In March this year it will be seven years since the Syrian Arab Republic was flung into a difficult, intense and drawn-out crisis. The waves of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Revolution’ that plunged Tunisia, Egypt and Libya into chaos and shook up other countries in the region reached Syria and disrupted normal life in what had once been, by Middle East standards, a prosperous and stable country.
At that time, in 2010-11, there were -and even now there remain- a lot of unanswered questions about the background to those unexpected political convulsions. Now the most prevalent view of those events is that they were originally spontaneous demonstrations, a popular outbreak of anger against unacceptable corruption and against leaders robbing their people, feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and despair which overflowed the limits of what people could tolerate. The ‘Arab Spring’ appeared out of the blue, because it concerned strategically important regions. But, Western capitals the policymakers quickly got their bearings and found levers that they could use to direct that simmering popular dissatisfaction in the direction they needed.
In Syria, certain forces that were unhappy with Bashar Assad’s rule rode on the crest of the wave of discontent that was sweeping across the Arab world. That country, with its strategically very important position on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and its historic influence in the Arab and Moslem worlds was the focus of attention of a number of leading countries in both the West and in the Persian Gulf region. A number of foreign powers started to intervene in the worsening internal conflict. The Syrian opposition were generously provided with arms, and dollars, which triggered the civil war.
At the same time, militants from the DAESH terrorist group entered Syria. DAESH was formed following the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. In 2009 DAESH declared war on Syria and in 2014 it announced the formation of a Global Islamic Caliphate in the parts of Syria they had taken over- a considerable area of the country from Aleppo to the Diyala in the East of Iraq.
In Summer 2015, groups of armed DAESH militants, provided with information and military, financial and material support by the West and by a number of Persian Gulf states, very nearly reached Damascus. By September 2015 there was a very real risk of Syria ceasing to exist as a single, independent state. In response to an official request from the Syrian government, the Russian armed forces started taking practical steps to help Syria defend itself against the threats posed by terrorists. In parallel, Russian diplomats service put a genuinely unprecedented effort into bringing about a ceasefire and starting the peace process. Hundreds of meetings were held, not only with representatives of the Syrian government, but also with various opposition groups, neighboring countries and other countries with an influence on the situation in Syria. Russia’s actions radically changed the balance of powers, and the general situation, in Syria. By the end of 2017 more than 90% of Syrian territory had been liberated from terrorists.
The success of Russian policy- due to the coordinated activities of Russian Aerospace Forces and the efforts of Russian diplomats – speaks for itself. The Russian President V.V.Putin recently referred to this success in a speech in which he emphasized that the Russian military had accomplished their mission superbly: ‘We have managed to save Syria as a sovereign and independent state,refugees are returning home, and the conditions are now in place for a political administration overseen by the UN.’ Speaking at the Khmeimim air base in December 2017, the Russian president firmly declared that ‘if the terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal them a much harder blow than anything they’ve seen up to now.’
The real results of the cooperation between Russia and Syria in defeating DAESH and other terrorist groupings had a big impact throughout the world. Nevertheless, Western media continue to try to distort the developing new situation (not all of them, it is true- for example several French newspapers have called for a detailed examination to see what lessons can be learned from the events in Syria and the striking success of the Russian army.)
The countries in the region, without exception, recognize the high importance of the operations carried out by the Russian armed forces. Several well-known political figures in the Arab world have recently told me, in conversations, that Russia now has more respect and influence in the Middle East than the Soviet Union did in its day.
In Russia it is well understood that, despite the striking successes, the struggle for Syria, to save as single sovereign state, to restore its economy and creating peace for its citizens will require a lot more strength, time and resources. In Russia’s view, the developing situation shows that the unstable situation in Syria is artificially supported. Several influential foreign parties are clearly using the resources at their disposal to oppose the political settlement process and the final eradication of terrorists in Syria. The USA’s continuing unlawful military presence in Syria presents a serious obstacle to the country’s progress towards peace and the preservation of its unity and territorial integrity.
