This has proved to be Moscow’s true goal; winning more cards for Russia to negotiate with regionally and internationally.

The focus on refugees and displaced Syrians, and the introduction of an international plan overseen by Russia, raises questions about the reality of the goals that Moscow seeks to achieve at this stage. Russia has used Syrian refugees as a weapon in its confrontation with the West and to pressure Western countries to change their position on the Syrian conflict. Russian airspace directly targeted civilians in the opposition areas; pushing more to migrate, and encouraging them to flee to Europe, which caused a major political crisis for the European Union. This contributed to the rise of extreme right-wing xenophobia with refugees used to mobilize and gain power in Germany, Hungary, Italy, and other European countries. Russia in fact openly sympathized with them, and the right-wing groups in turn expressed admiration for Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Russia has incidentally only granted one Syrian refugee status, while most Syrians suffer difficult conditions inside Russia, which they consider a transit point on the way to European territory[4].

Russian Objectives

In an attempt to understand the real objectives in the Russian repatriation plan, the following two points are crucial:

  1. Russia seeks to benefit from intervention in Syria, but there are no official Russian figures related to the human or material cost that fell on Russia in Syria. Moscow relied on private security companies, such as "Wagner" who are contracted with the Ministry of Defense and provide Russian mercenaries to fight in Syria, without being registered at the Russian Ministry of Defense. Hundreds of these fighters have fallen in Syria, according to various reports. [5] In line with some reports, the material cost could be as much as $3 billion, leaving Russia hoping to gain revenue in light of its Western sanctions-induced economic difficulties. The Russian leadership feels that the only way to persuade the Europeans to provide the necessary funding for the reconstruction operations, which are largely contracted to Russian companies, is to use the repatriation card, a priority for many European countries, where public opinion has shifted to the right on immigration and asylum matters.
  2. Russia aims to rehabilitate the Assad regime internationally. In this context, Russia recognizes that the Assad regime may not be needed internationally any longer. The United States, and the European allies behind it, succeeded in recovering most ISIL controlled areas, most importantly Raqqa, without any coordination with the Syrian regime Therefore, the "war on terror" card, often invoked by the Syrian regime to invite Western parties for dialogue has expired, and the "refugee card" can no longer re-shape the Western position on the Syrian regime.

The rise of some marginal Western voices that might call for dialogue with Assad in the future remains likely, since his presence in power is a fait accompli after regaining control of much of Syrian territory, in cooperation with his Iranian and Russian allies. Yet the political cost of this dialogue will be high. In the eyes of the international community, with the exception of Russia and Iran, Assad is a war criminal. This has been confirmed by dozens of reports from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations General Assembly, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, and other international bodies. This will discourage any attempts to meet with Assad, provide him assistance, or engage in dialogue with him. Russia's attempt to rehabilitate the Syrian regime is thus likely to clash with Western public opinion, which will not easily accept the legitimization of a "war criminal". Moreover, Russia must overcome legislation enacted by European parliaments as well as US Congress, which prohibit contact with the Assad government, or even the lifting of sanctions, under the current circumstances and before a just political solution to the Syrian crisis is reached.

President Trump would appear more amenable to Russian President Vladimir Putin's concerns with the return of refugees and displaced people, judging by his election campaign and agenda targeting immigrants and refugees in both the United States and Europe. Yet others in the administration seem unfazed by the Russian plan. This is clear from the lukewarm response of U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the memo sent by his Russian counterpart inviting him to participate in the reconstruction process in Syria[6]. The Russian chief of staff mentioned the Syrian regime's lack of equipment, fuel, materials, and funding necessary to rebuild the country in preparation for the return of refugees. The spokeswoman for Dunford’s office told the press, however, that “The United States will only support refugee returns when they are safe, voluntary and dignified”[7]. Ultimately, millions of Syrian refugees will not volunteer to return to their homes, simply because they no longer have homes to return to, nor can they guarantee their personal safety from arrest or torture in Syria.

So far, Western nations have taken a firm stance regarding reconstruction and refugee repatriation in Syria which is dependent on political transition. As long as there is no political transition, Western countries will avoid seemingly encouraging Assad’s war crimes against his people.

[1] “Almost 900,000 refugees can return to Syria in coming months,” Tass: Russian News Agency, 3/8/2018, accessed on 14/8/2018, at: https://goo.gl/i3HQU9

[2]Maxim A. Suchkov, “Russia Eyes Refugee Return as Centerpiece of Next Policy Move in Syria,” Al-Monitor, 8/8/2018, accessed on 14/8/2018, at: https://goo.gl/ELVrJ8

[3] “Russia's 12 UN Vetoes on Syria,” RTE News, 11/4/2018, accessed on 14/8/2018, at: https://goo.gl/DWvAxr

[4] Mariya Petkova, “Why Russia Refuses to Give Refugee Status to Syrians,” Aljazeera, 17/1/2018, accessed on 14/8/2018, at: https://goo.gl/TC6U8U

[5] Mark Galeotti, “Putin is Playing a Dangerous Game in Syria,” The Atlantic, 15/2/2018, accessed on 14/8/2018, at: https://goo.gl/uTYxyU

[6] Arshad Mohammed & Phil Stewart, “Despite Tensions, Russia Seeks U.S. Help to Rebuild Syria,” Reuters, 3/8/2018, accessed on 14/8/2018, at: https://goo.gl/2SqU21

[7] Ibid.