Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa
The March-14 visit of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to Moscow revealed the possibility of concluding future Syrian-Russian agreements, which may lead to greater control of the Russians in Syria over various sectors, most notably the military and economic ones.
In a visit that is the first since 2011, in terms of the official reception and treatment of al-Assad as a “legitimate president,” al-Assad spent about two and a half days in Moscow in mid-March, accompanied by a large ministerial delegation, during which many issues were discussed between the two parties, and al-Assad announced part of them in press interviews he conducted with Russian media outlets from there.
The expansion of the Russian military presence in Syria, in addition to planning 40 investment projects in various sectors, according to al-Assad’s statements, were the most prominent features of the upcoming agreements that will follow the visit.
Enab Baladi discusses Russia’s desire to implement these agreements in Syria and the gains for the two parties if they are completed, amid the involvement of more than one country in the conflict, such as Iran and the United States, whose interests and desires may be threatened and contradicted by the agreements.
Enab Baladi also sheds light on the legitimacy of these agreements in accordance with international law and their long-term impact on Syria.
Al-Assad legitimizes Moscow’s permanent presence
Under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State group, Russia entered Syria on September 30, 2015, at the official request of the Syrian regime, to restore control over large areas of the Syrian geography that the Syrian opposition had controlled during the first four years of the Syrian revolution.
During the seven years of its presence in Syria, Moscow reaped many gains in terms of military domination or economic control over prominent sectors in Syria, with investment contracts lasting up to 49 years.
Al-Assad not only legitimized Russia’s current presence but stated in an interview with the Russian agency “Sputnik” on March 16 that the presence of Russian military bases should not be linked to the fight against terrorism.
“We think that expanding the Russian presence in Syria is a good thing,” al-Assad told Russia’s state-controlled news agency RIA in an interview. “Russia’s military presence in any country should not be based on anything temporary.”
Al-Assad’s statements raised concerns and expectations about the nature of the new expansion, its objectives, and Russia’s desire to increase its presence in light of its preoccupation with its conflict with Western countries as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian analyst and non-resident scholar in the Syria Program at the Middle East Institute, Anton Mardasov, does not believe that al-Assad’s statement about expanding the Russian presence in Syria should be taken in a literal sense, because it was clear that al-Assad was trying to say what Putin wanted to hear, such as Nazism, which he spoke about at length.
Mardasov told Enab Baladi that this may be considered a “diplomatic ploy” and not a real announcement of Russian expansion plans because Moscow is not interested in expanding its presence, as it does not have the strength or means to do so, which al-Assad understands well.
The non-resident scholar at MEI’s Syria Program added that perhaps the aim of the conversation was a deliberate hint from al-Assad that Russia, in light of the war with Ukraine and the increasing confrontation with NATO, needs to increase its bases in Syria more than al-Assad himself, according to the following logic, “since Syria is also an arena of confrontation between Syria and NATO, Damascus can count on some (Russian) bonuses in terms of supplying arms or something else.”
What al-Assad offered was a “diplomatic ploy,” not a real announcement of Russian expansion plans, because Moscow is not interested in expanding its presence, as it does not have the strength or means to do so, which al-Assad understands very well.
Anton Mardasov, Russian analyst and non-resident scholar in the Syria Program at the Middle East Institute
For his part, Dr. Mahmoud al-Hamza, an expert in Russian affairs, believes that al-Assad’s proposal in this context is a kind of trade-off and an attempt to present Syria as a player with a major role in international balances.
The expert considered that Russia is now not about to expand its military bases in Syria because of its preoccupation with the complex Ukrainian file and the accompanying Western sanctions that have plunged it into huge economic problems.
In turn, Ayman al-Dassouky, a Syrian scholar at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that al-Assad wants with this offer to push Russia for more military involvement in Syria and to use that in confronting the United States and Turkey and in balancing with Iran by providing him with more Russian protection.
Al-Assad may find that granting military bases to Russia is less harmful than granting it exclusive economic opportunities, and with this statement, al-Assad may want to send a message to the West and the United States to the effect that “your lack of openness to me pushes me to fall more into the Russian embrace,” according to al-Dassouky.
Purely Russian interest
Russian military expert Igor Korotchenko said that al-Assad’s statement is fully consistent with Russia’s military and geopolitical interests in the region and the world.
He added that the military presence in Syria ensures that Russia monitors the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the southern wing of NATO, in order to “confront threats targeting Russia’s security,” according to what Russia Today (RT) quoted the expert as saying.
Korotchenko, who is the editor-in-chief of the Russian National Defense Magazine, considered that his country needs more military bases in Syria, as it needs a complete naval base in Tartus, and not just a logistical point, while providing air defense cover for both bases (Hmeimim and Tartus), in addition to solving the necessary legal issues and infrastructure that will ensure Russia’s presence in the region for at least 50 years with an automatic extension.
