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On June 26, 2020, the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) conducted an online expert discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on the changes in the "rules of the game" in the Syrian conflict.

The panelists included Julien Barnes-Dacey, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations; Darin Khalifa, Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group, working on security, conflict, politics, and governance in Syria; and Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General.

On June 26, 2020, the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) conducted an online expert discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on the changes in the "rules of the game" in the Syrian conflict.

The panelists included Julien Barnes-Dacey, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations; Darin Khalifa, Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group, working on security, conflict, politics, and governance in Syria; and Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General.

The discussion touched upon the current epidemiological situation in Syria, the impact of the global recession on the Syrian economy, the fall in world oil prices and new U.S. sanctions against Damascus, possible scenarios for the development of the military-political situation, and the positions of the main external actors in the Syrian conflict, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, the U.S., and the European Union.

The event was attended by over fifty experts, journalists, diplomats and officials from Italy and other European countries. The discussion was moderated by Valeria Talbot, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Head of ISPI's Middle East and North Africa Center.

Transcript

Valeria Talbot, Senior Research Fellow, and Co-Head of ISPI's Middle East and North Africa Centre, in charge of Middle East Studies

After 9 years the Syrian war remains unsolved and prospects rest for its solution are gloomy. After a ceasefire has been agreed in March 2020 between Russia and Turkey, clashes continue in many parts of Syria. The country remains divide into three main areas and different sub-areas and it is difficult for the sphere of influence of each side. COVID-19 risks to aggravate the situation in medical infrastructure, economic crisis, deterioration of critical living conditions. Deeper fractures have emerged within the Assad regime. Future configuration of the country remains deeply intertwined with the interests of external actors. Many questions raised on the future of Syria and Syrians; the role of external actors in finding a durable solution.

Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow.

Russia is getting close to 5 years of presence in Syria, which is a long period. At least three times Russia declared starting the withdrawal of military forces from Syria, but Russian presence is likely to continue. There is a thing that has not changed. There is a perception that COVID-19, oil price collapse, the economic recession put serious pressure on the Russian budget and Russia is looking for an exit plan. This perception is incorrect. Russia spends on Syria approximately one billion dollars, which is less than 2% on the Russian military budget. Russian presence in Syria has become more a routine exercise, quite sustainable. In five years Russian fatalities for the Russian Ministry of Defence raised approximately 200 people, which is less in Vietnam and Afghanistan. There is also a thing that has changed. Russians do not longer perceive the Syrian operation as a major victory. The President does not perceive it as the major victory too. The participation has been routinized. Critical attitudes towards Damascus are growing, but it does not mean that we will see demonstration against Russian presence in Syria. The leadership in Moscow cannot longer consider operation in Syria as the major source of political legitimacy.

Dareen Khalifa, Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group

Syria has been covered by the economic crisis, which is combined with COVID lockdown, but also with the US newly imposed economic sanctions. This is deflected with massive depreciation of the Syrian mirror with the 100% increase of prices on a food product. That created food shortages, nation-like sense of panic. It led to demonstrations across the country, including minorities. Syrian economic crisis cannot be blamed only on Western economic sanctions. The Syrian economy has been suffering since 2011 because of corruption. The Syrian regime, Damascus and its allies have deliberately use transport infrastructure as a part of the military campaign to crush the opponents. Damascus has lost control over viral resources. 80% is controlled by ISIS and Syrian Democratic forces. Damascus tries to return the control over political of military means. In neighbours, like Lebanon, the economy imploded and we have Syrian deposits in Lebanese banks about 40 billion dollars. Syrian businessmen use Lebanon as help. All these factors combined, the sanctions only accelerated the crisis on a certain extent, but none of this has sufficient impact. The US sanctions are more a brain exercise, they enjoy the huge deal of political support within the US. They are deeply institutional. It led a lot of discretion of the executive branch and the State Department of Treasury. The positive sign is that Washington is not eager to repeat an Irak scenario. The negative is then it gives the possibility to the executive US branch to use a very aggressive policy with humanitarian impact to achieve increasingly unclear policy objectives. The policy debate should focus on two things: how to overpass the negative impact of sanctions on Syria and humanitarian situation; how to leverage the sanctions to achieve some policy concessions.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, Director of the Middle East & North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations

