Amid despair of Syrian ‘Marshall’ plan, Russia straightens out position
Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima
The Russian presence in Syria has not been limited to the military level since the end of 2015 but has included several levels, especially the economic one, during the past seven years.
A number of questions were raised about Russia’s goal of including the electricity clause among the items that were presented during the UN Security Council session that was held a week ago to extend the decision to enter humanitarian aid into northern Syria in order to supply the areas under the regime’s control with electricity, which was followed by cheers from the regime government.
Syria’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Bassam Sabbagh, said in a statement after the vote, obtained by the pro-regime al-Watan local newspaper, “What Syria requested, through its delegation, in coordination with friends in the Security Council, is to make improvements to the text of the draft resolution, which included a good response to the humanitarian needs in a balanced, transparent and measurable manner, with the aim of improving the humanitarian and living situation of the Syrians, and alleviating their suffering, including by promoting early recovery projects, especially in the vital electricity sector that was included in the text of the resolution.”
On 12 July, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2642, by which it extended the mandate of the UN humanitarian aid delivery mechanism across the border from Turkey to Syria for a period of six months only.
Over the past years, Russia has used the file of cross-border aid to obtain political gains in other files that are in its interest.
After the vote, Moscow threatened that it would monitor the mechanism for the passage of executive aid on the ground.
“Russia was trying to get the best deal possible… We thought that we need to take into account Syria’s interests foremost,” Russian First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyansky told reporters after the UN Security Council’s vote on the issue, according to the Russian TASS agency.
Polyansky told the Security Council that Russia calls on the Secretary-General to pay special attention to the need to lift unilateral sanctions in the context of the repercussions of the Covid-19 virus that has not yet been overcome, Tass reported.
He added, “We have to work hard to eliminate this problem in Syria, which will give more opportunities for donors to invest in early recovery projects.”
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines early recovery as “an approach that addresses recovery needs that arise during the humanitarian phase of an emergency; using humanitarian mechanisms that align with development principles.”
The UNDP adds that “this approach enables people to use the benefits of humanitarian action to seize development opportunities, build resilience, and establish a sustainable process of recovery from the crisis.”
Key ally support
The Program Manager at the Political and Economic Networks Observatory, Dr. Karam Shaar, believes that Russia and the regime have always supported paying higher amounts for early recovery, while the position of Western countries was clear that they were unwilling to support early recovery without a political solution except at its minimum levels.
Western countries see that early recovery aid will be an opportunity to help the regime to impose a fait accompli policy, which will make the situation stable for it, with the presence of the United Nations supervising infrastructure projects, electricity delivery, and water security, which helps the regime’s government to get back on its feet.
According to Shaar, what Russia is trying to do is get the donor countries to help rebuild Syria and impose a new reality without making any political concessions by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The improvement of the electricity reality in Syria will certainly benefit Russia in two ways, the first is direct, through its assistance in its current investments, and the increase in the economic feasibility of its current investments, and the indirect form is through the support of its direct ally, the Syrian regime, Shaar says.
The economist does not believe that the direct benefit is the main motive for Russia in the delivery of electricity, given that its current investments in the field of phosphates, petrochemicals, and the port of Tartus are still very limited economically.
In other words, Russia “still spends more on its military intervention in Syria than it receives in revenue.”
Dr. Shaar stressed that the Russian taxpayer is the one who pays the expenses of the Russian war in Syria and that the oligarchs are the ones who get the gains, as the practically effective investments in Syria fall mostly in the hands of the Russian businessman Gennady Timchenko, who is one of the richest and most powerful men in Russia and he is a friend and partner in Judo of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Timchenko has also been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the long-term economic relations between Moscow and Syria, where he “won” contracts to build part of a gas pipeline from Egypt and two major gas processing plants, and after Russian military intervention helped turn the tide of the war in Syria in favor of the Syrian regime.
Also, two other companies linked to Stroytransgaz have acquired a dominant position in the phosphate sector, one of the most profitable assets still under the control of the regime government.
Russia’s economic pillars in Syria
With Russia militarily joining the side of the Syrian regime against the armed opposition on 30 November 2015, the Russian Federation of Oil and Gas Industry announced that after “the situation becomes stable” in Syria, the union will seek to invest at least 1.6 billion dollars in energy contracts.
This investment was preceded by the signing of an agreement by the Syrian regime’s government in 2013 with the Russian Soyuzneftegaz company for the purpose of drilling and prospecting for oil and gas in an area off the Syrian coast, according to a 25-year contract.
The Russian Stroytransgaz company also controls the largest port in Tartus with a 49-year contract and was awarded another deal to extract phosphates in Palmyra with a 50-year contract.
On 5 July, the Russian Sputnik news agency quoted sources in the Syrian regime government that the Russian Sinara Int company will sign an investment contract to build a tourist complex in the Jules Jammal area on the shores of Latakia city, northwest Syria.
According to Sputnik, the contract combines Sinara Int company with the Latakia Provincial Council, the owner of the site, and stipulates the investment of the site to build a four-star tourist complex.
On the same day, sources revealed to Russia Today (RT) channel that a new air transport line would be launched this July, linking Russian Dagestan with Syria, in addition to official assurances of expanding the list of Russian airports that will link with Syrian airports.
In March 2020, the regime’s government signed a production-sharing agreement worth 22 million dollars with the General Petroleum Corporation and Stroytransgaz.
The regime’s government claimed that the agreement allowed the company to remove mines, rehabilitate, explore and develop oil wealth fields without paying any taxes to the regime’s government.
Between September 2019 and January 2020, the regime signed four new oil exploration contracts with a number of Russian companies.
