Source: Regional Rapport
As the cliched saying goes, “there are no permanent allies, just permanent interests in politics”, and this wise adage appears to have just been proven through Russia’s latest diplomatic efforts in Syria. While presumably well-intentioned and designed to accelerate the conflict resolution process in the country, Russia’s public revelation that it drafted a new Syrian Constitution has unwittingly sparked serious criticism from those who firmly believe that something as crucial as the country’s key legal document should be a purely Syrian affair.
Most importantly, however, some of the positions advanced in the so-called “draft constitution” also go against Damascus’ previously stated policies. Therefore, it was inevitable that Russia’s initiative towards Syria would draw comparisons to the American effort in writing Iraq’s constitution over a decade ago, just like the Astana-participating “moderate rebel opposition” has claimed, no matter the differences of context and intent which make such a parallel inaccurate.
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova lashed out at those voices which alleged that Russia is trying to force its desired political solution on Syrians, stating that such assertions “are inaccurate and are distorting the reality”. She also quoted the chief Russian negotiator at Astana and the man who publicly unveiled the draft text in the first place, Mr. Alexander Lavrentyev, as saying at the time that “Russia was not interfering in consideration of constitution and presented the draft to the opposition simply in order to accelerate the process.”
Even so, this hasn’t quelled the rising criticism that Russia is overstepping its authority by openly interfering in a domestic political process and contradicting its own stated policy, no matter its diplomatic rebuttals otherwise. It also doesn’t answer the uncomfortable question about why Russia publicly disclosed the fact that it was drafting Syria’s constitution, since this was predictably going to set off a firestorm of accusations about what Moscow really wants from the Arab Republic.
There’s no way of knowing the exact nature of the strategic calculations which went into the Kremlin’s decision to do this, so responsible restraint should be exercised by analysts who are trying to figure out Moscow’s motives in order to not unnecessarily complicate this already very sensitive situation. That being said, it’s natural in any pluralistic society such as Russia’s to have a diversity of professional assessments about key policies and events such as this one, and all governments thrive when there’s a rich discourse of ideas being discussed among their expert community.
Patriotism isn’t the blind adherence to every single position put forth by a given government, but the courage to respectfully speak up when one sees that their beloved country might be making a major mistake, and it’s with this intention in mind that the author proceeds with the following analysis. The first part will discuss exactly what’s being suggested in this “draft constitution”, while the second one will analyze the possible reasons behind Russia’s surprising volte face towards Syria from both the ‘official’ and skeptical positions.
“Federalization” Is Doomed To Fail
Before going any further, it needs to immediately be emphasized just how serious of a long-term geopolitical problem it is that so-called “autonomy” is being proposed for the Kurds, no matter what the short-term conflict resolution intentions behind such a move might be. The author wrote a total of 13 relevant articles explaining this from a variety of angles, and the reader should definitely review at least some of them in order to get a more comprehensive idea of why this is such a counterproductive initiative, but the main point behind it is that “Identity Federalism” will lead to a patchwork of quasi-independent identity-focused state-lets which will eventually turn Syria into a checkerboard of Great Power competition. For reference, here are the pertinent articles:
Unfortunately, it’s clear to see that Russia is no longer adhering to the mindset that the de-facto internal partitioning of Syria (“federalization” or “autonomy”) is an existential threat to the country and geopolitical danger to the region at large. Instead, as can be understood from the last couple of articles, Moscow’s position appeared to have changed in mid-December when there was a sense that Russia might in fact embrace the very same positions which it had hitherto been against and which contradict Damascus’ official stance on several key issues. To remind the reader, Syria previously said that it is against the Kurds’ unilateral declaration of “federalism” and that this position is at odds with international law, and President Assad has also reiterated many times that his political fate is dependent on the direct will of the people. These are two very important positions to keep in mind when evaluating the contents of the Russian-written “draft constitution”.
Russia’s Radical Shift on Syria
The Russian position towards Syria has radically shifted with the public unveiling of the “draft constitution” which it presented to both of the country’s visiting delegations at Astana. The full English-translated version of the document has yet to be released as of 27 January, so the analysis will proceed from the official excerpts reported on by two of Russia’s most prominent publicly funded international media outlets, Sputnik and RT, which saw some of the proposal and shared it on their websites. It can safely be assumed that the passages included in their reporting are accurate, which is why they’re being used as the basis for this analysis. The present section will go through each article point by point in explaining the significance of each proposed measure.
* No “Arab” In The Syrian Republic:
The draft writers envisage that the word “Arab” be removed from the constitutional name of the Syrian Arab Republic in order to placate the vocal and militant Kurdish separatist minority in the north. It’s unlikely that the country’s Arab majority – which is proportionately larger in the Syrian Arab Republic than the share of Russians in the Russian Federation – will agree to this idea, as it places the concerns of a small fraction of the population above those of the rest of society.