We have been on the cycle of «ceasefire—renewed conflict» many times before. The current ceasefire of Turkey and Russia does invest in the situation, it gives a breath for a moment. Meanwhile, we see an increase in Turkish reinforcement into Idlib. Russia and Turkey are concerned about control over Syrian petrol. Turkey has a lot on its shoulders. But definitely, both sides want to keep the ceasefire. What stays uncertain in the situation, that is a participation of external players. Damascus regime and Russia want to regain control over the territory. While the regime wants to push the red line, other parties declare it unacceptable. even between these two players the definite red line, we see violence these months when the ceasefire came into practice. We do not also know what will happen in internal dynamics and targets in Northern Idlib. We see internal competition involved Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other groups. The question is whether the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham would agree to co-work with Turkey. And that is a potential spoiling element. The other point is Libya. We have Russia and Turkey facing in Northern Syria and Libya. For both countries, there are spaces of intensification and also for negotiations. It rests uncertain whether the intensification of Libya conflict between Russia and Turkey would result in aggravation in North Libya. Russia and Turkey want to keep ceasefire. Russia wants to keep Turkey away from NATO and be more close to Moscow. The involvement of two sides in Syrian conflict rests certain, while the future of the million Syrians is uncertain. The sides need for a broader political deal. The ceasefire may prevent a new escalation, new humanitarian catastrophe, but let us keep our eyes on a needed solution that would sustainably hold the peace.

Andrey Kortunov

Russia and Iran are already exposed to many US and EU sanctions. It adds the solidarity in Syria, being in the same boat, the US is after all of them and they should stay together. Russia obviously will protest. If you stay the rhetoric aside, it means that Russia does not want Syria to be turned into a business project. Some actors believe, that Russia, in particular, energy sector, telecommunication or construction, has invested in Syria. We shall see that opportunities granted by countries Syria will use. But it is difficult to abstract any economic benefits for Moscow. Russian companies are trying to be very cautious in order not to be exposed. Syrian project will remain for Moscow more geopolitical rather geoeconomic project.

Dareen Khalifa

It is important to understand the involvement of Kurds in Syria. The more frustration raises the more you see economic situation vulcanised. While the official regime is weaker, the Kurd demonstration could threaten its existence. However, with all parties involved, included Russia, Turkey and the US, the participation of Kurds would not turn the balance of power.

Julien Barnes-Dacey

European role in Syria is rather marginal. Participation is weak. If we look at the current economic situation of the conflict, it is regime, mismanagement, corruption, the situation in Lebanon. No European force may change the trajectory. Europeans are worrying not only for the pain of Syrians but also for the interest of UE in the region. The US is not trying to reshape the situation in the region, the intention is to break the Syrian regime. This means the regime transition agenda and economic tools that are being deployed now. The main American interests in not directly Syria, but Iran and Russia. Syria served a gang of competition with Iran and Syria. It helps neither Syrians nor European Strategic. It will deteriorate the situation and Assad stays a fundamental problem here. The US game leading now is not better for European interests and the Syrian future. The focus should be on the search to soften the blow. The US should be more realistic on what they want, but that cannot be the transition. The biggest focus now is on helping the Syrian society to survive around the regime. The Europeans should acknowledge, that the transition is not going to happen soon and there is a decade or a generation to struggle ahead. We should have some situation with stabilisation and civilian resilience. Sanctions newer work. There should be direct support into Syria via, possible, UN, NGOs, Syrian partner on the ground. Space is not only black and white, there are some areas to work. China has a clear comprehension of what is happening. We should stay creative, serious about how we can support Syrians on the ground. We cannot change the direction of the war in Syria, but we can soften the conditions of civilians, to help forces working in Syria. Tru to change the American position, which is not easy but doable.

Dareen Khalifa

The introduction of the Turkish lira in Syria does not mean the increase of Turkish involvement in the conflict. If we look at the rate of exchange of January, the Syrian lira was not so strong already for businessmen. A lot of transactions were already happening in dollar or Turkish lira. The more tricky question is the acknowledgement of Syrian partition. If the partition is acknowledged, the Kurdish question is on the ground.

Julien Barnes-Dacey

From a Turkish perspective, the bottom line objective is the Kurdistan Workers' Party threat and preventing the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. The Russian bottom line is that don't want to conceive a strategic shift of movement in Syria, that US and EU suggest. There is enough space for manoeuvre between Turkey and Russia in the Northern East and Idlib. They have a broader strategic alliance that they can achieve. One of common hope is to prevent the further escalation in Idlib on Libya now. As the scenario, in that Ankara, Moscow and Damascus would elaborate the complex way out. That is a long way off.

Andrey Kortunov

When it comes to the Russian position, there are two levels. Firstly, the Russian official position. Russia states for territorial integrity, representative political system, free elections under the supervision on the UN. In terms of special operations, Russia does not have an exit strategy. For Russian militants, it is more support of status-quo maintenance without allowing the West to ‘kick’ Russia out of Syria, without losing face beyond the region, without paying a too heavy price. Whether the position is sustainable or not, is an open question. In Idlib, Russia tries to escape the confrontation with Turkey. However, Russia and Turkey face together the threat of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. For Russia, the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is not only an existential threat to Bashar's regime but also a direct threat to the Russian military infrastructure and Syrian urban centres, including Aleppo and Damascus. The big question is whether Turkey can further confront the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist groups. There can be a kind of bargain between Moscow and Ankara and this bargain should not necessarily include Libya. the escalation on the North of Idlib inspires Ankara to cut a deal with Damascus. The position that Kurds take on potential integration with Bashar Assad is not acceptable to Damascus. We don't have enough trust for Russia and Turkey to make it work, but theoretically, two players can assist each other in Syria.

