UNITED NATIONS — The same day that Russian diplomats struck a deal with Turkey over a demilitarized zone in Syria’s last rebel-run region, dozens of Russian businessmen were flying home from Damascus, contracts in hand for trade with a postwar Syria.
Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term — both as a foothold in the Middle East and as a warning to the U.S. and its allies against future interference.
"Russia wants ... a new Mideast security order," said Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The White House signaled a fundamental shift in the military mission for troops in Syria that would focus on Iran rather than ISIS.
While Russia is blamed for widespread death and destruction as it supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, its forces have proven decisive in the international struggle against the Islamic State group, giving Moscow a credibility that Western powers lack. "Their intervention yielded much better returns than anyone expected," Hokayem said.
Now the central challenge facing U.S. and other Western diplomats huddling about Syria this week at the United Nations is how to stay relevant. European Union diplomats are meeting the U.N. Syria envoy Wednesday, and France is hosting a meeting Thursday of the "Small Group" that's trying to weigh in on Syria's future, after years of failed efforts to back the Syrian opposition.
Russia isn't invited to either meeting but still has the upper hand.
U.S. will keep a military presence in Syria until Iran withdraws its forces, says Trump national security advisor.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, is working to persuade other world powers to endorse a Russian-Turkish accord reached last week to create a buffer zone and avert an all-out battle for the last Syrian opposition stronghold in Idlib.
Even as Russia flaunts its diplomatic success, it's also securing a military future with Syria. Russia announced Monday it's selling S-200 missile systems to Syria.
A longtime client of Russian weapons manufacturers since well before the war, Syria also was a reliable trading partner. And Moscow is furthering that relationship by rebuilding roads, pipes and skyscrapers wiped out by seven years of war — including destruction wrought by Russia's own weapons.
A group of 38 Russian companies took part in the Damascus International Fair earlier this month. It was at least the fourth event in the past year aimed at reviving Russian trade with Syria — and Russian companies are heading back to Syria in early October for a conference on rebuilding the country.
Syria's neighbors are similarly active, but in Russia's case, analysts say, the economic activity is part of an influence strategy.
Russia, for example, wants to rebuild Syria's train network.
"Russia built it in the first place, and wants to rebuild this and strategic economic ties," said independent Russian analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov.
Russian companies are seeking a diverse trade base, with food, farming and energy deals, according to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Chamber Vice President Vladimir Padalko described "the firm intention of Russian business not just to restore past trade cooperation between our countries, but also actively move forward."
But Russia doesn't want to foot the bill for the huge cost of reconstruction, so it is seeking Western help, notably in Lavrov's meetings at the U.N.
Hokayem said prospects of that are low, but Russia is still "in the driver's seat" in Syria.
"Russia is always a step ahead, and has a higher tolerance level" for ups and downs in the Syria war because Putin doesn't face serious domestic opposition.
Russia's Astana peace process with Iran and Turkey has been so successful, Hokayem said, that "the U.N. envoy has adopted (it) as his own."
The next few weeks will be critical for Syria — and for Russia's footprint. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told The Associated Press this week that October is going to be "a very important month" both for Idlib and for U.N.-led efforts to move toward peace.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.