Russia’s number one priority in Syria is ensuring the integrity of the territories currently held by the Syrian government, America’s former Syria envoy said Monday.
“The Russian’s top priority right now in Syria is consolidation of the Syrian state, or what is left of the Syrian state,” Robert Ford said during a panel discussion at a Washington think tank.
“Fighting the Islamic State is not their priority. It is not why they sent forces there. It’s rather to bolster Assad,” the retired diplomat added, using another name for Daesh.
Regarding Turkey’s Syria offensive, Ford said Ankara could not have sent its troops into Syria without some measure of Russian approval, but Moscow would take a “dim view” of Turkish forces participating in efforts to oust Daesh from its Syrian capital of Raqqah.
“Because of the state consolidation priority as well as the nervousness about setting a precedent with respect to NATO ground forces moving into neighboring states,” he said. “The Russians would rather have forces loyal to the Syrian government do that.”
The comments come as the U.S. attempts to extend a tenuous cease-fire that has greatly reduced violence in the war-torn country, but which the Syrian government has said it will not continue beyond an initial seven-day period that ended Monday.
The UN confirmed Monday that its aid convoy was hit inside Syria, in an attack activists told Anadolu Agency was carried out by regime helicopters and caused casualties.
Russia and the U.S. have agreed to coordinate efforts to go after the Nusra Front, which recently changed its name to the Fateh al-Sham Front, and Daesh, if the agreement is able to significantly tamp down violence and increase humanitarian access across the country for seven consecutive days.
Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Anna Borshchevskaya commented that Russia and Iran’s cooperation in Syria is unprecedented, and that she doesn’t see any way for long-term U.S.-Russian cooperation on ending the conflict.
Moscow’s exit strategy for Syria revolves around a political transition that would leave President Bashar al-Assad in power, according to Paul Schwartz, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
He said Israel approved Russia’s invasion, which began in September 2015, because Tel Aviv, like Moscow, would prefer the existing Syrian government to an Islamist alternative.
How that squares with Israel’s repeated strikes on the Syrian army and allied positions is unclear. Most recently, Israeli jets hit a Syrian military position in southern Syria after a shell hit the contested Israeli-held Golan Heights.
More than a quarter of a million people have been killed and in excess of 10 million displaced across the war-battered country during the Syrian conflict, according to UN figures.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research, an NGO that was until recently based in Damascus, has put the total death toll from conflict at more than 470,000.
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