* Redrawing State Boundaries Is Okay As Long As People Vote For It:
One of the most contentious clauses is bound to be the passage which states that the “change of state borders” can only proceed if all citizens vote on it in a referendum. Should the “federalization” (internal partition) plan move forward, then this will become one of the most important issues for the country’s domestic stability, and it’s foreseen that a slew of disputes will arise as various identity-centric parties fiercely compete with one another in laying stake to their own “federal” or “autonomous” territories, especially in the most cosmopolitan areas in the country’s densely populated western regions.
Given the enormity of what’s at stake for each group, it’s possible that a political deadlock might quickly set in which immediately precedes the resumption of multisided armed hostilities between them in the event that the national military is unable to maintain the peace. Additionally, on the topic of security forces, there’s no clear indication whether or not each “state” will be entitled to their own legally sanctioned armed representatives/militias, which becomes an issue when discussing the “draft constitution’s” proposed Kurdish “autonomies”/”self-ruling systems”.
Ambiguously, it’s unclear whether the phrasing of “state borders” refers to the country’s internal or external ones, though the preceding phrase about how “any loss of Syrian territories is not acceptable” seems to indicate that the word “state” in this document is synonymous with “province” or “governorate”. However, this ambiguity once again becomes an issue at the end of the examined Sputnik piece because of the curious inclusion of the word “regions”, which also seems from context to be yet another synonym for “province” and/or “governorate”, yet raises questions about the original inclusion of “state” in this context.
* Kurdish “Autonomies” And “Self-Ruling Systems”:
The Sputnik text refers to these two polities and their organizations as equally using the Arabic and Kurdish languages, and the “self-ruling systems” are also referred to as “cultural”. While this word might seem to indicate that they’re nothing more that territorially broad-based ‘NGOs’ without any political authority, that’s probably not the correct interpretation since something of such minimal importance as apolitical cultural organizations wouldn’t warrant their own passage in the “draft constitution”. Rather, given that Sputnik also earlier reported that “Russia Is Acting As Guarantor Of Syrian-Kurdish Talks On Federalization”, it’s obvious that the “autonomies” and “self-ruling systems” are probably just euphemisms for this sort of arrangement.
*A Parliamentary System That Can Overthrow The President:
If Russia’s proposal is accepted by the Syrian people in a forthcoming referendum, then the country’s powerful presidential system which has kept the Arab Republic together during these tumultuous times of terror will be replaced by what essentially amounts to a parliamentary one, whereby the legislative authorities will attain the responsibility for “decisions on war and peace issues, the removal of the president from the office, appointment of the members of the Supreme Constitutional Court, appointment of the head of the Syrian National Bank and his dismissal from office.”
Particular attention should be paid to the parliament’s powers in deciding “the removal of the president from office”. In practice, this means that legislators can overthrow an elected president in a ‘constitutional coup’, or in other words, what would by that time be Syria’s newfound replication of the Western ‘democratic’ system of ‘representative/indirect governance’ could amount to bureaucrats defying the people’s will. As it relates to the present situation in Syria, this might provide the ‘opportunity’ for the long-wished “political transition” against President Assad to commence, as it would technically be a ‘Syrian-led’ process in the sense that the People’s Assembly would be doing this and not any foreign power directly.
* Shaming The Syrian Arab Army:
No matter whether the wording was innocently meant as a symbolic concession to the “moderate rebel opposition” or not, the very fact that a powerful phrase about how “[the Syrian armed forces] should not be used as a means of oppression of Syrian people and interfere in the sphere of political interests” was included in the “draft constitution” was coldly received by many of the country’s people and taken as an unprecedented insult to the sacrifices of their countless martyrs. The Syrian Arab Army is not being used as a “means of oppression” against the Syrian people, nor does it “interfere in the sphere of political interests”, though the aforementioned passage strongly suggests that it is and that’s why a clause must be included in the new constitution in order to prevent this from ever happening again.
The only “oppression” being carried out against the Syrian people comes at the hands of the foreign-backed terrorist groups which have been wreaking havoc across the country for approximately the past 6 years already, and it’s completely understandable why many Syrians reject the wording that was included in the “draft constitution”. In fact, it can even be said that such a phrase is very dangerous to the long-term stability of the country because it leads to suspicion of the state’s chief law enforcement body, the military, and might mire it in unnecessary political-legal controversy and subsequent paralysis in the event that it ever has to be used to keep the peace in the country. Such a scenario could predictably transpire during an extended period of tense disagreements over the country’s forthcoming domestic political reorganization and territorial restructuring.
