Written by Fakhrul Islam
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 it was a jeopardy of epic proportions due to the rapid formation of multiple rebel groups with multitudes of objectives fueling infightings among the groups for territory, power or supplies... ...
Then there was the Devil reincarnates of IS who took over vast swathes of Syrian territory in one fell swoop in 2014. All these groups were, and to some extent still are, one way or the other supported by different regional and international players to achieve their own strategic goals; but all of these groups had one thing in common: to end the Assad regime in Syria. To that objective they somewhat succeeded up to mid-2015 with the Syrian Army and its Iranian allies stuck between a rock and a hard place in multiple fronts and that’s when the Syrian Government called in their trusted ally, the Russians, into the game to be more involved in the conflict. By August 2015 aircrafts and heavy equipment including (but not limited to) armor and artillery pieces started arriving in Syria along with the Russian troops and by September 2015 a detachment from the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet has anchored in Eastern Mediterranean in the pretext of protecting Russian fighters deployed in Syria.
Here to note is that in this multilateral conflict the Russian entry was a blow to some of the regional players and also to the USA.
Prior to Russia’s entry into this civil war, the Syrian government was caught on a defensive footing on numerous fronts—including the stalemated Battle for Aleppo, stagnated offensives against rebel-held neighborhoods in Damascus, forces encircled at Deir ez-Zor and a slow campaign in the Southern Front. Though regime collapse was unlikely, it was clear that the Syrian Army lacked the capacity to recapture major cities, such as Aleppo, while supporting major operations elsewhere in the country. For this reason, the first phase of Russia’s air campaign was concentrated in northern Syria, rather than on IS forces in eastern Syria. Backed now by Russian air power, regime forces successfully recaptured significant amounts of territory, relieving pressure on regime strongholds in major cities. However, operational cooperation between the Russian military and the Syrian Army remained far from harmonious.
The dissonance between the Russians and the Syrian Army was highlighted by the embarrassing surprise recapture of Palmyra by IS in December 2016. Just months earlier, the ancient city had been the site of an elaborate—and widely propagandized—concert conducted by President Putin’s ally Valery Gergiev. Other incidents, such as the multi-year siege of Deir ez-Zor, have demonstrated the limitations of Russian air-power as the Syrian air-base there was nearly overrun on a number of occasions despite large-scale Russian Air Force operations. Similarly, Russia’s air power in Aleppo failed to translate into immediate tactical success and lasted fourteen months.
[Since its intervention in the Syria’s civil war in late 2015, the Russian Federation, and most importantly, President Vladimir Putin, has positioned and projected their presence as an indispensable player, able to speak to nearly all sides.] It has does so by maintaining contact with Turkey, the USA and the Arab countries involved in the conflict. Most notably, it has kept good relations with Israel, with which it shares strong cultural and economic ties, as well as Iran, its partner in supporting and bolstering up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
As each one of the players has their own ambitions and goals lined up, Russia and President Putin has their own reasons to dominate these affairs regarding Syria. Point to note is that In December 2017, President Putin announced victory in the war against Islamic State (IS) and ordered the return of most of his country’s military units to their permanent bases in Russia. This decision was already the third of its kind announced by the Russian authorities. The two previous ones were on 14 March and 29 December 2016, which were not implemented, and only a few months after the announcements, both the Russian strength and presence was significantly increased. President Putin used this favorable political and military moment to emphasize it had reached its goals, thanks to the effectiveness of the Russian armed forces. Russia’s success in Syria became one of the most important elements of this year’s presidential election campaign ahead of the 18 March vote. For President Putin it helped him maintain his popularity and show the Russian public that the country is again one of the most important players in the international arena. For most Russians, a sense of pride in the strength of the country is also a kind of compensation for the economic difficulties of recent years.
However, the order to withdraw most of the military contingent did not mean an end to operations—the Russian ground assets had been replaced by a lesser known Private Military outfit, the Wagner Group (which is known to be an SVR outlet to handle the conflict with deniability on conventional losses inflicted on the Forces of the Russian Federation), consisting of contractors who originate from Russia, Chechnya and as far as the rebelling Ukrainian Donbass region and to help them the Russian air force is still active, now in the Idlib province, supporting the Syrian and Iranian units fighting there. Regaining control over this region will allow the Syrian government to increase control of the border with Turkey and finally get rid of any and all opposition from the land that it fought over for the last 7 years. The main task in front of the Russian forces now is to destroy the Islamic group Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front, a Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda).
