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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 46 New Delhi November 7, 2015

Russia in Quest of an Assertive Role in Syria

Tuesday 10 November 2015

by Sheel Bhadra Kumar

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has opened a new chapter in the complicated region of West Asia. The strategic chessboard of West Asia has been set in for a strategic move. Russia, with its advanced warplanes, military hardware, troops and military advisers, has suddenly entered the already complex battlefields of Syria. While the West regard it as an unwelcome move, in the eyes of Syrian President Basher Al- Assad and its allies [Iran, Iraq and Lebanon], it is like a lifeline for the exhausted front. This will enable the front to regain its lost territory, crush the rebel opposition and boost the morale of the front. For Putin, it was not an easy decision to enter the danger-zone of Syria. Russia is battling a severe economic crisis at home and facing Western isolation following its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. It has not fought a major war outside its traditional sphere of influence since its withdrawal from the disastrous Afghanistan War. But the fluid situation in West Asia and the Western game-plan along with the regional powers forced Russia to go for its alternative plan.

The Russian assessment is that if President Assad in Syria falls, the balance of power in the West Asian geo-politics would turn hostile to Moscow’s interests. Assad’s removal would weaken the Iran-Hezbollah network which is another pillar of Russia’s West Asian policy after Syria. More importantly, Moscow perceives the rise of Islamic militancy of the IS, Jabhat-al Nusra and Al-Qaeda affiliate as a national security threat and therefore considers Assad’s survival as a bulwark in the fight against terrorism. Moscow wants to pressurise the regional powers [Saudi Arabia and Turkey] to rein in their proxies. If these groups lose their external supporters, they will wilt under pressure and wither. That seems the likely Russian gambit.

Syria has been pivotal for Moscow in the scheme and design of its West Asian policy. It has been an ardent supporter of Syria and its leadership in the latter’s ongoing civil war. But its support was limited to advisory, tactical-consultancy and military hardware. Moscow used to support the Syrian regime through outside support. In the four years of the ongoing civil war in Syria, Russia stayed away from joining direct combat. But in nearly four years of the ongoing civil war in Syria, Moscow has been indirectly supporting Syria in many ways:

Over the years, Moscow kept supporting military, technical and financial aid to Damascus.

It desisted every move at the UN Security Council to pass any resolution seeking Assad’s removal.

Its aggressive diplomacy was instrumental in thwarting US air strikes on Syria in 2013 amid allegations that the Syrian Government forces had used chemical weapons against its civilian population.

Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, staunch supporters of Syria, sent troops to Syria for rescue and support. But Russia limited its role to outside support.

However, recently the situation in Syria drifted adversely forcing Russia to review its policy towards West Asia and particularly Syria. On the first day of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly, the US President, Barack Obama, announced: “The US is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.’’ This declaration suggested that the Western policy towards Syria had failed. Another approach was needed. This situation provided Putin an opportunity to propose his alternative plan. In the UN General Assembly he declared that the emergence of the IS is central to the crisis in West Asia. The invasion in Iraq in 2013 was illegal. It is now obvious that power vacuum in some countries of West Asia and North Africa created anarchy which immediately was sought to be filled by extremists and terrorists. He asked the UN Security Council to clearly find out the main enemy in Iraq and Syria. In doing so, he put the West on the back-foot.

Russia has set up military base in the western province of Latakia. Even the Chinese naval ships along with military personnel are heading towards Latakia to reinforce the Russia-backed Assad regime in Syria. The Foreign Minister of Russia has acknowledged that military supplies and Russian experts were being deployed in Syria.

It is crystal clear that Russia’s Syria strategy has changed. Putin wants to move from being an outside supporter to a combat partner of Syria. Russia has started selective targeted bombing in Syria. There are chances that Russian troops may get bogged down and swamped in the complex Syrian war. But recent develop-ments in the battlefields in Syria forced Moscow to review its strategy and change its game-plan there.