* International Law Trumps Domestic Law:
Although the Russian Duma passed a law hand-signed by President Putin at the end of 2015 to give their country’s Constitutional Court priority over international ones, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for some reason wants to deny this sovereign right to Syrians and all but turn their country into an international protectorate similar in practice to the dysfunctional state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
That’s probably not the intent behind this measure, as it’s probable that Russia instead thinks that doing so will prevent any unforeseen domestic political crisis from materializing due to the UN’s prevailing influence over Syrian sovereign laws, but it nevertheless sends a contradictory signal when Russia reserves political rights for itself while denying these same prerogatives to its allies.
Even worse, it seems to lend credence to the US and its partners’ accusations of Russian “neo-imperialism”, even though these are entirely untrue and misleading to even assert. The point being made, though, is that by specifying that Syrian domestic laws are subservient to international ones – despite Russia having recently revised its legislation in order to give its sovereign laws preponderance over those decided at the UN – Moscow is inadvertently doing much more harm than good to its soft power.
* Lebanon’s “Confessionalism” Comes To Syria:
One of the reasons why so many Syrians are pessimistic about the Russian-written “draft constitution” is that it transplants neighboring Lebanon’s paralyzing political institutions onto their country. The former province of Syria agreed to implement a form of government following its 15-year civil war which has since been called “confessionalism”, and it mandates proportional representation of the country’s many ethno-religious groups in government.
Sputnik reported that “Russian constitutional proposals for Syria that were presented to the opposition during Astana talks stipulate that all confessions and nationalities must be given equal representation in the government”, which is basically the implementation of “confessionalism” in everything but name.
This is very worrying because Lebanon’s unique form of government is largely blamed for Beirut’s perennial dysfunction, and turning a country as demographically and territorially large as Syria into a politically failed state might indefinitely destabilize the entire Mideast and end up being epically counterproductive. Institutionalized sectarianism and identity politics could even lead to the eventual dissolution of the Syrian state with time.
* “Regions” Or “States”?:
The last part of Sputnik’s initial reporting on the Russian-written “draft constitution” elaborates on how some of the broad ways in which the implementation of Syria’s undeclared system of “confessionalism” would work in the country, pertinently mentioning that “the president and the prime minister have the right to consult in this regard with the representatives of the People’s Assembly and regions.” As was referenced above when discussing how the document allows for the territorial division of the “state”, it’s unclear whether or not “state” and/or “region” refers to the country’s provinces/governorates.
In this examined context, “region” seems to be synonymous with the prior presumable understanding of “state” (province/governorate), but since it’s not explicitly said what the legal difference between these two terminologies is, and why they might be used interchangeably if that’s the case despite this apparently not being written in the document, it can’t be taken for granted that they refer to the same thing. Legal ambiguities in situations such as this one – where a foreign power is suggesting an entirely new constitution in order to bring an end to another country’s prolonged period of violent conflict – could easily end up being exploited by distraught parties later on in the political process, whether prior to the sealing of an actual deal or sometime afterwards.
Therefore, the failure to publicly specify at this point what the difference is, if any, between “states” and “regions” leads to the conclusion that they might technically mean different things, which in that case could signify that the aforementioned “change of state borders” could also refer to Syria’s external ones or that the “regions” are another term for nationwide “federalized” (internally partitioned) units. Neither of these possibilities is beneficial for Syrian stability, nor do they appear to reflect the will of the Syrian people at large. Until these ambiguities are conclusively settled, it’s doubtful that voters will approve of them in any potential referendum.
(This article has some overlap with the Sputnik one, so the passages which have already been analyzed will be omitted from this portion of the research in order to avoid redundancy. Because of this, some of the points that will addressed aren’t solely passages in the Russian-written “draft constitution”, but also some of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s own comments.)
* Russia Incorporated Other Regional Countries’ Suggestions:
While the document’s text was drafted by Russia, Lavrov revealed that “Moscow has based its suggestions on what it heard ‘from the [Syrian] government, from the opposition and from the countries of the region’ over the past few years.” He didn’t volunteer to name any of these “countries of the region”, but given Russia’s very close ties with Turkey and ‘Israel’ and the personal chemistry between President Putin and each of their leaders, it can’t be ruled out that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took their concerns into account when writing the “draft constitution”. The possible influence of Tel Aviv, however indirect it may speculatively be, is a disturbing thought for all Syrians and will be analyzed more in-depth throughout the research.
* “United” Doesn’t Always Mean “Unitary”:
RT builds upon what Sputnik first reported by writing that “in terms of sovereignty, the Russian proposal says that Syria ‘is united, inviolable and indivisible.’ Its territory is ‘inalienable’ and the state borders can only be changed after a public referendum conducted ‘among all citizens of Syria.’” What’s new in this passage is the inclusion of the words “united, inviolable and indivisible”, which seem to suggest that nothing will change with the country’s internal or external borders, though followed of course by the caveat that this is ultimately dependent on the will of the Syrian people. Once again, it’s unclear if this is referencing a change in the country’s internal or external borders, and this ambiguity could easily become the source of future conflict.
