Russia is at a dead-end in Syria

Russia is struggling and failing to find a way out of the Syrian quagmire.

Russian President Putin chairs meeting with members of government at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow
The main danger for Moscow lies in the fact that Trump, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, does not have any clear strategy with regards to Syria, writes Issaev [Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters]

The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections last November raised the Russian leadership’ hopes of improving Russian-US relations in general and reaching a compromise on Syria, in particular. Now, five months after Trump took power, the chances of this happening seem meagre.

Recent events in Syria, especially the incidents that took place in the Raqqa area and near the city of Tanf at the Syrian-Iraqi border, make Russian-US cooperation increasingly illusory. This, in turn, makes the Russian exit from Syria that much more difficult.

The Kremlin’s gamble to use the conflict in Syria to normalise relations with the West after the disaster in Ukraine is not paying off. Moscow is appearing to be stuck in Syria, entangled in Damascus and Tehran’s desperate plots.

Seeking a way out

Currently, the main problem for Moscow is the fact that its presence in Syria is becoming more profitable for Washington. The paradox, therefore, is that under the Trump administration, the United States and its allies will make efforts to keep Moscow involved in the Syrian conflict, while the Russian leadership will increasingly look for ways to come out of the Syrian stalemate.

Russia has been increasing its troops deployment in the Middle East, which undoubtedly affects its permanently deficit-ridden budget, as well as the domestic politics. The best scenario for Russia would be a quick exit from the Syrian conflict, provided that the advances it has achieved would be bartered with the West in exchange for normalising relations with it.

In turn, the US, like the European Union, has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not ready to link removing anti-Russian sanctions to progress on the Syrian issue. From this point of view, the longer the Russian presence in Syria continues, the higher the probability that the costs from this presence would outstrip any gains which would be difficult to convert into concessions from the West.

In addition, the assets available to the Russian leadership are becoming less attractive for the US with Trump in power. The best example here is the statement that the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made at the end of March on the new American priorities in Syria. According to them, the departure of Bashar al-Assad was no longer a top priority.

Despite the fact that, in Moscow, there was an attempt to present these statements as “a victory of Russian diplomacy”, practically this means that Washington is becoming less interested in a deal with the Kremlin on Syria on terms favourable for Russia. Moscow’s main asset – Assad – is becoming less and less important to the West.

The main danger for Moscow lies in the fact that Trump, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, does not have any clear strategy with regards to Syria. He has no principles and no general understanding about what he would like to achieve in the medium term.

In this sense, Moscow is increasingly at risk of being held hostage by Damascus and Tehran, which will continue to provoke Washington, forcing the Kremlin to respond and take measures against the US.


The decisions his administration takes often do not contribute to a strategically established plan, but are usually responses to external provocations, such as the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, recent incidents in the city of Tanf or pro-regime forces attacking positions of US allies.

Iran as a bargaining chip?

There have been rumours going around that Iran might become a bargaining chip in Russia’s attempts to normalise relations with the US. During his visit to Riyadh in May, Trump proposed the creation of a regional security coalition, escalating Washington’s anti-Iranian rhetoric further

But the Kremlin is unlikely to sell out Iran for a chance to restart Russian-US relations. In the post-Soviet period, Russia has tried at least twice to do just that, with little success.

First, in 1995, during President Bill Clinton’s visit to Moscow, Russia pledged to complete ahead of schedule all previously signed contracts with Iran on deliveries of military products and not to conclude any new military agreements with Tehran. The official signing of these agreements was the Gore-Chernomyrdin Memorandum of June 30, 1995, and Russia’s overall losses due to this move were estimated by experts at $4bn. However, this did not lead to a breakthrough in relations with Washington and by 2000, Moscow had restarted military cooperation with Iran.

In 2010, then President Dmitry Medvedev stopped the delivery of S-300 air defence missiles to Iran in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 1929, limiting supply of modern arms to Iran due to its nuclear programme. This decision was one of the most important components of the so-called “reset” initiative for US-Russian relations, which was set in motion by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2009. But even Clinton’s “reset button” policy did not achieve much and Moscow ended up with spoiled relations with Iran and no progress on rapprochement with the US once again.

OPINION: Where next for Russia in Syria?

After two failed attempts, it is difficult to expect the Kremlin would be ready once again to jeopardise relations with Iran for the sake of short-lived US promises. Furthermore, given the ongoing investigations against the Trump administration, the US political elite is not remotely in the mood for normalisation talks with Russia.

Two decades of very unstable Russian-Iranian relations, when Moscow and Tehran periodically betrayed each other for the sake of improving ties with a third party, created a strong distrust for Russia among the Iranians. As a result, while cooperating with Moscow in Syria, the Iranians are constantly afraid that Russia will betray them for the sake of normalising relations with the US. The chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, attempts to create a “Shia corridor” in the southeast of Syria – where Russia and the US are negotiating the creation of another zone of de-escalation – as well as the downed Syrian air force plane purposefully attacking the SDF forces near Raqqa, certainly sow discord in the dialogue between Moscow and Washington, excluding (as realised by the Iranians) the possibility of Moscow’s “betrayal” of its allies in Damascus and Tehran.

In this sense, Moscow is increasingly at risk of being held hostage by Damascus and Tehran, which will continue to provoke Washington, forcing the Kremlin to respond and take measures against the US.

Leonid Issaev is a lecturer at the National Research University Higher School of Economics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.