Moscow is based on the idea that resolving the issues related to the Syrian conflict at the present time will not be possible but rather wants to move to the process of benefiting from the current situation as much as possible, says an expert in Russian affairs.
The investment, economic and commercial sectors can constitute gains for it, especially in these circumstances, despite the fact that the Syrian market is very small for the Russian need in return for the Western siege imposed on Russia, according to Raed Jabr.
“Every outlet in this regard is useful for Moscow, so the expansion of the tourism sector, for example, as a resource for it, is very important,” he adds to Enab Baladi.
Making investments on the ground is also important, but that always collides with obstacles, including sanctions and restrictions imposed on Syria, which reduce Moscow’s capabilities to deal with or take advantage of this situation, meaning that it is able to pump certain investments, but it is not able to lift the siege or the sanctions and restrictions.
The Russian insistence on delivering electricity is an attempt to expand the presence as much as possible in the economic and investment files on the Syrian land at the present time in return for the inability to reach final settlements in many files, Jabr says.
Of course, Moscow is keeping an eye on the fact that, at a certain moment, there may not be a “Syrian Marshall Plan” as it once aspired, but that there is a regional need that is increasing little by little to reach certain compromises.
Marshall Plan, formally the European Recovery Program (April 1948–December 1951), was a US-sponsored program designed to rehabilitate the economies of 17 western and southern European countries in order to create stable conditions in which democratic institutions could survive.
Russia’s eye on Caesar Act
During an official ceremony held on 21 June at the Lebanese Ministry of Energy in Beirut in the presence of Egyptian and Syrian officials, the countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt signed an agreement to transfer 650 million cubic meters of gas annually from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria.
Walid Fayyad, the Lebanese Minister of Energy, announced during a press conference after the signing that the implementation of this project will provide an additional four hours of electricity and that by signing the agreement, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria have completed all steps to secure electricity for Lebanon.
He also stressed that Lebanon is looking forward to the final US guarantees in regard to the sanctions to ensure the implementation of the project.
Washington welcomed on 23 June the agreement as an important step to support the Lebanese people while emphasizing the United States’ work with the World Bank to review the details of the agreement.
“This is an important step towards regional cooperation in support of the Lebanese people. We look forward to working with the World Bank to review the details,” said Ned Price, the spokesperson for the US State Department.
A US State Department spokeswoman, who preferred not to be named, said, “We look forward to reviewing the final contracts and financing terms from the parties to ensure that this agreement is in line with US policy and addresses any potential concerns related to sanctions,” according to Alhurra TV on 23 June.
She added, “We have not, and will not, lift or waive the sanctions imposed on Assad and his regime until real and lasting progress is made towards a political solution. We also oppose reconstruction (in Syria) under the current circumstances. We have been clear about this with our partners.”
Regarding Russia’s interest in benefiting from gas and electricity pipeline projects in Syria, the expert on Russian affairs said that Moscow wants to win the lion’s share in gas, electricity, and supplies projects that can reach through Lebanon and others, and it is keen to have a major stake in any strategic project of this type.
Jabr pointed out that Russia wanted to compete with Iran in Latakia, for example, by establishing several other phosphate projects in order to establish itself in them, even though it does not expect quick international breakthroughs such as lifting sanctions to advance these projects.
He continued that whenever there is a loophole that can be crossed, such as the issue of electricity, Russia works to escalate the situation in order to reach a result of this kind.
As for the economist Karam Shaar, it is possible that there will be Russian pressure on the White House to make concessions regarding the electricity line and the Arab gas pipeline, but it is an unlikely possibility.
The current political situation in Washington does not allow the US administration to take a decision of this kind because it will be within the two parties, the Republican and the Democratic, and if one of them makes a waiver of sanctions, it will be linked to Caesar Act and not an executive order, which means that waiver is not a political issue, but rather a legal issue, too, according to Shaar.
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 is United States legislation that sanctions the Syrian regime, including its head Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian people and obliges the US President to impose sanctions on Assad’s allies.
Joel Rayburn, the former US special envoy to Syria, made it clear to Enab Baladi on 19 November 2021 that when the gas agreement is drafted, the Congress experts will look into it, and if they find that it violates Caesar’s law, it will not take place.
Adding that, the countries participating in the gas extension project will not receive a response from the Congress directly in 2022, and the response will not be before the beginning of 2023, according to Rayburn.
The former US envoy believes that this deal is not likely to happen, and if it does happen, it will be under the supervision of the Congress, pointing out that any country or company that thinks of participating in a deal of this kind should back off and think carefully about the legal exposure it will be exposed to.
What is the legality of Russian investment in Syria?
The core of authority relates to the right to rule or the right to command on the one hand and is linked in a way to force for the purpose of influence and control within the will of the people in a state governed by institutions, law, and the sanctity of the constitution.
However, none of this is found in Syria, according to the Freedom House Index of Public Freedoms in the World, where the president of the republic, who dominates the executive branch, enjoys wide, illegal power.
The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, won a fourth seven-year term in May 2021, receiving 95.1 percent of the vote, in an election marked by a non-competitive list of competitors, none of whom posed a serious threat to al-Assad’s rule.
The vote was spoiled by a law that prevents Syrians living abroad from participating.
According to Article No. 107 of the Syrian Constitution issued in 2012, the President of the Republic has the competence to conclude international treaties and agreements and to abolish them in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and the rules of international law.
Article No. 75 stipulates the authority of the Syrian People’s Assembly to approve types of treaties, including treaties that violate the laws in force and whose enforcement requires the issuance of new legislation.
According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) in Article No. 6, every state has the capacity to conclude treaties.
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