Proceeding along the conventional understanding that the text is talking about the country’s internal political arrangement and hinting at “federalism” or “autonomy” (both of which would amount in the Syrian case to an undeclared internal partition), then the word “united” isn’t legally synonymous with “unitary”. The latter word, “unitary”, refers to a centralized state which has not devolved political responsibilities to the provinces to the extent that they are granted “autonomy” or “federalization”. Given how Russia’s coyness towards this issue has led many people to believe that Moscow implicitly supports one or the other in order to please its traditional Kurdish partners, then Moscow might unintentionally have been misleading in using the legal terminology of “united”, which many common people popularly associate with “unitary”.
Instead, if it indeed is the case that Russia is leaning towards having Syria grant the Kurds “autonomy” or “federalization” and/or intends for the examined clause to also refer to the country’s external borders, then it would have been better for it to expressly stipulate that this word is in reference to the spirit of the Syrian people and not the country’s internal or external borders. Again, it’s not for the author to speculate on what Russia’s motive was in writing this passage, but just to draw attention to the fact that it is legally questionable what it actually refers to. In hindsight, Moscow should have been clearer in conveying the point that it was trying to make, since the uncertainty surrounding it will inevitably cause confusion and expectedly be used to doubt Russia’s intentions in Syria.
* Does “Good Neighborliness” And The “Rejection Of War” Mean Recognizing ‘Israel’?:
According to the Russian-written “draft constitution”, Moscow wants Syria to “build its international relations ‘based on principles of good neighborliness, cooperation and mutual security and other principles envisioned by the international legal norms.’”, as well as “reject war as a means ‘to resolve international conflicts’”. To the unaware observer, this sounds perfectly acceptable and should be acquiesced to without a moment’s hesitation, but to those who are even remotely familiar with Syria’s long-standing and consistent international position in patronizing the Palestinian cause, this could easily be interpreted as a subtle hint that Damascus will be forced to recognize ‘Israel’ if it agrees to abide by the wording of this document.
For those readers which might not be aware, Syria does not recognize the “Weapons of Mass Migration”-created political entity of ‘Israel’ and presently has an outstanding territorial dispute with Tel Aviv over ownership of the Golan Heights. In order to apply the “principles of good neighborliness, cooperation and mutual security”, it naturally follows that Syria must recognize ‘Israel’ and potentially forfeit not only its backing of the Palestinian cause, but also its legal claims to the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by ‘Israel’ since 1967 and unilaterally annexed by Tel Aviv in violation of international law. It should be mentioned in this context that large reserves of oil were recently discovered in this territory, which gives ‘Israel’ yet another reason to want to trick Syria into ceding its claims over this region through the inferred commitments of the Russian-written “draft constitution”.
Another problem with the analyzed passages is that they speak about how Syria must “reject war”, which basically signifies that Damascus will surrender its ability to defend itself in any potential conflict with its neighbors, especially ‘Israel’ over the Golan Heights or Palestine. Nobody is suggesting that Syria will initiate military hostilities against ‘Israel’ anytime in the near future, but just that Damascus should understandably reserve the right to that course of action if it understandably sees the need to defend itself against Tel Aviv’s documented track record of aggression against it. The very fact that Syria would be obliged by this “draft constitution” to enter into “good neighborliness, cooperation, and mutual security” with a neighboring political entity which it doesn’t even officially recognize and is currently occupying historical Syrian land contrary to international law is beyond unsettling for any patriotic Syrian.
* Presidential Term Limits:
RT wrote that “the President is elected by a public vote and can serve a maximum of two terms with seven years each.” This might seem like something obvious for a Western reader, but what it means to many Syrians is that President Assad would inevitably have to leave office after two terms even if he has the full backing of the people behind him. Despite what has been propagated by the Mainstream Media, President Assad remains overwhelmingly popular in Syria, and it’s possible that the incumbent leader could serve more than two terms in office if he had the support. Considering Syria’s political traditions and the president’s present standing (as reflected by his unquestionable reelection in 2014 with 88.7% of the vote), it’s not immediately clear why he should have a cap placed on his term limits. Astute observers, however, can trace the faint outlines of an inevitable “political transition” through this model in the event that all other attempts fail (such as a ‘constitutional coup’ by parliament).
