Analysis: Russia and a new strategy in Syria

Analysis: Russia and a new strategy in Syria

For the second time in months, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said “we will fight on to liberate every inch of our land”. Syria

The last time Assad made a similar statement, he was scolded by the Russian ambassador to the UN who said this was not in line with the Kremlin’s policies.

At the time, it wasn’t – Russia was pushing for a political settlement and was involved in efforts with the United States to bring about a cessation of hostilities to create a conducive atmosphere for peace talks.

This time around, however, Assad has so far not been told off.

Instead, Russia sent its defence minister to Iran’s capital Tehran to take part in talks with his Syrian and Iranian counterparts.

Ahead of the meeting, which took place on Iran’s initiative, the Russian defence ministry said the officials would be discussing “reinforcing cooperation in the fight with ISIS [Islamic State] and al-Nusra terrorist groups”.

Iran and Russia have what some call a “nominal” alliance in Syria.

After all, their strategic interests don’t converge.

Yet, it seems they have found common ground for the time being – particularly at a time when Moscow’s deep disagreements with the US are out in the open.

“It looks like Russia’s initial idea to forge a global alliance on the war on terror didn’t work. Russia’s repeated offer that both coalitions – the Russian-led and US-led coalitions should unite since they are facing the same enemy – was not given any prominence in the US,” Sergey Strokan, a political analyst in Moscow, said.

“And at the present, the US military has reduced its cooperation with Russia.”

Officially, cooperation has remained limited to avoiding accidents in the skies over Syria.

‘Coalition against terrorism’

Russia has tried for months to draw the US into some form of coordination with its forces because it needs it to revive cooperation over other divisive issues, like Ukraine and the escalating tensions with NATO.

But the US has accused Russia of focusing its air power not on ISIS but on opponents of Assad’s rule.

Now it seems the Kremlin may be looking for a strategic and public relations victory.

It is providing heavy air power to Syrian ground troops and their Iranian allies as they advance towards ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa city.

The fall of the city isn’t likely to happen any time soon – but this is not just about fighting ISIS.

For the Russian government, it is about legitimising its “coalition against terrorism” and ultimately improving ties with the West.

For the Syrian and Iranian governments, it is about survival and regaining a foothold in the east to prevent attempts to partition Syria in future negotiations.

The Iranian defence minister said that he and his Syrian and Russian counterparts were determined to deliver a “decisive” battle against “all terrorist groups”.

The results of our coordination “will be seen in the coming days”, General Hussein Dehghan said following Thursday’s meeting in Tehran.

But Raqqa is not the only frontline. Areas in and around the northern city of Aleppo, as well as the rebel-held districts surrounding Damascus, continue to be battlegrounds.

Collapsed truce

A few days earlier, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would be providing the “most active” air support for Syrian ground troops, while Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s deputy defence minister, said the Syrian army should be provided with more assistance since it is “fighting terrorism”.

Russia’s language in the past two weeks has been starkly different than in previous months – since Washington and Moscow announced a cessation of hostilities deal in February.

Russia warned that the US refusal to cooperate in Syrian would escalate the conflict.

The conflict has indeed escalated, while the truce has all but collapsed and there are no indications that a third round of negotiations in Geneva will happen soon.

“We can’t hold talks until officials on all sides agree parameters for a political transition deal which has an August 1 deadline,” Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said just days after Assad buried the peace process altogether in his speech to his newly installed parliament.

Russia has always tried to balance its military action with its efforts to push forward a political settlement. President Vladimir Putin said “our objectives have been achieved” when he announced a drawdown of troops from Syria in March.

His objectives were always going to change the balance of power on the ground, enough to bring about a deal that would preserve Russia’s interests in Syria.

That didn’t happen.

Has the Kremlin now decided its interests can only be achieved if it realigns itself with the objectives of the Syrian and Iranian leadership – which is “decisive” military action to tip that balance enough to declare victory?

Written by: Zeina Khoder, Al Jazeera