Syria in its recent battle with extremist groups suffered major setbacks. Its military force is facing acute shortage of manpower in the prolonged civil war.

The outskirts of the regime-held territory are under tremendous pressure. Their strength is waning in face of tremendous pressure exerted by the extremist groups.

Moscow is wary of the Turkish-Saudi Arabia game-plan and its implications for Russia. The major concern of these two countries is not the IS but the Assad regime itself. Since the outbreak of the civilian war in Syria, they have been training and bankrolling anti-Assad rebels. The rebel’s Idlib advances were possible only with the help of external powers.

In May 2015, the Islamic State terror group seized the ancient city of Palmyra, a city of archaeological and strategic significance, in Syria. It is from Palmyra that the US can march on to both Hons and Damascus in two directions. In the same month of May, the rebel coalition captured the Idlib province, a key strategic coastal territory of Syria. These two events revived the discussion about rapid collapse of the Assad regime, a disturbing development for Moscow.

Turkey has recently permitted Western war planes to use its two military airfields, Incirlik and Diyarbakir, for use against IS positions. Turkey has also agreed to create a 60-mile safe zone strip free of IS and regime troops. This could be a part of a larger regime-change game-plan. In the name of fighting IS militants the US can operate drones and fighter planes. They can create a de-facto no-fly zone across north-east Syria. Thus they can neutralise the regime’s airpower advantage against both the rebels and jihadists. If Turkey and the US successfully create a safe-zone in the border areas, this model can be repeated elsewhere in Syria. This sinister scheme will not only jeopardise the Assad regime but also endanger Russia’s interests in this region.

The survival of the Assad regime is the key to Russian interests. Russia has interfered in the West Asian crisis in the past to defend its interests. Therefore, in the present scenario Russia had a Hobson’s choice. By direct intervention in Syria, Russia has short-term and long-term goals.

 Its immediate objective is to prevent a rapid collapse of the Assad regime.

 If ultimately the Assad regime collapses, Russia is interested in protecting the Tartus naval base, the only Russian base outside the former Soviet Union.

 West Asia provides Russia an opportunity of a potential market to sell its military hardware and products to support its sagging economy.

 By reaching a common ground over the Syrian crisis between the West and Russia, Putin is intending to re-channelise the resultant goodwill to solve the Ukraine crisis.

 Russia’s medium-term objective is to build an international coalition with the West to fight terrorism in Syria. There is a Western multilateral coalition operating in Syria headed by the US which is carrying out aerial strikes in locations controlled by the IS but these strikes have hardly weakened the jihadist groups. Russia wants intensive tactical strikes against the jihadists in coalition with the West. The Russian idea is to stitch together a coalition of ground troops to fight against both the IS and al-Nusra front. While the US is facing a strategic dilemma over Syria and Europe is swamped by a refugee crisis, a political solution of the Syrian imbroglio has become a must.

 In the long run, Russia wants to establish its past glory as an assertive regional player playing an effective role in the West Asian crisis.

It is early to say whether Russia would realise its goal or face another Afghanistan-like situation in Syria. But definitely Putin has opened a new chapter in the Syrian war. Assad has now the direct backing of a big global power but to find a political solution of the Syrian crisis is not easy. Russia will have to combine its military prowess with a diplomatic initiative in tandem with the West and regional powers to quell the rebels and jihadists. In the case of Syria more generosity, more democracy, and more imagination are needed. Whatever government is formed after the ceasefire or after Assad’s downfall, the government should be formed on a broadbased platform taking the consent of the warring groups in Syria, neighbouring countries and with the guarantee of neutrality of the big powers.

Syria occupies a pivotal position in West Asia and it also has enough ammunition for global confrontation. Its festering wound must be properly and carefully healed. Prolonging the stalemate in Syria is inimical to regional peace and global co-operation. Unless something changes drastically, peace in Syria is not even on the horizon at this point in time.

Dr Sheel Bhadra Kumar is an Associate Professor, Political Science, MVPG College, Mahasamund (Chhattisgarh).