Igor Delanoë on Syria: “Moscow and Tehran move towards a cooperative competition”

Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Algeria… As the Deputy Director of the French-Russian Analytical Center in Moscow, Igor Delanoë, a Doctorate of History, provides an astute perspective and insight into the South Mediterranean region and delves into the intricacies of Middle Eastern geopolitics, the exploitation of its natural resources, and Russia’s policies of expanding its influence in the region.

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"Do not confuse the seizure of Syrian assets by Russian companies (or Iranian for that matter) with the reconstruction. In some cases, their activity may be beneficial. In other cases, it may be more like predation." © Galina Kuznetsova
ByTheEast: Let’s start by the Syrian issue. How could Russian diplomacy “benefit” from the disengagement of Westerners? Which political solution can Russians adapt to emerge from the war?

Igor Delanoë: First of all, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria which U.S. President Donald Trump announced last December is far from being effective. As far as boots on the ground is concerned, Russians expect a smaller footprint of U.S. forces in Syria – roughly around a few hundred men, maybe up to two hundred to be precise, in the medium term. However, the present development underscores Washington’s disinterest in Syrian affairs, which seems to be a common trait of both the Obama as well as the Trump Administrations which places Russia in a leading position to try and resolve the crisis.

Moscow is working on the finalization of the Constitutional Committee, the principle of which was established at the Sochi Congress at the end of January 2018.

The Syrian regime, which considers itself as “victorious” on the military front, has shown little interest to “play along”; it has also confirmed the opposition delegates that were co-opted by the Russians, as well as those “independents” ones selected under the auspices of the U.N. The transition from Staffan de Mistura to Geir Pedersen, as the United Nations Special Envoy for the political settlement of the Syrian crisis, has also led to some delay.

Moscow favors the return of refugees, without waiting for a roadmap for political transition, and hopes to attract international economic aid. Nevertheless, its approach is opposed by Europeans, who have stated that any potential economic aid is contingent to the terms of commitments made towards a political transition in Damascus.

Meanwhile, the Astana process, in decline with the disappearance of the so-called “de-escalation” zones, could revitalize itself thanks to the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops. The probability of this revitalization is higher in the wake of Trump’s declaration of victory over the Islamic State in Baghouz on March 24.

“The Iranian presence in Syria continues to be a “red line” for Israel, a country which shares good relations with Russia”

BTE: On the field and through political discussions, how could you describe the relations between Iran and Russia?

Delanoë: The Russians and Iranians spoke in favor of preserving the Syrian regime as well as maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria in its current borders. Both have also opposed the annexation of the Golan Heights by Israel. In fact, Tehran and Moscow view radical Wahhabi groups as threats, albeit for different reasons. The military cooperation between the Russians and Iranians, since Russia’s military may intervene in Syria, could still be useful in the event of a military operation against the last jihadist stronghold in Idlib. Out of this framework, Moscow and Tehran are moving towards a relationship that could be called “cooperative competition” in Syria.

The Iranian presence in Syria continues to be a “red line” for Israel, a country which shares good relations with Russia. Trump, however, wants to drive them away from Syria thinking in the line of “neo-containment” of the Islamic Republic. Both, Israel and the United States want Moscow to “play the game” and help expel Iranian and pro-Iranian forces from Syria. The subject has provoked dissonances in politico-military circles in Russia.

In November 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled that Iran was legally present in Syria following an appeal from Damascus and that no one could demand its expulsion from Syria. A few months later, in May 2018, Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, explicitly implied that all foreign forces, including Hezbollah and Iranian forces, were destined to leave Syrian territory. These developments underscore the point that Moscow does not appear to have the political will or the leverage to drive away the Iranians out of Syria. On the other hand, Russia is better able to mitigate the Iranian presence in the Golan.

BTE: The issue of Syrian natural resources was one of the reasons Moscow sided with the Syrian regime. Are Russian companies or key-players free to do whatever they want in Syria?

Delanoë: With regard to economic activity and investment potential in Syria, the factor of international sanctions should not certainly be overlooked. Apart from the threat of international sanctions on Syria, there are also threats of U.S. unilateral sanctions by the United States. In October 2018, Washington had stated it would impose sanction on any entity that would undertake to contribute towards the recovery of Syria’s economy. These threats act as powerful “brakes” for non-sanctioned Russian companies that may be interested in deploying their activities in Syria. For those already on U.S. sanctions lists related to Crimea or Ukraine, the risk is less. Take for example, SoyuzNefteGaz, a company that is not snared by U.S. sanctions, is already active in Syria’s oil & gas sector and has obtained rights to carry out research off Syrian shores; however, it has not had much success for the moment. In contrast, StroyTransGaz, a Russian company which has been sanctioned, has begun upgrading Syria’s gas network since last year.

BTE: We always talk about hydrocarbons resources, but what about mining resources?

Delanoë: Since 2017, StroyTransGaz took over the development of the Syrian phosphate mines, whose sites of exploitation are under the protection of Russian private military companies. Exporting the Syrian phosphate – under sanction, as with its gas and its oil – could be done via Crimea, another territory under sanctions. However, the value of these contracts should not be overestimated, especially in comparison to the scale of destruction that Syria has suffered, which is nearly USD300 billion according to the United Nations. Do not confuse the seizure of Syrian assets by Russian companies (or Iranian for that matter) with reconstruction contracts. In some cases, their activity may be beneficial (upgrading the gas distribution electrification network, for example). In other cases, it may be more like predatory. In the end, only an international effort will be able to put the country back on its feet.

“In Lebanon, Russia can certainly capture a field of influence left abandoned by historical players such as France. I am talking about the defense of Christian minorities”

BTE: Let’s cross the border. Russians do finance Russian-language learning programs in Lebanese schools (among other projects). This is a new phenomenon, especially as historical players are losing their influence in Lebanon. In terms of soft powers, what tools are being used by Moscow in Lebanon?