During the seven years of its military presence, Russia has killed 6,950 civilians, including 2,048 children, according to the latest report of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) on March 15.
Moscow is concealing the numbers, movements, and losses of its military forces in Syria, in line with the Russian military doctrine.
Money is also present
During al-Assad’s visit, the ministers of the joint committees from the Syrian and Russian sides met, and al-Assad announced that the outcome of these meetings ended with planning to sign agreements in the coming weeks, including 40 investment projects in Syria that the Russians will receive in the fields of energy such as electricity, oil, transportation, housing, industry, and other fields, he did not name, but have specific projects, according to his description.
Al-Assad did not announce the value of the amounts that were approved within the aforementioned economic agreements, justifying the absence of information in this part by saying that the objectives of the agreements were the idea of the talks and not the current numbers, as he left the determination of the amount to each project and to each company separately, and each of them will be evaluated separately later.
Work on coordinating these agreements took years, not months, according to al-Assad, which opens the door to questions about their seriousness, in light of repeated declarations of Russia’s desire to invest in Syria, in addition to the gains of both parties, if they are achieved.
Desire meets obstacles
Russia had previously announced its intention to invest extensively in Syria, but in reality, it only participated in projects in which the Soviet Union was previously involved, according to what Russian analyst Mardasov believes.
Mardasov said that it is not profitable for Russian companies to invest in Syria because the payback period of these projects is not clear, and amid Western sanctions imposed on Syria, it is unlikely that any investor will want to work at a financial loss for a period of 10-15 years.
For his part, the researcher al-Dassouky believes that when discussing the issue of expanding the Russian presence in Syria, there are three points that must be raised, represented by having the desire and tools, in addition to the sector in which Russia wants to strengthen its presence, in addition to the existing restrictions that limit its expansion.
Thus, there may be a Russian desire to expand its presence in Syria, but it does not necessarily have the necessary resources to achieve this at present, al-Dassouky added.
Regarding the sector that Russia is interested in, the researcher believes that it is more interested in expanding the Syrian economy through obtaining investment opportunities and exclusive gains rather than engaging in issues that entail paying costs in the Syrian geography.
As for the restrictions, the issue of sanctions against the Syrian regime, the rampant system of corruption in the Syrian bureaucracy, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the presence of more than one regional and international actor in the Syrian geography are the most prominent challenges facing the Russians’ desire to expand their influence in Syria, according to al-Dassouky.
Reserve a place, no more
Some Russian companies have been active in the investment sector in Syria for decades, but it escalated after 2015.
Russia signed several agreements with the regime, allowing it to control the seaport of Tartus, extract phosphates, explore for oil and gas, establish wheat silos, and projects in various sectors, some of which have not yet seen the light of day.
The Russian economy is being managed entirely in order to finance the war machine in Ukraine, while Russia is looking for economic partners to break the economic blockade imposed on it.
Sinan Hatahet, a researcher participating in the “Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria” project at the European University Institute, believes that Russia is looking for countries with strong economies that it can partner with, such as China, Turkey, and the Central Asian republics.
Syria is not considered a successful investment target for Russia, as Moscow did not even complete the old economic agreements but rather obtained its contracts and reserved its position in them to prevent the regime from giving up these projects in favor of other parties, Hatahet told Enab Baladi.
In conclusion, these agreements, if completed, do not carry any benefit for the Syrian and Russian economies because Russian companies owned by oligarchic businessmen close to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, are the ones that obtained the contracts, as they benefit them, and are part of the politics of favoritism more than being within the policies of states, according to the researcher.
Neither the new agreements nor those that preceded them will achieve any change in the Syrian economic situation, as the regime still needs huge financial investments, which Russia will not provide in the near future.
In turn, al-Dassouky believes that the gains that the two parties can reap from these agreements are not great in light of the Western sanctions imposed on the regime and the need for large financing to revitalize the Syrian economy.
Granting more Syrian economic sectors and investment opportunities to the regime’s allies in exchange for support may push the private sector and foreign investments to refrain from interest in working in the Syrian market, thus hindering reconstruction.
Ayman al-Dassouky, Syrian researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies
At whose expense?
Al-Assad alone does not have the decision to increase the presence of his Russian ally or to hand it the keys to the most profitable investment projects in a country where there are many foreign armies controlling different regions, and countries share its wealth and strategic projects, and it is possible that these plans would collide with the interests of all parties.
A challenge to American influence
The expected expansion of the presence of Russian forces and their military bases in Syria must pose a new challenge to US President Joe Biden’s administration and its policy in the Middle East, according to Fox News.
American national security experts believe that China and Russia are now outperforming the United States in the region where Washington has established great influence throughout history.