Russia does not have resources to lead largo post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. Even before the crisis, clash of oil prices and recession Russia did not have enough funds to take full responsibility for Syrian reconstruction. Even in cooperation with Turkey and Iran Russia does not have a proper position to do that. Damascus expect now from Moscow more economic assistance not to start a post-conflict reconstruction, but to compensate the losses that Syrian regime experiences due to drop of oil prices and new US sanctions. The relations between Syria and Iran are more complicated. Iran is not on a great shape to assist Syria financially. The expectation from Damascus is that Moscow should help to support the regime before the elections. The popularity of Assad is likely to go down. Russia is not in opposition or willing to meet the request. We might see some disappointment from both sides concerning this part of relationships.

Dareen Khalifa

A Kurdish position in Syria is a Turkish redline, but also Turkey meets a huge mass of refugees from Syria. The cooperation between Moscow and Ankara is quite limited. We need to look beyond the rhetoric. When we talk about the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, it implies a transition in some sort. Then Russia talks about stating the sovereignty over Syria, it gives the impression that there will be military operation on the North of Idlib. However, if we look beyond the rhetoric, every part of the conflict have its interest in Syria. There is potential for agreements, but it is unlikely that it will meet national interests in all parts of Syria.

When it comes to COVID, in the North of Syria we see cases, but the number is very low. But it does not mean it won’t happen, as there is a lot of movement inside the country and connection with Lebanon, the presence of Russians (country, there COVID is present). The Northern part tends to be closed for movements because Iraq is also covered by COVID. The health facilities in Syria have been targeted by military campaigns. There is a lot of pressure on the administration of Syria due to pandemic. It is going to be incredibly tragic if COVID come. I remain optimistic, there won't be so much spread.

Julien Barnes-Dacey

The United Arab Emirates are moving back in the ground. The embassy is reopening in Damascus since 2018, we saw negotiation with Assad earlier this year. The only thing that holds UAE is the strong US pressure, particularly on the economic front. But we see day after day military and economic support. Syria now is worrying about Emirates leadership in the region. That is access to emerging Haftar and Assad. They have recognised each other diplomatically. Egypt is preparing to follow the Emirati line. Firstly, it is a story about strong leadership in the Middle East, built by a strong country. secondly, it is about resisting Turkish inputs. Now for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Syrian ground is more for resisting Turkish force. What is obvious, Saudi Arabia wants somehow to navigate the US sanctions. But it is still a question what the Emirates are ready to go because of the US limits. It provides economic support, maybe will provide political and military backing.

Andrey Kortunov

Indeed, many Gulf states, Saudis in particular, are much more focused on Yemen, then on Syria, their next-door neighbour. There are many speculations about Syria rejoining the League of Arab States, this decision will depend primarily on the Gulf States. Syria is fully restored in the position. Many Gulf states think that embrace Assad would mean to get Syria out of Iranian orbit. And it might create a new balance of power. Speaking about Russians concern, on the one hand, Russia would like Assad to get more legitimacy and to be recognised by the Gulf States, maybe through Syrian diasporas, but on the other hand, Moscow is concerned that Assad would find the other sponsors and be less dependent on Moscow on its decisions.

Dareen Khalifa

We see such countries like Egypt, United Arabs supporting Damascus. But the US sanctions and US policy was quite a deterring factor. It changed the role of Moscow support. Russia is not going to lead the US strong-arm to take into concessions for political or ecological reasons. The sanctions have created the narrative in with the US say to Moscow: this is up to you now. Moscow may stop it or return, but Moscow should offer it.

Julien Barnes-Dacey

China is not so interested in Syria, because it is too messy and too corrupt. It’s an overstated ambition over China. China is important in the Security Council backing the Russian sone and its cross-border access, but still very limited.

Andrey Kortunov

China is not likely to participate in post-conflict reconstruction. But if Syria presents business-opportunity, for example, for « One belt—One road » initiative infrastructure, China will find contracts. Not right now, but after the end of the conflict, after the political risks are getting lower China will rediscover Syria for investments. Chinese companies are also concerned about the implication of the US sanctions, they do not want to take too high risks.

Dareen Khalifa

Syria has never been attractive to Chinese business and investments.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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