* The “Assembly Of Territories”:
One of the proposed political institutions which isn’t elaborated on by Russian international media is the “Assembly of Territories”, which appears from context to refer to a sort of senate. This conclusion is due to RT writing that “the People’s Assembly serves as a parliament, passing laws which later should be forwarded for approval to the Assembly of Territories and then to the President.” Recalling Sputnik’s earlier reference about “regions”, it increasingly looks like there’s a plan to implement “autonomy” or “federalization” all throughout the country by giving each “region” its own broad-based political powers as practiced through the “Assembly of Territories”.
If Syrian patriots thought that it was disturbing enough that the Kurds of northern Syria might be granted their own quasi-independent state, then they’ll predictably be in vocal opposition to each of the newly redrawn internal polities (the “states” spoken about in Sputnik’s article) being granted these same sorts of privileges. While it may seem at first thought to be “fair”, this in practice could easily lead to the political fragmentation of the country into largely independent entities that would institutionalize the “internal partition” being implemented through the Russian-written “draft constitution” and undeclared “confessionalism”, with all of the resultant regional consequences of instability and Great Power rivalry over these new geopolitical ‘chess pieces’.
* Are “Independent” Judges International Judges?:
The last thing that RT reports on in their article is that “the highest part of the Judiciary is the Constitutional Court, which among others oversees the legality of laws, decrees and other forms of legislation”. Moreover, “the proposed Russian draft notes also that all judges are ‘independent.’”
Although not stated, this heavily insinuates that the “independent” judges might just be international ones like is the case in Bosnia, the first-ever post-Cold War international protectorate and state predecessor to what Russia seems to be wanting to implement in Syria. More elaboration is needed on what constitutes an “independent” judge and whether Moscow envisions Syrians as being capable of producing such individuals from its own society or not, and the failure to expound more fully on this might lend credence to the justified fears that the botched Bosnian template is being blindly transferred to Syria.
Should this be the case, then what Russia suggests should be the “Syrian Republic” by that point could become just as much of an international protectorate as Bosnia presently is, whereby foreign bureaucrats have the final say over the country’s laws in order to make sure that they’re in line with international legislation (per what Sputnik reported on and which was analyzed previously).
Decoding The Kremlin’s Signals
The sudden shift in Russia’s Syrian policy, having gone from avoiding any interference in its domestic affairs to openly writing a “draft constitution” and making suggestions to the ultimate law of the land (no matter what its intentions may have been with this), can be explained by one of two interpretations. The first one which will be discussed is the ‘best-case’ scenario which largely correlates to Moscow’s ‘official’ position, while the second one is the skeptical version of events which is gaining traction on social media and beyond.
It’s not the author’s place to persuade the reader to believe either of these narratives, but rather to present the two most prevalent explanations as to why Moscow embarked on this new policy and allow them to reach their own conclusions. The ideal situation, of course, would be if the ‘official ‘scenario turns out to representative of what’s going on. Nevertheless, even in that interpretation, there are still some rather uncomfortable conclusions which can’t be avoided, and the author wants to make it abundantly clear that he doesn’t necessarily agree with them.
Instead, the purpose behind this section is to provide two cold, impersonal, and emotionally detached explanations as to what might be driving Russia’s outwardly bewildering political reversal over Syria, and with that being said, here are the best-case and worst-case scenarios:
The Master Plan:
The most positive interpretation of events aligns with Moscow’s official statements about how it sought to introduce the “draft constitution” as part of its well-intended efforts to kick start the stalled political process and overcome the stalemate that had set in between both sides. As Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova put it, “the work on the Syrian Constitution must not become an ‘arena for meaningless rhetoric and demonstration of ambitions…The Syrian nation must see prospects of moving toward peace. Conditions for this have been provided.’” Her unusually harsh language in referring to an “arena for meaningless rhetoric and demonstration of ambitions” wasn’t meant to infer that Damascus is guilty of partaking in this, but might have been an off-the-cuff remark said out of frustration in responding to accusations that Russia is apparently “trying to force either the basic law or crisis settlement terms outlined in the draft Constitution presented during the talks in Astana on Syrians.”
Proceeding from this, one can infer that Russia decided to be so proactive in this process all of a sudden in order to take advantage of the political transition in the US and President Trump’s immediate preoccupation with satisfying the most pressing domestic elements of his campaign pledges. Sensing a priceless chance to make an unprecedented breakthrough in reaching a political solution to the War on Syria amidst an ever-closing window of opportunity, Russia seized the initiative in writing the “draft constitution” and organizing the Astana talks where it was given to both delegations. The reason why Russia is so eager to reach a political solution to the conflict is because it doesn’t have the will to commit the necessary military and financial resources needed to bring it to a full military end in favor of Damascus, whether due to what it might understand as being legitimate concerns about ‘overstretch’, ‘quagmires’, and/or faith in the ability of the Syrian Arab Army to liberate the rest of the country and sustain its hard-fought gains.