Rebekah Koffler, a former analyst at the US Defense Intelligence Agency, told Fox News that Putin started to outmaneuver the US in the Middle East with President Obama when Biden was his vice president.
“Putin tricked Obama and by proxy Biden into letting the Russians transfer chemical weapons out of Syria, back in 2013. Instead, the Russians saw an opening and seized the opportunity to build up its military presence, trying to tip the balance in the Middle East in Russia’s favor. Putin is building an anti-US coalition: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria,” she noted.
Koffler, who authored the book “Putin’s Playbook,” added to Fox News that the Russian leader “wants the Biden administration to think that he can help with the Iran nuclear deal, a peace settlement in Syria, but in reality, Putin will not do anything that aligns with US strategic interests, especially now that the US is backing Ukraine. The US and Russia’s security interests are diametrically opposed.”
Since Russian and US forces operate in proximity in Syria already, expanding Russia’s foothold in the region is giving Putin more leverage and the Russian forces more opportunities to collect intelligence on US war fighting tactics, military hardware, etc. The Russians study US ways of war thoroughly in order to find vulnerabilities and develop counter-strategies.
Rebekah Koffler, a former analyst at the US Defense Intelligence Agency
Moscow and Tehran’s involvement in Syria illustrates a complex mosaic of overlapping interests, broader regional entanglement, and competing approaches to postwar reconstruction. Despite the convergence between Russia and Iran around the overarching goal of supporting the Syrian regime, both sides seek to reap political and economic benefits in Syria.
According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the visions of Russia and Iran on the future of Syria include different views in terms of military reform and economic investment.
According to the report, Moscow and Tehran are competing for contracts in the energy, phosphate, agricultural, and real estate sectors in Syria, and the competition has intensified due to the lack of a comprehensive investment coordination mechanism between them.
As a result, Russia obtained contracts in the phosphate, oil, and gas sectors at the expense of Iranian commercial interests, the report concluded.
Both parties are “satisfied”
“What is important is the implementation of the agreements on the ground,” with regard to the signing of economic or military agreements between the Russians or the Iranians with the Syrian regime, the writer and researcher on Iranian affairs, Diaa Kaddour, says.
Kaddour believes, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the Syrian regime has signed a number of agreements with the Russian and Iranian parties in what appears to be a way to satisfy both parties, given the amount of influence that each of them enjoys.
The expert points out that the Russian-Iranian rivalry in Syria remains within the under-control tension.
Although Iran has largely guaranteed its influence in the areas of the regime and obtained many privileges that enable it to survive and continue its dominance for several years to come, it may feel apprehensive, which may not go beyond the stage of fear, because it believes that it is the party that provided a lot of financial, human and logistical investments to the Syrian regime.
Diaa Kaddour, expert in Iranian affairs
For his part, academic Mahmoud al-Hamza believes that the Russian agreements with the regime will not be at the expense of any of the foreign parties in Syria because Iran is not interested in economic gains as much as it is interested in political, military, social and religious gains, and achieving its goals in the region in terms of the “Persian Empire,” which it seeks for.
Do contracts remain valid after al-Assad’s departure?
Before the military intervention, the government of the Syrian regime signed in 2013 an agreement with the Russian company Soyuz Nafta Gas to drill and explore for oil and gas off the Syrian coast, a contract for a period of 25 years.
In April 2018, Bashar al-Assad ratified the contract signed between the Syrian General Organization for Geology and Mineral Resources and the Russian Stroytransgaz to extract phosphates from the Sharqiya mines in Palmyra, central Syria, for a period of 50 years.
After the Russian domination of Palmyra phosphate in November 2018, Stroytransgaz signed a contract to invest in the company and its three plants for a period of 40 extendable years with the General Fertilizer Company in Homs (the largest chemical industrial complex in Syria that produces, through its three plants, nitrogenous and phosphate fertilizers, and provides the entire needs of the agricultural sector).
On April 25, 2019, the Minister of Transport in the government of the Syrian regime, Ali Hammoud, announced that the contract with Stroytransgaz, for a period of 49 years, regarding the port of Tartus, is an investment contract, not a lease.
In view of the duration of the investment contracts signed so far, questions arise about the legality of these agreements and their fate in the event of a change in the regime that delivered these projects in accordance with its interests.
Ahmad Qirbi, Ph.D. in Law and the researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime is the legitimate authority representing the Syrian state, which is officially recognized by the United Nations, and therefore it has the right, according to the laws, to conclude treaties and agreements, and these agreements are legally valid.
The agreements in this context are not linked to the regime in particular, and it is possible later, if desired, to terminate the agreement or withdraw from it, but this will be met with legal consequences, according to Qirbi.
Qirbi believes that the long-term agreements will have political, economic, and security effects, and at the very least, they will deprive the Syrian state of controlling its natural and industrial wealth and resources in the future.
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