Whereas the West tends to justify its interest-based intervention in the Middle East by explaining its efforts as democracy promotion, Russia has pursued its interests in the region by trying to present itself as a problem solver. While it has been successful in reducing tensions in Syria, Russia’s involvement in Syria provides the best example of its efforts to emerge as a Middle East problem solver. Since the beginning of Russia’s Syrian military operation in 2015, Moscow has noticeably stepped up its participation in the negotiation process. Moscow’s efforts led to the creation of a powerful triple alliance of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which formed the basis of the Astana negotiation process, as well as the Syrian people’s congress in Sochi. In 2017, Moscow began to look for alternative venues to launch a specific dialogue with Syrian opposition groups in Cairo (with Jaysh al-Islam and Jaysh al-Tawhid) and Geneva (with Faylaq al-Rahman), as well as to negotiate with the United States and Jordan in Amman.
As a diplomatic crisis and blockade has divided the Gulf countries, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has visited both Saudi Arabia and Qatar several times, announcing Moscow’s full support for Kuwait’s mediation and a negotiated resolution to the crisis. This soft intervention led to the first-ever visit to Russia by a Saudi king, an important signal that the two countries are finally overcoming a long-troubled relationship dating back to their confrontation in Afghanistan in 1979.
Ensuring the survival of Assad’s authoritarian regime in Damascus was never the sole goal of Russia’s intervention. Instead, its purpose was at least as much to inject itself into a crucial geopolitical battleground and force Washington—which, at the time, sought to isolate Moscow diplomatically—to realize that Russia would not be overlooked. It was also to keep Syria from becoming an Iranian vassal; Moscow and Tehran are, at best, frenemies, happy to try to marginalize the United States yet also fierce competitors seeking influence in the Middle East and South Caucasus.
Judging by that criteria, things look pretty good for Moscow right now. The Assad regime once again has momentum, and doesn’t appear headed for collapse. Moscow has also demonstrated that it is not, in fact, just a “regional power” (to use Barack Obama’s phrase, one that President Putin clearly resented). It’s a power broker in the Middle East, a spoiler in North Africa, and a partner (of sorts) in Asia, making it at least a global player if not a superpower.
The recent spat between Iran and Israel also comes with its own virtues. President Putin’s Russia and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel are surprisingly close. President Putin understands that while Iran and its client Hezbollah may also be supporting Assad, their vision of Syria is quite different from his own.
But as the war begins to wind down in Syria, Russia may feel that it needs Iran less. In the past it looked the other way when Israel bombed convoys in Syria carrying weapons to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia that fought a bloody war with Israel in 2006. Some think Russia is now going further. As Iran tries to establish permanent bases in Syria, Israel has attacked its positions. The night of the parade in Moscow, Israel launched dozens of air strikes on Iranian forces, unimpeded by Russian air defenses in Syria. Some Iranians suspect that President Putin provided Mr. Netanyahu with the co-ordinates of Iranian bases.
The interests of Russia and Israel, appear to be converging and it seems that they have an implicit understanding about Assad continuing to rule over Syria. That is bad news for rebel groups in the Syrian villages near the border, which Israel had assisted with food, medical supplies and the occasional shipment of light arms. Rebel commanders saw soldiers from Iranian-backed militias pulling back which simply signaled an offensive by the Assad regime. Clarifying their point of view, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov went on to say that only “representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army [should] stand at Syria’s border with Israel.” Accordingly, Russia and Israel were finalized an agreement that would attempt to keep Iranian forces some 15 miles (24km) away from the Israeli border in Syria.
It is to be noted that in February of this year, Iranian forces flew a drone into Israel’s airspace. In retaliation, Tel Aviv attacked the air base near Palmyra from which it had been launched. When Syria’s anti-air systems sought to protect the Iranians, downing one Israeli F-16, they were mauled, and lost about half of their own air defenses in the bargain. Russia, which intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015 to aid President Bashar al-Assad, had deployed advanced S-400 missile defense systems to his ally. This time, they did nothing to intervene. Moscow seemed willing to let Israel give Iran a bloody nose to warn Assad against aligning himself too closely with Tehran—a double win of sorts.
