Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to journalists in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on January 9, 2017. Photo: SANA / handout via REUTERS
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to journalists in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on January 9, 2017. Photo: SANA / handout via REUTERS

After five long years of war and bloodshed, Syria’s Assad is not only standing as ‘the leader’ of the country but the international support for him has also increased. Thanks to Russia’s and Iran’s continuous support. The extent and the effectiveness of the support these countries have provided is evident from the way Syria’s erstwhile rival, Turkey, has turned into a supporter.

Notwithstanding the fact that Turkey’s ‘change of heart’ is also a result of its bad relations with the US and EU, a fundamental change in its stance still reflects the attention Turkey is paying to the new regional realities, which are in turn being largely shaped by Russia.

Russia’s military presence, that is to say, has not only become a strong pillar of support for Assad, it has also turned into a useful counter-balancing chip that countries like Turkey—still a NATO member—can use against its ‘new rivals.’ Hence, Turkey-Russia détente and subsequent joint strikes in Syria.

Whereas this coordinated strike has exposed the crisis the US foreign policy is currently facing, It equally stands in stark contradiction to the anti-Moscow campaign being waged by Washington and its principal NATO allies—a campaign which has seen the cutting off of military-to-military ties, imposition of sanctions, and the increasingly provocative deployment of thousands of US and other NATO troops on Russia’s western borders.

To this Russia has responded by converting Syria into its stronghold that it can use to gain a strong foothold in the region i.e., the Middle East and counter-balance NATO’s advance military deployments close its own border.

On January 20, Russia’s TASS news-agency reported that Russia and Syria have signed an agreement on expanding the territory of the Russian Naval base in Tartus for 49 years. According to the document officially released:

The current agreement will stay effective for 49 years and be automatically prolonged for 25-year periods, if neither party makes a twelve months’ notice in writing through diplomatic channels of its intention to terminate the agreement’s operation.

According to the terms, the expansion would provide for simultaneous berthing for up to 11 warships, including nuclear-powered vessels, thus more than doubling Russia’s currently present known capacity there.
Significantly, the agreement also covers the air base near Latakia, which has been pivotal in Russian assistance to Assad in fighting an array of forces—extremists, ‘rebels’, and ‘insurgents.’

As such, while the early announcement by Russia regarding scaling down its military force in Syria showed the short-term nature of its military commitments, this agreement has clearly shown how Russia is going to stay in the region for almost half a century or even beyond.

Russia is, therefore, the new big reality of the Middle East—a reality that has its own force and attracting other regional countries. While Turkey has almost ‘fallen’ for it, some other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, have also repeatedly hinted about ‘redefining’ their relations with Russia.

As far as Turkey is concerned, its previous anti-Assad policy appears to have undergone a transformation of fundamental nature.

The latest remarks came from Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which indicated that Turkey had softened its position in the interest of finding a solution, stating further that a settlement without Mr. Assad was no longer possible.

“The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and so Turkey can no longer insist on, you know, a settlement without Assad, and it’s not, you know, realistic. We just have to work with what we have”, he said.

Both these developments have come at a time when Turkey and Russia have considerably upped their military co-operation in Syria and when Turkey is openly participating in the dialogue process being backed by Russia and Iran.

The United Nations is also going to be present at the up-coming round of talks, leaning it considerable legitimacy amidst US absence (read: the US has refused to take an “essential part” in the talks).

What seems to have pushed the UN to confirm its presence is the fact that Russia and Turkey brokered truce has largely been observed throughout Syria, with only few random clashes taking place.

And as New York Times reported in its January 20 report, it look like “for the first time….that the main Syrian opposition, along with many other factions, would sit down with Mr. Assad’s government for peace talks. The last effort at such negotiations was held by the United Nations in Geneva in February, and it collapsed in days.”

Although the UN’s presence doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome, it still adds a lot of weight to what Russia is trying to achieve. On the other hand, US’ refusal to send its own delegation has equally made its absence conspicuous, making the process land in an uncertain territory.

It is not only the US that remains outside of the process, a number of other groups, particularly the Kurds, are also not present on the table, making the process a bit selective and the probable outcome less than unanimous.

For Assad, however, the absence of the US from the peace process does not in itself create an issue to worry about. The scenario building up in Syria implies a ‘win-win’ situation for him.

With Russia now expected to stay in Syria for five decades or more and with Turkey, a crucial NATO ally, willing to accept Assad in power, there is little left for Assad, as far as the question of his regime’s future is concerned, to worry about.

While the Trump administration is yet to formulate its own policy vis-à-vis Syria and while co-operation between the US and Russia is expected to increase from its current level, it is uncertain what stance the Trump government would take against Iran, which is not only a crucial ally of Assad but also, according to the new US secretary of defense, the most “destabilizing force” in the region.

Were James Mattis’s testimony before the US senate to be taken as an indication of the future course of policy, Iran-US relations would touch a new low in the coming months.

Will Russia then see itself playing another mediatory role between both countries just as it has successfully mediated between Turkey and Syria?

This will be, were this to happen, another boost to Russia’s position in the region, and yet another boost to Assad’s future as Syria’s president.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at

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