This last point is especially pertinent because Russian strategic, military, and diplomatic planners (the so-called “deep state”) might have developed doubts – whether real or unfounded – about the true level of support that President Assad enjoys in his country, potentially concluding that it’s not at the level required for ‘justifying’ a boost to Moscow’s military and financial commitment in Syria. Russia never second guessed its commitment to fighting terrorism in Syria, but its leadership might have decided to internationalize the struggle through a newfound multilateralism which only just recently became possible through the election of Donald Trump. Concurrent with this planned intent, Russia would need to bring about a swift end to the political aspect of the War on Syria in order to both meet the June 2017 deadline stipulated by UNSC Res. 2254 for rewriting the Syrian Constitution and holding new elections, and also to demonstrate before the eyes of Russia’s “Western partners” the seriousness with which Moscow wants to embark on the presumable multilateralization of the War on Terror.
In pursuit of the political aspect of this grand strategy, Russia might have realized that it’s much easier to institutionalize the on-the-ground status quo within the country through the implementation of “autonomy” and/or “federalism”, which would give each “moderate rebel opposition” group (including the PYD-YPD Kurds, which fall under this broad category) de-facto governing rights over their occupied territories. Russia doesn’t see this as an “internal partition”, but rather as the only pragmatic and possible solution to an intractable conflict, and it could also allow Moscow to gain important trust with a wide range of actors aside from its traditional Damascus and Kurdish allies. This could help in promoting what is Russia’s ultimate goal nowadays, which is to achieve a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War. Although murky in meaning at this early point in time, it could realistically entail the division of Eurasia into undeclared ‘spheres of influence’ between the US and Russia, with such a framework even including a ‘chessboard’ of “autonomous”/”federalized” statelets within Syria itself.
Refuting The Critics:
While it might superficially look like Russia is “selling out” Syria, that’s not at all in fact what’s happening, and the larger geopolitical dividends which Moscow is aspiring to achieve all across Eurasia would more than compensate for any perceived ‘losses’ in Syria, to say nothing of better reinforcing international security in general and preventing “another Syria” from ever happening again.
Through the drawdown of NATO troops on Russia’s western borders to the relaxation and eventual elimination of the sanctions which are upsetting Russia’s influential economic elite and negatively affecting certain strategic sectors of the economy, Moscow could emerge from this New Détente even stronger and more secure than before, thereby allowing it to play an enhanced future role in Eurasia in assisting its Chinese and Iranian allies in their impending showdown with Trump. The first step in making this happen, however, is for Russia to take the initiative and ultimately be successful in bringing peace to Syria, capitalizing off of its recent military victory in Aleppo in order to bring about a political solution.
In short, Russia saw its entire long-sought-after plan suddenly fall into place in early December ever since the Liberation of Aleppo, and it accordingly decided to act on all of its strategic gains. As Bismark once remarked, “the Russians are slow to saddle up, but ride fast (once they eventually do)”, which in this instance means that it took a painfully long time for Russia’s envisioned end game solution to materialize, but once it became faintly visible across the horizon after all of the hard work that went into advancing this master plan, Moscow immediately jumped into action and shocked the world with its present swiftness.
(It personally pains the author to write the following text, but in the interest of fairness and presenting an alternative “populist” interpretation of empirical evidence after such a scandalous event as Russia writing the “draft constitution” for another country, it becomes a duty to do so in order to allow the reader to reach their own conclusion about what might really be going on behind the scenes in these fast-moving times, though the author of course doesn’t endorse what follows and optimistically believes that the claims laid out below are debunked by the abovementioned best-case scenario.)
Desperation For A New Détente:
This scenario presumes that Russia is desperate to reach a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War, for whatever the reasons might be (though possibly linked most heavily to sanctions relief for the influential economic elite and the removal of threatening NATO troops from its western borderlands), and it is aware that the only realistic opportunity to do this is in the first few months of the Trump Era. Seeing as how this necessitates reaching a deal with the US, Russia resorted to copying the proposal first put forth by the neoconservative Brookings Institution in its summer 2015 policy proposal about “Deconstructing Syria: A New Strategy For America’s Most Hopeless War”, which aggressively lobbies for devolving the centralized Syrian state into a “confederation”.
Making a quick cost-benefit determination and realizing the financial and military futility of a committing to an indefinite liberation war in Syria, Moscow concluded that it would be best to ‘actively advise’ (“pressure”) its Damascus counterparts to cut a deal for (con)”federalization” and “autonomy” which would allow Russia to retain influence along the western coast while cede undeclared influence to the US and its allies in the much less populated northern and eastern parts of the country.
