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Russia and the Syrian Conflict

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  • December 14, 2015

    Addressing the IDSA in February 2013, Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy and editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, recalled Russia’s “mistake” in agreeing to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and asserted that the Russian stance on Syria was intended to disavow the Libyan precedent. He then went on to compare and contrast the views of Medvedev (then President and now Prime Minister) and President Putin. Both do not consider Russia as a global power. Whereas Medvedev chose to concentrate exclusively on Russia’s own region, Putin seeks to “influence the situation in other parts of the world as an instrument for bargaining” in order to obtain advantage in its own sphere.

    The Middle East has been the main focus of Russian attention in recent months. Last July, Iran had agreed to curb its nuclear activity and accept international supervision. This permitted resumption of nuclear cooperation with Iran. During a recent visit to Tehran to attend a summit of gas exporting countries, Putin announced that Russia would help Iran export enriched uranium and modify nuclear facilities at Arak and Fordo.

    Earlier, Putin had persuaded President Assad of Syria to give up his chemical weapons, a task completed under international supervision. This had averted the threat of US aerial attack on Syrian facilities. Further, Russia has maintained a dialogue with Israel to mitigate the chances of any aggressive action in response to provocative action originating from Syrian soil. Consequently, Syria has been spared periodic aerial attacks by Israel. The Israeli Prime Minister met President Putin to assure himself on the scope of Russian direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

    Syria is a long-term Russian ally, before and after the demise of the Soviet Union, primarily under the presidency of the Assads, father and son, and provides the only foothold to Russia in the Middle East. At the beginning of October, Russia decided to intervene with aerial power in the conflict between Assad and his mainly Sunni opponents, trained and equipped by Syria’s Sunni neighbours. The targets of bombing were not just “Islamic State”-related; they were also directed at the opposition supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

    The entry of Russia in an aerial combat role has generated a violent response. Attack on a Russian airliner in the Sinai by an unknown group was the first incident. There are at least four terrorist groups operating in the Sinai and their affiliations are unknown. In response, Russia cancelled tourist flights to Sharm-el-Sheikh, the prime tourist destination in the Sinai. The next challenge to Russia came in Syria itself – a Russian plane was shot down by the Turkish Air Force for intruding into Turkish airspace for all of seventeen seconds. Inevitably, it led to accusations of Turkish support to Jihadist groups and to reprisals by Russia – cancellation of tourist visits to Turkey, ban on Turkish export of agricultural/horticultural products, etc. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner. Fearing attacks on its tourists, Russia has now cancelled all travel/holiday trips to seaside resorts by its citizens. In the absence of precise information, it is difficult to say whether it is an overreaction.

    The timing of the Turkish attack went horribly wrong – it nearly coincided with the terrorist rampage in Paris and the French President’s express desire to meet President Putin to coordinate action against the terrorist groups operating out of Syria and Iraq. Thus, support to Turkey by its western allies was perfunctory. Instead, the allies suggested direct talks with Russia! Only a week earlier, the European Union had promised substantial assistance for Syrian refugees in Turkey, and expeditious consideration of Turkey’s long-pending application to join the European Union.

    Turkey’s role in the Middle East has raised doubts about its real intentions. Soon after the political changes in North Africa (the so-called Arab Spring), President Erdogan went on visits to the area and recalled Ottoman rule of the region in order to claim Turkish patronage for the new dispensation. He initiated cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Palestine. The overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt led to a break in diplomatic relations with Egypt. Turkey’s offering patronage to Arab states or movements has not gone down well with most Arabs, despite the religious and sectarian affinity. In Syria, President Assad had ended support to Turkish Kurds fighting for autonomy, if not independence. The resulting bonhomie did not last long: Turkey is determined to seek a political change in Syria and has provided support, moral and material, to the insurgent groups.

    The Paris bombings have changed political perspectives: Western Powers have “reinvigorated” their fight against terrorist groups, principally the so-called Islamic State (IS) in both Syria and Iraq; the US has constituted a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” to assist local forces – Iraqi and Kurd in Iraq – and to unilaterally conduct aerial raids into Syria. The US is back in a limited combat role.

    Along with aerial intervention, Russia proposed a meeting of concerned powers, regional and non-regional, to bring about a negotiated settlement. While the West cannot endorse the inclusion of the so-called Islamic State or al Qaeda in the governing structure of Syria, Assad may have to share power with dissident groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. While this may be part of a final settlement negotiated in Vienna, the United States has reiterated its opposition to Assad’s continuation in office, while Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, has objected to the whole Vienna process.

    Russia remains concerned by the domestic impact of the terrorist activity in the region. President Putin believes that at least 4000 recruits from Russia and other former Soviet republics have gone to fight for the Islamic State; on return, some of them could launch terrorist attacks in Russia itself. A chilling prospect! Some of these fighters, it is claimed, are gathered in Turkoman minority area in Syria’s northwest, bordering Turkey, which was the scene of the shooting down of the Russian plane.

    Russia is equally concerned about the extremist activity in Central Asia. The frequency of military drills in the region and joint exercises with Central Asian militaries has increased. Addressing the Dushanbe summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in September, President Putin asserted that “there is a growing threat that terrorist and extremist groups can penetrate into the territories that border Afghanistan.” He added that the situation is further exacerbated by the presence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. This is echoed by the Afghan representatives visiting Moscow seeking military assistance as USA is seen heading to the exit.

    That President Putin takes the threat posed by Islamists seriously was highlighted by his appeal at the United Nations last September for a “genuinely broad alliance against terrorism, just like the one against Hitler.” This has not evoked a precise response other than the French President’s visit in the wake of the Paris attacks. And President Obama does not believe Russia will succeed in shoring up Assad.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.