Delanoë: Moscow is trying to capitalize on its prestige linked to its military successes in Syria to spread its influence area in Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Russia can certainly capture a field of influence left abandoned by historical players such as France. I am talking about the defense of Christian minorities. Europeans have long given up exploiting this vector of influence, unlike Russia, which is positioning itself as an assumed orthodox power. President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev regularly appear among Russian Orthodox religious leaders, but also among those representing other religions present in Russia, including Islam (there would be up to 20 million Muslim Russian citizens). Playing the protection of Christian minorities in Syria card resonates as far as Lebanon.

BTE: Relations look good between Moscow and Cairo. Sisi and Putin speak the same language, cooperation between the two countries is not limited to the sale of weapons. What forms does it take today?

Delanoë: Since Marshal Sisi’s advent in Cairo, Moscow has developed a great Egyptian policy. Russia has capitalized on its political capital in Egypt, by openly and publicly supporting the Egyptian regime.

The bilateral cooperation revolves primarily around two structuring projects: the first is the construction of an Egyptian nuclear power plant which will be built in el-Daaba by Rosatom, a Russian company, under a USD25 billion deal. The second is the construction of a Russian industrial zone at the entrance to the second Suez Canal. This is strategic since it aims to be a platform for possibly projecting Russian economic prowess towards Africa.

In economic terms, Egypt is Russia’s second largest partner in the Middle East, with more than USD26 billion in trade between 2008 and 2017. Cairo imports Russian grain in bulk, while Moscow imports agricultural products from Egypt, as a replacement of European agricultural products, which have been embargoed since 2014.

Cairo and Moscow have also reactivated their defense partnership since 2013, although it existed but at a much more modest level under Hosni Mubarak. The duo signed major defense contracts for the purchase of about fifty MiG-29M fighter jets, S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems and about fifty new generation Ka-52K attack helicopters. Unlike American or European defense deals, the Russians don’t pretend to exercise a “right of scrutiny” over Egyptian civil society or the human rights situation in the country. Because of this the Russian-Egyptian political partnership is all the more vibrant.

BTE: In 2011, Western intervention in Libya had been greatly “thwarted” by Moscow, a move from which Tripoli has hardly been able to recover from. Ghassan Salamé, head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), just declared that the country is at a “critical juncture”. In concrete terms, what is the Russian diplomacy regarding Tripoli?

Delanoë: Since 2017, Moscow seems to have opted for a “wait and see” strategy. In 2016, Moscow sided with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, in its attempt to play peace-maker and made Haftar its “champion”.

Despite this act of support, Haftar’s “boastfulness” and posturing were badly received by Moscow, who had by then spoken with all the key players of the Libyan crisis, including the Serraj Cabinet, the people of the city of Misrata and the tribes of Southern Libya.

Nevertheless, Moscow continues to see Haftar as an asset because, in addition to controlling most of the country, he has the military fiber that it apparently likes the most. Further, Haftar is also at the crossroads of the Egyptian interests in the Middle East and has the support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – countries with whom Moscow has good relations.

Faced with French and Italian diplomatic initiatives, Russia preferred to sit back and count the blows the Europeans give each other while it focuses on reactivating contracts it signed during the Khaddafi era. These contracts, in the billions including the USD5 billion deal for armaments and infrastructure projects, were swept away in 2011, when the regime fell.

“Military and technical cooperation between Moscow and Algiers is the pivotal part of their relationship”

BTE: Last stop before finishing our Mediterranean tour: Algeria. Since the Cold War, Algiers has been a trustful ally of Moscow, as Foreign Minister Lavrov recalled during his last official visit in 2018. What are the main lines of cooperation between the two regimes?

Delanoë: It is essential to point out that after the Egyptian flip-flop during President Sadat’s term, Algeria became, in the 1970s, the point of entry to the sub-Saharan Africa for the USSR. Since 2008, the volume of Russian-Algerian trade amounted to more than USD22.4 billion. Bilateral trade has soared from USD885 million in 2014 to more than USD4.6 billion in 2017. The fall in bilateral trade from USD22.4 to USD4.6 can be attributed to a true annus horribilis due to the collapse of Russian exports to Algeria.

What is to be noted is that, military and technical cooperation between Moscow and Algiers is the pivotal part of their relationship. Russians have traditionally partnered with the Algerians in these two areas.

Between 2014 and 2018, Russia provided for 66% of all military equipment purchases by Algeria, including the Pantsir and Buk mobile anti-aircraft systems, 30 SU-30MK fighter planes, more than 200 T-90S tanks, two non-nuclear submarines, etc.

Further, Algiers also appreciated Russian efforts aimed at coordinating oil production with the OPEC countries in order to curb the fall in crude prices, thanks to the signing of the OPEC+ Agreement at the end of 2016, which has since been renewed annually.

BTE: Finally, on the political front, FLN (National Liberation Front) seems unwilling to let go of power in Algiers, despite the renunciation of President Bouteflika to run for a fifth term. How are the Russians seeing the situation in this country right now?

Delanoë: Many Russian observers foresaw the coming of the “Arab Spring” phenomenon. Beyond the instinctive mistrust of Russian politico-military elites with regard to popular movements, Moscow certainly does not want one of its key partners in North Africa affected by instability, especially given its interests in the country.

The Kremlin has remained cautious, not wishing to alienate the common man by openly advocating for President Bouteflika. So much so that on March 12, Russian Foreign Ministry even moved out following several weeks of demonstrations in Algerian cities, and called for a “constructive and responsible” resolution to mitigate political unrest in the country.