The way that Russia might be understanding the present situation is that Moscow has already secured the rights to develop Syria’s oil and gas reserves (including offshore, it’s presumed) as well as two bases (naval and air), so it doesn’t have any further geopolitical interests in the country besides ending the war and leading a multilateral coalition to crush terrorism (possibly co-led by the US in a PR spectacle to commence or encourage the New Détente).
“Federalization” is also beneficial to Russia’s Western and newfound Mideast “partners” because it could allow Turkey and ‘Israel’ to establish and sustain their hoped-for “buffer zones” in northern and southern Syria respectively (disguised as “safe zones” in the beginning), while its American, Saudi, and Qatari ones would have full reign in the eastern part of the country and thus be able to finally fulfill their plans for building a Gulf pipeline to Turkey and thenceforth to the EU. Since the Syrian government would most likely be forced to recognize ‘Israel’ as part of its responsibilities in abiding by the “principles of good neighborliness, cooperation and mutual security”, it follows that the new Damascus government wouldn’t’ object to Russia selling Syrian offshore oil and gas to an ‘Israeli’-Cypriot-Greek pipeline to Europe.
Even though it might sound like Russia is risking its newly clinched partnership with Turkey through the obvious promotion of a Kurdish “federal” unit in northern Syria, Ankara might be planning to use its in-country military forces and associated proxies to kick the PYD-YPG Kurds out of power and replace them with a pro-Ankara group backed up by Erdogan’s Kurdish ally in northern Iraq, Masoud Barzani. Additionally, since no details have been revealed yet about the governing privileges and range of responsibilities that Damascus would cede to any prospective “autonomous” or “federalized” statelet, it’s possible that the regional authorities might be empowered to invite foreign troops into their territories, especially if they’re allowed to have their own official militias (which would de-facto function as a “standing army”) and the Syrian Arab Army is denied a presence in these areas.
After all, almost the exact same arrangement is currently in force in northern Iraq, and it led to the tense December 2015 standoff whereby the local Kurdish authorities “invited” Turkish troops into their region despite the central Iraqi government in Baghdad deeming this an “invasion” and demanding their immediate withdrawal. Something similar could conceivably happen in northern Syria, too, if the Kurds are granted “autonomy” or “federalization”.
The one regional Great Power conspicuously left out of this grand strategic framework of Russian-led deal-making in facilitating a New Détente with the US in the New Cold War is Iran, which is a major energy rival of Russia’s as well as the US and ‘Israel’s’ hated foe. Although Russia is aligned with Iran in the sense of fighting terrorism in Syria and partaking in the newly formed Tripartite of Great Powers between both of them and Turkey, there’s a lot of bad blood between them due to their impending competition in the global energy market and unforgettable offense that the Russian leadership experienced when the Iranian Defense Minister abruptly kicked them out of the Hamadan base and publicly insulted them. Hossein Dehghan said at the time that the “Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly (attitude) in this field”, which was perceived in Moscow as an unforgivable slight which would one day warrant a response.
This eventually came in the run-up to the Astana talks, when Moscow unilaterally invited the US to attend and thus prompted predictable outrage from Iran, which in turn triggered Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to publicly tell the BBC of all outlets that “Iran’s position is complicating the issue… Iranians are not welcoming this…This is probably the cause of some disagreement between Moscow and Tehran.”
Tehran was understandably offended because it’s not accustomed any of its partners speaking out against its positions in such a manner, especially when its political and diplomatic cultures encourage such disagreements to be discretely resolved behind closed doors. Recognizing that in accordance with this scenario (to remind the reader, not necessarily in reality, but per one of the “populist” narratives that’s been going around) Russia and Iran are mutually suspicious partners at best and impending all-around rivals at worst, Moscow wouldn’t necessarily have any compunctions against working together with Washington and Tel Aviv to progressively expel Tehran’s influence from Syria, especially if this was a demanded prerequisite in order to reach the hoped-for New Détente.
In any case, Russia might figure, Trump and Netanyahu’s forthcoming unconventional aggression campaign against Iran will give Tehran no choice but to look towards Moscow for strategic relief, thus preserving what Russia might believe to be its dominant position in the relationship. Therefore, Russia could be predisposed to working with the US and ‘Israel’ against Iranian interests in Syria, which brings the scenario along to making ‘sense’ of the many controversial clauses in the Moscow-written “draft constitution”.
A Russian-American-‘Israeli’ Plan?:
The US and ‘Israel’ want Hezbollah out of Syria, but this can only be achieved if Iranian influence is curtailed and eventually removed, though there’s no way that this will ever happen so long as President Assad is still in office. If Russia has doubts – whether real or unfounded – about the Syrian leader’s popularity and ability to be a consensually accepted ‘national reconciliation/unity’ leader, then it might not care too much about his political fate.
