Thursday, 1 October 2015

Russia's game in Syria

          Alexander Golts knows what he is talking about. As deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal and a columnist for the Moscow Times, he is perhaps Russia's most respected journalist on military and security matters. How does he view President Vladimir Putin’s substantial military intervention on the Syrian battlefield?

           For substantial it undoubtedly is. A senior US official confirmed on September 18 that in the previous 10 days more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria. This was followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close support aircraft, 4 large Hip troop-transport helicopters and 4 Hind helicopter gunships.

          Russia’s military build-up in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft, and by the end of September it had started flying drone aircraft on surveillance missions. On September 24, Moscow announced that over 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets.

          Putin maintains that his sole motive is to fight IS. "We support the Syrian government in fighting the terrorist aggression,” he recently asserted. However, more than one defence analyst has pointed out that Islamic State (IS) has no air capability. The only logical explanation for the range of sophisticated aerial and military hardware being poured into Syria is that Putin has a deeper purpose than simply fighting IS – namely to establish a significant military presence in the Middle East.

          In short, Russia's support for Syria has become the latest front in a wider battle being fought by the Kremlin for influence on the international stage. As Alexander Golts has it: "All Russian policy in Syria is very clearly directed at overcoming international isolation because of Ukraine." Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and his subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine, led to sanctions and the diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers. It is this that he is countering in his Syrian adventure. He is bulldozing his way to a position of influence and power in the region, a position in which the West simply has to take account of him.

          Putin’s initiative is a clever, multi-faceted manoeuvre. He is killing three or four birds with one stone. For example, any Syrian regime change could seriously prejudice Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost, of course, is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, but also at stake would be billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

          Then, he is worried about the effect on domestic security if IS were to take over more of Syria than is already in its possession. IS already exercises a malign influence on young Muslims across the world, and Russia has an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Some of IS’s top military commanders are of Chechen origin. Further IS successes could pose serious security risks within Mother Russia.

          Putin recently said something of especial significance. Speaking at a regional security conference in mid-September in Tajikistan, he not only defended his support for the Assad régime, but encouraged other countries to do the same.

          "We have been, and will be, providing all necessary military-technical assistance [to Syria] and we call on other countries to join us."

          His actions, no less than his words, have won grudging admiration in a number of quarters, together with recognition by the US administration that he must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East scene – to the extent that Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that President Bashar al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period, and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war. Britain is already indicating a similar shift in policy.

          Fortune favours the bold, and Putin has stepped in where others have feared to tread – on the very ground of Syria, Fighting IS at long distance and without boots on the ground, the preferred method so far of the US, the UK and the West generally, has proved an abject failure. According to the assessments of American intelligence agencies IS is as strong today as it was when the US launched its allied air strikes against the organization in August 2014. “We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," said a defence official, citing estimates that put the group's strength at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, the same as when the strikes began.

          The time has come for some clear thinking. Which poses the greater threat to the world – the despotic Bashar al-Assad, responsible though he undoubtedly is for horrific war crimes against his own people during his desperate effort to retain power; or the monstrous, barbaric, inhumane and philistine IS and its power-crazed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of all Muslims, determined to subject first the Middle East, and then the whole world, to his rule?

          UK Middle East expert, Con Coughlin, believes that deep-rooted confusion lies within the highest ranks of both the American and British governments over what should be the main objective in Syria – overthrowing the Assad regime, or destroying IS.

          “Whatever his sins – and they are many,” asserts Coughlin, “Assad does not constitute a threat to the outside world… it is the terrorist fanatics associated with IS who pose the greater threat.” He might have added that chasing IS out of Syria and restoring stability is the most effective way to halt the massive outflow of civilians from that war-scarred nation, and to ease the migration crisis that is nearly overwhelming Europe.

          The logical conclusion sticks out a mile. If Putin wants to wage total war against IS, the West should be prepared to give him total backing. If part of his strategy is also to defeat other enemies of Assad, the West should negotiate a deal under which it keeps its eye on the IS ball. The prospect of a “grand alliance” to defeat IS is becoming a possibility. In short, as Alexander Golts so astutely asserts in a piece for the Moscow Times on September 21: “By raising the stakes in Syria, the Kremlin has achieved the status of a major player that is indispensable to the West.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 October 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 October 2015:
In English:

in Arabic:اللعبة-الروسية-في-سوريا/

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