MOSCOW- What next? This is the question making the rounds in political circles in Moscow these days with reference to the Syrian conflict and Russia’s deepening involvement.
The “what next question” has found echoes even in the section of the Russian media believed to be controlled by the Kremlin, including Russia Today, Vesti, and Rosiskaya Gazeta. Foreign visitors to Moscow these days have little difficulty in noticing that the question is also being asked by the “ordinary citizen” increasingly concerned about long-term involvement in an endless conflict.
The fact that security measures, including frequent police searches in public places, have intensified add to that sense of anxiety.
The official narrative here is that Russia has achieved its military objective in Syria by dislodging head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad’s armed opponents from their last bastion in Aleppo, the country’s second most populous city. So, according to the narrative, the next step is finding a political formula to enable the war-torn nation to crawl back to some measure of peace and normality.
According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova the first step in that direction is the conference to be held in the Kazakhstan capital Astana next week to promote a compromise between Assad and his opponents.
However, the conference has already run into trouble on a number of issues.
According to Russian sources, Assad insisted that his government have the final word on who should be invited from the ranks of the opposition, but was told “in no uncertain terms” that this was none of his business.
It was, perhaps, to show who is really in charge that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly stated that without Russian intervention, Assad’s regime would have been toppled “within a few weeks.”
The message to Assad is clear: Don’t try to get too big for your boots!
Moscow also faces flak from its partners in Tehran over issuing an invitation to the United States.
The Russian foreign ministry says the U.S. has already been invited and that Moscow expects the new administration of President Donald Trump, taking charge on Friday, to accept the invitation.
However, Iran’s National Security Advisor Ali Shamkhani has stated categorically that no invitation to U.S. has been issued. Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif has gone a step further by stating that “Russian allies know that we oppose the issuing of any invitations to the Americans.”
The feeling in Moscow political circles, however, is that President Vladimir Putin does not want to land with sole and endless responsibility for Syria. His hope is that the new Trump administration will accept Russia’s leading role in Syria but would be prepared to share the burden of peacemaking and, down the road, the reconstruction of the war-shattered nation.
“Putin’s fears that Trump might tell him: Syria? You broke it, now you own it,” says a senior European diplomat posted in Moscow. “Putin wants the fruit of any eventual political victory but isn’t willing or able to pay the price.”
The best-case scenario from Putin’s point of view would be for an “international community” to agree on a transition to allow Assad to remain in power for “a decent length of time”, and then provide the funds needed to help a future “coalition government” lead Syria in a different direction all in preserving Russia’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean nation.
The proposed Astana conference comes at a time that support for Putin, still in the high 70s, is lower by several percentage points in opinion polls. More importantly, perhaps, the latest polls show that only 51 percent of Russians are prepared to foot the cost of making Russia “one of the most influential nations in the world without whose assent no major international decision is taken.”
Russia is also discovering the intricacies of the dicey alliances it has worked out with the mullahs in Tehran and with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crisis-stricken government in Ankara.
“What Tehran really wants is to turn Russia into Iran’s air force in Syria,” said a Russian academic on condition of anonymity. “Under President Obama, they used the U.S. in that capacity in Iraq. With Obama gone and Trump unlikely to dance to the Iranian tune, Tehran needs Russia to play that role.”
The irony in this is that Putin wanted to use the Iranians, and their Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani and, of course, Alawite “volunteers” as Moscow’s land forces in Syria.
Russia is discovering other problems with its burgeoning alliance with Tehran.
One problem is that the alliance may drag Russia itself into the spreading sectarian feuds in the Middle East. More than 90 per cent of Russian Muslims are Sunnis who regard the Iranian brand of Islam at best heretical. Russian Muslim scholars have followed the deepening alliance with Tehran with anxiety for some time.
Russian Muslim scholars tell us that their “hesitations” about closer ties with Tehran played a part in Putin’s decision to set some limits to expanding ties with the Islamic Republic in Tehran.
For example, Russia had agreed to let Iran open a branch of the Imam Khomeini University in Moscow offering academic degrees in the Iranian version of Islam. However, the scheme was put on hold last year, ostensibly because Kremlin changed its mind. According to sources, Putin also vetoed an agreement to let Iran build seminaries in Darband, in the Dagestan autonomous Republic to train clerics in Khomeinist style. Darbant is the only Russian city where Shi’ite Muslims form a majority of the population.