It is evident that Russia’s military and diplomatic success is highly inconvenient for the ruling elites in the West, and they are doing whatever they can to minimize its significance. And President Trump’s attempt to claim most of the credit for defeating DAESH for himself looks particularly absurd.
It is extraordinary that many in Western countries, in defiance of logic and even their own interests in the maintenance of safety and stability, appear to be trying to derail the peace process as it picks up speed, and prevent the restoration of normal life for the country’s citizens. To do this, a wide range of different methods are being used. For example, the drone attack on the Khmeimim base. On February 5, in Idlib Province, jihadists from the Tahrir-al-Sham group, which was formed out of the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, brought down a Russian Su-25 attack aircraft. And the US permanent representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, claimed in a meeting of the Security Council that there is ‘obvious evidence from dozens of victims’ of the use of chlorine gas in East Ghouta province, which is under the control of Syrian opposition formations.
At the same time, in various ways, they are trying to undermine the triple coalition -Russia, Turkey and Iran- that is developing thanks to Moscow’s efforts. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of a productive and close cooperation between the three countries. As he pointed out, ‘Working contacts between representatives of these three countries are clear evidence that Turkey and Iran are playing a key role, in the fullest sense of that word, in the stabilization of the situation in Syria and Iraq. Together with Iran and Turkey, Russia has created a new paradigm, a kind of regional triangle in the Middle East, which is capable of exerting an influence on many important issues. First and foremost, naturally, on the Syrian problem.’
The destructive position of the West was clear from its reaction to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which was held in Sochi. It would seem obvious that the Congress had a huge positive and healing effect: it laid the foundation for a wide-ranging dialogue between the different Syrian groups, and represented an important step towards the restoration of peace in Syria, which is struggling to cope with the aftermath of a long-drawn-out and bloody conflict. And nevertheless certain attempts were made to undermine the sessions. A considerable effort was put into attempts to prevent certain opposition groups from coming to Sochi. Many American and European media outlets made little secret of their irritation about the Congress, and several of them, in defiance of basic rules of ethics, published articles about its failure even before it had begun. Even such an apparently authoritative publication as Foreign Policy, which has a reputation as an objective source, brought a spoonful of tar to add to the honey barrel. It added its voice to the insincere melody planned in advance by the West: ‘The much-vaunted peace conference held in Russia to discuss the ending of the war in Syria ended up as a total failure.’
Such attacks are not individual one-off occurrences but are part of the West’s general political strategy. The anti-Russian campaign initiated by Washington, which has expanded to an unheard of scale, is now on everyone’s lips. Its goal is clear- to try and bring Russia back under the West’s guardianship, and turn it once more into a subordinate nation. Sergey Lavrov explained this tendency in world politics very clearly in one of his recent speeches. The Russian Foreign Minister had this to say on the matter: “The historic West, concerned about the loss of its influence, is trying with all its might to retain its hegemony, obstruct the very real process of the formation of a new multi-polar world order, and limit the development of new global centers, including Russia. Such attempts are doomed to failure. It will not succeed in isolating Russia, forcing her to give up her principles, or solving its own problems at our expense.’
Russia is now playing a key role in promoting a positive and forward-looking international agenda. We have regained our historical role as one of the key guarantors of global stability, and a protector of the values of truth and justice in international relations. That is a vital role in the international community. Our path in the international arena is supported by the great majority of countries. They are historically our allies, alongside our army, navy and aerospace forces.
In March it will be 7 years since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Maybe the time has come to start writing its detailed diplomatic history. And, without question, a special place in that history should be reserved for the heroic military servicemen whose names are written in the golden book of Russia’s military glory, and also for the Russian diplomats who labor tirelessly and bring their important contribution to the struggle to restore peace in Syria and the whole of the Middle East.
Veniamin Popov, Director of the Center for Partnership of Civilizations at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”