What’s Behind Putin’s Call to Assad

A few days after Russian president Vladimir Putin’s phone call to his Syrian counterpart Bashar al Assad, a high-level Russian delegation headed by Minister of Defence Sergei Shoygu arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus and held a long meeting with president Assad. The meeting was attended by senior defense and security officials including the Syrian Minister of Defense Maj. General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub and National Security Chief General Ali Mamlouk. What is behind those two bilateral developments and what were the main topics discussed at the Damascus meeting?

Shoygu Went to Damascus ‘on President Putin’s Instructions’

The linkage between Putin’s phone call to Assad and the quickly-arranged visit by Shoygu is strong and clear, and the Russian minister is reported to have flown to Damascus “on President Putin’s instructions” and was delivering a “message from Putin to Assad”, similar to previous visits he had made to Syria such as the last one in March, 2019. But this time around, much has changed in terms of geopolitical as well as the military situation on the ground before the current truce agreement was reached between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Putin last month in Moscow.

The Truth Lies Between the Headlines and the Reality on the Ground

While the headline for the telephone conversation held between presidents Putin and Assad on March 20 was that this was a call by the Russian leader to congratulate his Syrian counterpart on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Israa (Ascension) and Mi’raj (Descension) — a holy Muslim event — the two leaders are believed to have discussed military and humanitarian aspects of the situation in Idlib in some detail, including implementation methods and challenges to the Moscow deal between Erdogan and Putin. In particular they were interested in jump-starting the stalled Constitutional Committee as well as Russian assistance to Syria against the coronavirus pandemic.

A giant Russian vessel carrying some 200 ambulance vehicles and essential medical aid was seen two days ago crossing the Bosphorus Strait heading for the Syrian port of Tartous. Russia signed a long-term lease agreement with Syria regarding the strategic port of Tartous and pledged a $500 million investment plan there. Russia already maintains a naval base in Tartous, and the 49-year lease agreement that was signed in April, 2019, was later ratified by Syria’s parliament and endorsed afterwards by Assad.

At the top of the agenda discussed by the visiting Russian delegation in Damascus with the Syrian President Monday, was the issue of implementing Russian-Turkish agreements regarding the so-called “de-escalation zone” in Idlib, and arrangements for the reopening of the strategic M4 highway between Aleppo and the Mediterranean city of Latakia. The route crosses several towns and villages still controlled by pro-Turkish rebel forces, and its reopening plan is categorically rejected by the more radical Nusra terror group and other extremist militias who have dug trenches across the highway in certain areas to render it unusable for traffic, and threatened to attack any force that tries to implement the M4 plan.

Covid-19: An Added Challenge but Also a Battle-Stopper

The Russian delegation is also believed to have discussed bilateral military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus, as well as Russian relief supplies for what the Defense Ministry in order to counteract what it referred to as the “Syrian people suffering from Western sanctions.” Shoygu’s visit took place only one day after Damascus reported the first case of Covid-19 in Syria; now the official figure of confirmed cases is 5. All cases have come from abroad. A partial curfew has been imposed between 6 pm and 6 am, among other lockdown measures taken by the Syrian government to fend off against the pandemic that has rocked the world over the past couple of months, with catastrophic human and economic impact.

The new Covid-19 threat is reported to have triggered discussions among Russia observers regarding the types of challenges an extended outbreak might create. Mention was also made pertaining to the possibility of such a development impacting the geography of deployments and freedom of movement of the Russian military as well as protocols of contact between Russian servicemen and their Syrian, Turkish and Iranian peers. Discussions also centered on the dynamics and humanitarian challenges in Idlib in light of the pandemic. Some observers predicted that Turkey will even shut down its border to refugees for fear of further spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and do so without Western criticism, since many nations have done exactly that in order to protect their own populations.

The “war” against the coronavirus pandemic has sarcastically stopped, at least tentatively, many wars in its path, such as Yemen, Libya and Syria. Russian Defense Ministry officials have reiterated that “in Tartous and other places that have a presence of Russian troops, all the necessary precautions are being taken regarding Covid-19 threat. No potentially contaminated serviceman will be allowed back into Russia.” Shoygu, meanwhile, mentioned Moscow’s willingness to provide assistance to jump-start Syria’s economic recovery “with the help of Russian specialists.”

Given the fact that Putin has invested a great deal in the ongoing truce in Idlib — despite Erdogan’s recurrent failure to disarm or control some radical and terrorist groups there as terrorists destroyed two Turkish armoured vehicles in Idlib earlier this week — recent top-level Russian-Syrian collaboration and the ensuing high-rank visit to Damascus appears to have been designed to provide reciprocal assurances to all involved on the Syrian theater.

No party is expected— or even allowed — to torpedo the current Idlib deal, and every side should pull their own weight to make the ceasefire stand firm, in anticipation of what many observers believe is an imminent and big next move. All indications point to the focus being first towards Idlib and areas east of the Euphrates next.