Deepening relations with Tehran has also alarmed the former Soviet republics in Central Asia where Sunni Muslims are in majority. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the newly independent Muslim republics have sent over 40,000 young men to train as Islamic Scholars in Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Imam Saudi University in Riyadh and the International Islamic University in Pakistan.”
This new elite of Islamic scholars fear an alliance between resurgent Russian Imperialism and Iranian Shi’ite expansionism,“ says Mujir Dilmaqani, an Islamic researcher in Moscow. “They see Syria today as the focal point of that alliance and the possible starting point of a dual onslaught in Central Asia.”
It is no accident that of the five Central Asian republics the government of only one, Kyrgyzstan, has publicly endorsed Russian military intervention to keep Assad in power in Syria. Even there, President Almazbek Atambayev, who came to power in a pro-Russian backlash, has failed to mobilize public opinion in favor of Moscow’s policy in Syria.
Atambayek’s position has drawn fire from Islamic scholars in Central Asia.
In a series of recent Friday prayers, Chubak Haji Jalilov, the former Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, has come close to calling for jihad against the Assad regime in Damascus. In sermons widely published on the social media he has portrayed the people of Syria as “Muslim victims of a great conspiracy between foreign enemies of Islam and their local agents, the Assad clan.”
He says, “President of Syria Bashar al-Assad is not Muslim. He belongs to Alawite sect which does not recognize Our Prophet.”
Jalilov added: “During the last five years the President Bashar Assad has been purposefully and violently killing our Muslim brothers and driving millions more out of their towns and villages.”
Jalilov also condemns ISIS, which he claims was “created” by Assad and “his Iranian masters”.
Despite efforts by Central Asian governments to keep their countries out of the Middle Eastern sectarian feuds, a growing number of local Muslim scholars are speaking out in support of Syrian brothers facing genocide”.
Islamist opposition groups, notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Hizb Tahrir Islami , and the Rastakhiz (Resurgence) Party in Tajikistan, all of them officially banned, are developing a narrative in which Russia and Iran are cast as “ two heads of the same monster” trying to dominate the Muslim world.
Anti-Assad sentiments are not limited to Islamist militants in Russia and central Asia.
Writing in the newspaper “Ayat” the respected scholar Balbak Toulobayev has appealed to the United States to help stop “genocide in Syria” and bring “Assad and help his criminal associates to justice.”
Toulobayev added: “The cradle of culture and great civilization Aleppo and other cities have been turned into ruins. Due to the betrayal of dictator Bashar al-Assad, millions of people are under the pressure. Let’s support all efforts to stop [the] dictator who is exterminating his own people. There is no other choice.”
Russia’s involvement in Syria and alliance with Iran is also causing tension inside the Russian federation in such republics as Tatarstan, Bashkortstan and Dagestan where Muslims form a majority of the population. Muslims account for around 25 per cent of the population of the federation, mostly as minorities in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other major cities. In 2015 and 2016, a series of anti-war demonstrations, barely reported by the Kremlin-controlled media, have been held in Kazan, Ufa, Mackahqala (capital of Dagestan) and Moscow. Even tightly controlled opinion polls show a growing opposition to the war in republics where Muslims form a majority.
According to Alexei Malachenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Russian operations in favor of Assad have not only exacerbated relations between the Kremlin and Russian Muslims, but have also increased the threat of terrorism inside Russia.
It was, perhaps, fear of inciting local anger that prevented Putin from convening his “ Syria peace conference” in one of Russia’s Muslim-majority republics, choosing Kazakhstan instead.
Moscow sources claim that Putin is beginning to “appreciate” the rising cost of keeping Assad in power by force and may be looking for face-saving formula to “ease him out.”
This is why Russian officials, speaking in private, now drop hints that Assad is “exhausted by five years of war and tension” and may be is even developing a nervous tick in his left eye as a result of “psychological pressures.”
However, even if Putin finds a way to guide Assad towards the exit in Astana, Russia would still have to tame the ambitions of its hungry allies in Tehran. In Astana ( a Persian word which means threshold) Putin may find himself on the threshold of an endless crisis rather than at the end of a victorious promenade.