While it seems that Iran is fighting to maintain its Shi’ite Crescent to combat its two regional adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Israel, it seems it is losing that game badly and is being pushed to the corner as both KSA and Israel seem to be garnering a sort of a taboo relation between themselves to accommodate a cooperative stance to counter the Iranian influence in the region which had been making both their borders unsafe as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas is Gaza are being supported by Iran to counter the Israelis so is it controlling the government in Baghdad to accommodate the Shi’ite Militias under the umbrella of Popular Mobilization Front while supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack the Saudi led coalition in a regular basis.
Russian-Turkish relations have witnessed their highest ups and downs throughout the Syrian conflict. The two strategic energy and economic partners clashed interests in the Syrian conflict: while Ankara funded and hosted Syrian opposition members, Moscow was Assad’s most prominent backer.
Turkey has a diplomatic dilemma to deal with. From the start of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has been one of the main backers of the Syrian opposition. Turkey has fought alongside non-Kurdish factions in the Syrian opposition including its own rendition of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which it raisedby training and supplying the ethnic Turks spread across North Western Syria, mainly in the Latakia province where the strategically important Russian airbase is located. It is also to be noted that it was in Latakia province that the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish F-16 over an alleged violation of Turkish airspace, the pilots were both brutally executed by the Turkmens (the ethnic Turks in Syria are known as Turkmens) as they landed. This flared up a war of words and sanctions between Russia and Turkey as they both justified their claims. The normalization came in mid-2016 as the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized to President Putin for shooting down the plane and things started to normalize subsequently and went to a new high when being a NATO ally Turkey booked a purchase deal to buy Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft system in a clear collision course with other NATO members, mainly the USA.
That is not the only point where the USA and Turkey disagrees as the US Coalition lead devastating air strike against Assad’s forces it won’t help the U.S. deal with its other headache in Syria: Trying to protect its Kurdish allies on the ground while not letting its relationship with NATO ally Turkey fall to pieces. Turkey has conducted five different military operations on Syrian soil since 2015 – justifications vary from fighting IS, Rojava (Syria’s Kurdish region) to the relocation of a tomb. The most recent operation is the Turkish invasion of Syria’s Afrin, where Turkey aims at driving the Kurdish YPG fighters out. For Erdogan, Syria matters as much for his domestic politics as for Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkish nationalists and policy makers alike fear that successful establishment of a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria will fan the nationalist dreams of the 15 million Kurds living in South Eastern Turkey where it had been fighting Kurdish PKK terrorists since 1980s to fend off the creation of a Kurdish Republic out of South Eastern Turkey. To the end of curbing IS, Ankara conducted airstrikes against IS targets as part of the US-led coalition. It has also carried out unilateral airstrikes against Kurdish opposition forces in northern Syria and sent ground forces into Syria to fight IS and Kurdish forces as part of the Turkish-led operation known as "Euphrates Shield." As part of a "de-confliction zone" agreed to with Russia and Iran, Turkey has also moved into Idlib province alongside rebels it backs. Ankara wants to block Syrian Kurdish territorial gains and prevent them from gaining autonomy in any post-war settlement. Turkey says that Syrian Kurdish fighters are tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought a more than three-decade war in Turkey. Ankara also wants to defeat IS and other extremist groups that have committed terrorist attacks on Turkish soil. Recently, Turkish leaders have been ambivalent on whether Assad should be allowed to stay in power in a final peace deal. Turkey has been heavily involved in the Geneva talks and has co-sponsored the Astana negotiations. It has staunchly opposed Kurdish factions attending peace talks. Russia seems to be accommodative to these demands as Russian government-controlled news agency shut down its Kurdish site in response to a Turkish request. Ankara still enjoyed military and political confidence in Afrin despite the fact that pro-Russia Assad publicly criticized it and recognized it as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty.
From 1917 until the late 1980s, Moscow’s interventions in conflicts around the world were driven by a desire to promote communist ideology. Since the fall of Soviet Union, the Kremlin has failed to make clear what added value, if any, Russian intervention could bring to the international scene. To better establish itself as a world leader today, Russia knows it needs to rebrand itself and is trying to do just that, one deal at a time, and as far as it seems it’s doing a pretty good job at that.