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Why Russia May Win the Game for Influence in Syria

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  • October 14, 2015

    So, what exactly is the plot in Syria? For years now, the country, known to the world for the ancient Palmyra ruins, now in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has been lying in tatters. The golden ancient city of Damascus could fall into the hands of ISIS as well, or any other terrorist front led by Jabhat al Nusra, an affiliate of al Qaeda, ironically linked with the so-called moderate Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Among those fighting against Assad are the Tajamu al-Ezzeh or the Ezzeh Gathering in Hama province of Central Syria, the Army of Conquest, an Islamist faction that includes the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate and the Free Syrian Army. This Syrian opposition to Assad has received arms from the US as well.

    Then in September 2015, Russia entered the picture in aid of its ally Assad. The US position on the Syrian imbroglio is that in order to succeed in its fight against ISIS, the dictatorial Assad has to go. The Russian position, backed by Iran and the Hezbollah of Lebanon, is quite the contrary: Assad has to continue for some semblance of order in this conflict-afflicted land; and for that they have to work with Assad to fight against those who threaten the regime in Damascus, including the Syrian opposition and the ISIS. These contradictory objectives have the potential of pitting the Russian intervention at the request of Assad against the NATO and US in Syria into a much larger conflict for influence. Sadly, with the increasing flow of refugees from Syria into Europe and desperate people dying while crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to get to Europe, the fight for influence in Syria between the Russians and the Americans may only aggravate the situation.

    So how is this emerging scenario playing out to the world outside of the West. For those in South Asia or Central Asia, in direct physical proximity to an unstable Middle East, the pictures of Russian Sukhoi warplanes hitting ISIS targets successfully demonstrates Russian hard power of military technology (which is then packaged as soft power and broadcast to the world by channels like Russia Today. The ISIS phenomenon, strategy and propaganda of taking over territory in Iraq and Syria and the declaration of the Caliphate by its leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the visuals of beheadings, the use of social media to spread their word, their films based on radical Islamic ideology in which every non-believer is a target, has created deep seated anxieties across much of the developing world. Already up close, on 28 September in Bangladesh, ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of an Italian Aid Worker This had been preceded by attacks on liberal bloggers by Islamic radicals in the country.

    A Japanese agriculture worker had also been killed in Bangladesh and ISIS claimed responsibility. ISIS, in its map depicting the areas in which it aspires to establish its presence includes almost the whole of India. Such declarations followed by ISIS's ability to take over territory and establish itself in countries like Iraq where NATO forces and the US had presence is deeply worrying. Moreover, the absence of any visible US air strikes on ISIS headquarters at Raqqa, Syria, except perhaps an unknown and rather mysterious Syrian opposition made up of extremist terror outfits like al Nusra fighting ISIS does not give confidence to those who want ISIS to be defeated. The criss-crossed objectives of the US-backed Syrian opposition and ISIS, both of whom view Assad as the enemy, raises a legitimate concern: how can we trust the Syrian opposition which is fighting alongside al Qaeda affiliates like al Nusra? Moreover, closer to home in Afghanistan, the Taliban's sudden resurgence and success in taking over Kunduz city also adds fuel to such fearful apprehensions.

    So what is Russia achieving for itself in its intervention in Syria? For one, it is successfully using its hard power (by showing a steady stream of military visuals of Russian jets attacking ISIS) to create space for soft power and support for itself in the larger geopolitical space for influence in the Middle East and Asia. People are watching Russia Today for news on the Russian intervention and seeing Sukhoi fighters bombing terror camps. Cheers went up when Russian jets attacked ISIS positions close to the Palmyra, the ancient Syrian ruins that the ISIS are bent on destroying.

    Here is the bottom-line: for people in Asia, Assad is not the problem; it's the ISIS that they are deeply concerned about. Assad is not the one threatening to take over their countries and turn them into the medieval ages with public beheadings. With steady streams of young men and women, including many from Central Asia, to ISIS camps, the Russian intervention even back home is described as necessary if perhaps not sufficient to deter ISIS. With President Putin now planning to send around 150, 000 Russian ground troops to Syria to fight ISIS, the space for policy discourse on Syrian seems to shift towards Russian leadership.

    While the NATO-US coalition has not been written off, it is important to understand is that this space for Russian intervention in Syria to fight terror has been created by the US-led coalition's inability to stop the spread of ISIS in Iraq and Syria due to their ill-advised aim of destabilising the regimes in the Middle East (Read Iraq, Libya and now Syria) without concrete alternate plans for leadership in these countries. As a result, these nations have been rendered chaotic and ungovernable. It is in these conditions, with the ISIS planting its parallel governing structures in Raqqa, that Russia has given itself the chance to intervene, though implicitly, in support of Assad.

    And one should never forget that the demonstration of successful hard power will be followed by an increase in soft power for Russia, provided it succeeds in Syria.

    This article was originally published in Huffington.