Tuesday, 22 September 2015

In Syria, Russia reaps what the US has sown

What could the Western world have done differently to prevent the Russians returning in force to the Middle East for the first time since 1973?

This is the only question worth asking as reports flow in of significant Russian air, ground and naval assets in Syria’s western provinces. What the US and its allies are doing today, and one is free to judge those actions as either good or bad, is a reflection of what they have not done with the Syrian crisis over the last three or four years.

Enough Russian multirole, ground attack and rotary wing aircraft have arrived for Moscow to begin sustained combat operations from Syria’s Bassal al Assad International Airport in Latakia. Satellite photos show up to 20 fixed wing aircraft of various types and the same number of helicopters – both attack and transport – parked on the air base’s newly refurbished runways.
Russian military aircraft over Syria

Russian armoured vehicles, main battle tanks and artillery batteries have also been spotted by overhead imagery around Latakia and at the Tartus port. Video of Russian aircraft formations in the air over Syria suggest the planes are operational while pictures of Russian soldiers fighting alongside loyalists predict Moscow could be ready to start wider combat operations soon.

How far Russia is willing to push this game-changing new deployment to defend its client-state is unknown. The geopolitics of the Middle East are moving extremely rapidly and by the time this essay is read, there will no doubt be more developments. Once again, the overt and covert battle for influence over the Syrian landmass is the focal point in the larger great-power tussles between the US and Russia – but also between Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Letting the Russians move serious military materiel into Syria probably wasn’t what Washington had in mind when it called for an international effort to end the civil war. But given the peripheral engagement of US President Barack Obama in Syria over the last three to four years, there’s not a lot the US can now complain about as Russia takes the reins.

President Bashar al Assad’s Syria has been a client-state of Russia since the 1970s. The two are ideologically aligned: Russia was a socialist republic while Syria’s had its socialist Baath Party. During the Cold War Russia wanted a constellation of proxies and was only too happy to accommodate the Syrian regime. Now, after years of protracted struggle against rebels and Islamists, Mr al Assad needs all the help he can get.

Four years ago, Russia was a shadow of its current self. The Ukraine conflict hadn’t yet begun and Russian movements in the Middle East were limited and overridden. Syria always maintained its relationship with Russia, but that didn’t stop Mr al Assad asking the US for help. The regime purposefully characterised the conflict as a war against terrorism long before the Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra entered the fight.

The US has consistently said its policy is there can be no political solution in Syria should Mr al Assad remain as president. If the Russians have the contrary view, there is little point in any discussions with them at the political level. Moscow’s game is to appear on parity with the US by forcing Washington to discuss with it directly about Syria. Mr Obama probably wanted to avoid this as well, but his own peripheral or weak actions have neatly backed him into a geopolitical corner.

The timing of Russia’s movement into Syria is not entirely surprising either. Mr Putin needed to ensure there would be no US air strikes against the regime before he could deploy Russian forces to defend it. Russian soldiers killed by US strikes would be bad. So would US planes shot down by Russian soldiers.

Mr Putin also needed to know there would be no US military advisers deployed on the ground with rebel forces, because US soldiers killed by the Russian military would be bad. So would US soldiers killing Russian soldiers who are themselves embedded with loyalists.

To a lesser extent, Mr Putin hopes US proxies acting independently will not engage with Russian forces on the ground. This provision was somewhat optional, since the whole point of a proxy war is for external powers to pretend they’re not fighting each other. But Mr Putin probably doesn't want a proxy war against the US – even while he fondly remembers the Cold War – because his last proxy war against the US in Ukraine almost lost him his job (and his head).

The next step will be to create deconflicting procedures for what happens when Russian and US aircraft occupy the same airspace. The obvious situation of non-aligned, fully armed aircraft flying in close proximity adds serious risk to the conflict. But far more hazardous is that Russian and US aircraft will be offering close air support to opposing sides in support of loyalist and rebels respectfully.

Mr Putin clearly has enough assurances to begin his protection and support of the al Assad regime. There are three immediate reasons this serves Russia’s geostrategic goals: it ensures a foothold in a rapidly fracturing Middle East, it embarrasses the US as Russia takes the lead in degrading Islamic global terrorism and it is positioned as the key player in any conclusion to the internecine conflict.

This last aspect brings the Russian deployment into stark relief. Rumours have emerged recently that Russia is heavily engaged in organising a political transition in Syria. Quiet backroom talks between current and former Syrian regime members and various major rebel groups, conducted in Europe and Russia, may finally have secured a workable preliminary power-sharing deal.

If this is true – and there are many pieces not yet in place – then the size of Russian forces in Syria and the timing makes more sense. From Mr al Assad’s perspective, he is primarily concerned with maintaining power over the country, but he also knows it is far more important for his regime to remain intact to protect his Alawite ethnic base from future persecution.

The rumoured deal presumably will keep Mr al Assad in power with a heavily neutered role, so if the Russians can guarantee his regime’s secure during the transition then he might accept the deal. The last thing anyone wants is a power vacuum in which Islamist groups take control. Like it or not, Russia’s gambit to keep the regime largely intact may be the only way to assure this doesn’t occur.

Russia will bulking up its military presence in Syria and may begin assisting loyalist forces in fresh offensives against rebel and Islamist positions in the coming weeks and months. However, Mr Putin closely watched Coalition pacification efforts in Iraq a decade ago and will be under no illusion his troops can secure a far more fractious country. Russian troops will bolster the regime at a time when morale is low and attrition rates are high, but they will not be decisive in ending the war militarily.

Mr Putin is a shrewd strategist and is aware the world watches. He will want to emphasise his military deployment’s humanitarian goals rather than be seen as defending a brutal Arab regime for political reasons. Nevertheless, the world will be asking how it got to a point where Russian consolidation in the Middle East became the price for ending a civil war.

What is happening in Syria is a direct consequence of Mr Obama’s decisions not to intervene. This is not a criticism, it is simply fact. His desire for an alteration in US Middle Eastern engagement is certainly proceeding apace. Hopefully the present situation fits with his broader strategy to construct a post-9/11 foreign policy. One thing should be extremely clear: Syria shows the true global battle for influence is between Moscow and Washington.

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