After all, cynics would point to the fact that Russia already secured its ‘Great Power interests’ in Syria by gaining de-facto control over its natural resource reserves and two coastal military bases, legal agreements which any successor government would presumably be obliged to honor per a ‘grandfather’ clause inserted in the “draft constitution”. Therefore, in order to progressively phase out Assad’s presidency and thus avoid the state collapse that immediately followed Hussein and Gaddafi’s sudden removal from power, Russia included the passages about how parliament can decide “the removal of the president from office”, anticipating that this would be the unstated political recourse which could be relied on in the event that President Assad runs for and wins another term.
According to this line of ‘reasoning’, Astana was supposed to be the moment when Russia convinced the Syrians to accept or at least publicly approve of everything in the Moscow-written “draft constitution” prior to its public unveiling, anticipating that it would be a major soft power victory for Russia to get both sides to agree on something as politically game-changing as this document (and in the run-up to UNSC Res. 2254’s June 2017 deadline for this to happen). That obviously didn’t transpire, but Moscow might have thus decided to turn up the pressure on Damascus in response by humiliating it and publicly disclosing to the world that Russia is “drafting” their constitution because the Syrian authorities have turned the process into, as Zakharova phrased it, an “arena for meaningless rhetoric and demonstration of ambitions.”
Worse still, while the Syrian state was in shock at this unprecedented humiliation, Lavrov declared that “Russia believes that the forthcoming intra-Syria talks in Geneva should focus on specific issues, including drafting the Syrian constitution.” What this translates to in practice is that all of the many Geneva participants will be able to influence their “moderate opposition rebel” proxies in “suggesting” more and more demands for the “draft constitution”, anticipating that the pressure will pile up on the democratically elected and legitimate Syrian government to the point that it politically capitulates and accepts whatever is required of it.
This absolute worst-case scenario assumes that Russia understands contemporary International Relations as representing a 19th-century Great Power chessboard in which only its similarly sized/influential peers matter and small-medium states are negotiable pawns in a larger neo-realistic game of power and interests. For yet another time, the author must reiterate that he does not endorse this viewpoint or anything mentioned above pertaining to this scenario, but that it was conveyed to the reader with the intention of serving as a foil to the best-case and presumably ‘official’ narrative of why Russia so suddenly reversed its positions towards Syria’s conflict resolution process and other important issues thereof.
There’s no way to know exactly what the Kremlin’s calculations were in publicly disclosing that it had surprisingly and unprecedentedly written a “draft constitution” for Syria, nor why it convincingly appears to be promoting the idea of “autonomy” and/or “federalization” for the Kurds, but it’s an analyst’s job to countenance the most likely possibilities in eventually figuring out what may have been going on behind the scenes.
The purpose behind such exercises – which all intelligence agencies (whether state or private), media outlets (whether mainstream or alternative), and independent individuals (whether professional or private) engage in – is to reveal unstated motivations which could hint at future actions, thus allowing one to more accurately predict how a given subject will behave and thus acquire a picture of how forthcoming events could reasonably play out.
In this particular case, it was so shocking to many observers that Russia would apparently reverse its long-standing position and offer up proposals contradicting fundamental interests of the democratically elected and legitimate government of the allied Syrian Arab Republic that there was no way to avoid discussing controversial (and very likely, inaccurate) narratives, which the author included in order for the reader to come to their own conclusions and hopefully end up rejecting the “populist” interpretation of events.
Looking forward and regardless of the narrative which one chooses to accept (whether dogmatically as one or the other, a flexible hybrid thereof, or neither), Syria’s future is fraught with political uncertainty. There’s no telling whether or not the Russian-written “draft constitution” will be accepted, let alone in its entirety, though all indications thus far seem to indicate that it is very unlikely that Damascus and the “moderate rebel opposition” will both agree on its unmodified original version.
That wasn’t Russia’s intent either, since it openly said that its initiative was meant to revive the stalled political process and accelerate much-needed and long overdue progress in this direction, so it’s clear that all sides are preparing for a frantic pace of upcoming diplomatic activity in hammering out the most mutually agreeable terms for reaching a sustainable deal between the Syrian government and its opponents. At the end of the day, however, nothing can enter into practice without the consent of the Syrian people, which is why both Syria and Russia have each reiterated on multipole occasions that a constitutional referendum will absolutely have to take place as one of the final steps to the conflict resolution process.
This means that Syrians could possibly even reject whatever it is that Damascus and the “opposition” eventually agree to at Geneva and Astana, which could lead to completely unpredictable consequences especially as it relates to a possible New Détente between Russia and the US in the New Cold War. However, as the saying goes, “sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal”, and the future of Syria will ultimately be decided by the astute judgement of the wise Syrian people in deciding what is best for their multi-millennial civilization-state.