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Russia considering course change after new challenges in Syria

As Russia's presidential election approaches, Moscow finds itself recently pressured by several negative developments in Syria that are causing it to re-evaluate its strategy there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a state awards ceremony for military personnel who served in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 28, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1FBBAD3FD0

MOSCOW — A Russian An-26 military transport plane crashed March 6 while approaching Khmeimim air base in Syria, killing everyone on board — six crew members and 33 passengers. A few hours after the catastrophe, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin the preliminary findings: The crash was believed to be caused either by pilot error or technical malfunction. The plane was built in 1980.

The incident — Russia's single-biggest military loss in Syria — claimed the lives of Russian Maj. Gen. Vladimir Yeremeyev, a colonel, six majors, two captains and 29 junior officers and sergeants.

Jaish al-Islam claimed responsibility for the incident, saying it fired on the plane when it was about to land. The attack supposedly came in retaliation for the Russia-supported Syrian army offensive in Eastern Ghouta. The Conflict Intelligence Team, a Moscow-based independent investigative group, suggested the statement was false given the limited presence of Jaish al-Islam in the area adjacent to the crash site. The team also pointed out that the statement was only released by the Lebanese Ad-Diyar newspaper and hadn't appeared on any of Jaish al-Islam’s social networks.

Shortly after the incident, Putin spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a Kremlin press release, Erdogan expressed his condolences and informed the Russian leader of the ongoing Turkish operation in Afrin. The two also discussed the state of affairs in Eastern Ghouta. 

The plane crash is the latest development in the recent streak of bad luck Moscow has faced in Syria, coming on top of mounting pressure over the situation in Eastern Ghouta and US considerations of a possible new strike on positions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over renewed charges he has used chemical weapons. With just nine days until the presidential election in Russia, such moves are largely perceived as a product of “American efforts to poke Putin in the eye,” but a bigger worry in Moscow is how far it can all go before endangering Russia's efforts in Syria.

A Kremlin official who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution said there’s “clear evidence” the United States seeks to make things more complicated for Russia.

The United States has "lost the military struggle in that the opposition groups they vetted failed to topple Assad militarily," the official said. "So they are now fully investing in all kinds of initiatives to bar us from any success we could have achieved in the political settlement. They themselves have proposed nothing constructive on how to navigate out of the crisis."

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced a similar concern, saying, "The United States and other Western countries would want to take the heat off" Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other radical groups to keep using them against Assad.

Lavrov added that Moscow “receives more and more information from different sources that Americans formed a narrow, non-inclusive group that fosters plans on the dissolution of the Syrian state.”

There’s a mutually recognized need to maintain constant communication between Moscow and Washington on these issues. In his recent meetings with Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman stressed that “the low trust level” between the two countries calls for such communication to be intensified, not cut back. Yet, so far, such communications apparently haven't satisfied Moscow's concerns.

Russia once saw a return on its investments like the de-escalation zones, its use of private military companies (PMC) and engaging opposition groups. But these efforts are no longer producing the kind of results Moscow wants. Perhaps others have learned to adapt and deal with them. But Russia will not back down in the face of challenges, even if it means more political losses or physical expenditures. Instead, it will revise its course. Moscow already appears to be shifting its military and diplomatic strategies.

Russia's Defense Ministry plans to make use of the "gray zone," that Cold War-like area between peace and conventional warfare.

The day the plane crash occurred, Gerasimov was at Khmeimim air base. No details of his Syria visit are known and, were it not for the crash, his presence might not have been revealed at all. But his visit at this critical time shows that Moscow has been making necessary adjustments to its military; those will soon be evident in battlefield dynamics.

An investigative report by Russian media outlet Znak suggests more Wagner Group mercenaries — at least 150 fighters — are being prepared to deploy in Syria within the next couple of weeks. Reports on the Wagner PMC emerged shortly after Feb. 7, when the United States and US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces attacked pro-Assad units allegedly accompanied by Russian mercenaries. If true, this is definitely a newsworthy development, yet it represents only a tiny part of the potential military moves Moscow is mulling over.

The diplomatic track is also thickly layered. In recent weeks, Russia has continued to closely engage Turkey and Iran. On March 6, representatives of the three states held consultations in New York with UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Sergey Vershinin, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department, led the talks on the Russian end. He lobbied to implement the decisions adopted in late January at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which virtually implies kick-starting Geneva talks under Russia-brokered mechanisms.

With Tehran long staying its own course and wisely taking a low public profile on these matters, Ankara's position on these matters is critical. Erdogan has long been criticized for his failing strategy in Syria, but Turkey remains a key state to both Russia and the United States. After the session of the Turkey-US working group March 8-9 in Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will go to Russia for the meeting of the Turkish-Russian joint strategic planning group scheduled for March 12-14. He will then proceed to Kazakhstan for a March 16 trilateral meeting of the “Astana guarantor states” with his counterparts, Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Turkey will understandably seek to play both Russia and the United States for its own interests, and Moscow and Washington will be working to persuade Ankara that each would make a better partner than the other. Therefore, the stakes are high and Erdogan's decisions in the next few weeks could define the major parameters of Turkey's position in Syria for the foreseeable future.

In the Syrian conflict, the tables have been turning quickly. The sense that things aren’t working out properly is strong in Moscow, with even staunch advocates of Russia’s Syria policies now wary and calling for policy updates. Moscow has been cautious not to take any radical steps before the March 18 election day to dodge possible risks. But Russia's plans to amend its strategy are underway and will have been implemented once Putin receives his fourth-term mandate.

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