Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s Syria folly

Russia’s effective occupation of part of Syria and its opening attack on the Syrian opposition was a surprise move. It is unlikely to succeed in saving Bashar Al-Assad, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

As if the map of conflict in the Middle East were not complicated enough, and as if there have not been sufficient dead and displaced persons already, and the cups were not sufficiently overflowing with blood, Russia has come with its planes and troops to occupy a patch of Syria from which to strike left and right.

The Russian presence in Syria in its various forms comes at a time when Moscow is no longer the retreating and capitulating capital it was at the end of the Cold War. It is looking outwards once more and trying to reassert its presence among the great powers, communist or otherwise.

At first it looked towards the regions just beyond its borders: Georgia, then the Crimea and more recently the Ukraine. Today, the new addition is across the Mediterranean, in Syria. The declared aim is to take part in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group, but the path to this aim leads through two others: to rescue the Syria regime and to destroy all other opposition forces.

The Russian move came as a surprise. It was not preceded by an attempt to join the international-regional coalition that is actually fighting IS. Curiously, the only coordination that Russia did make was with Israel during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow.

The purpose was to lay certain ground rules for work and engagement in Syria so that Moscow’s operations on the ground there would not conflict with Israel’s. Israel’s aims are clear. It is very happy to see the collapse of the Syrian national army, which has shrunk from 300,000 to between 80,000 and 100,000 troops.

But it does not want either IS or Hezbollah to inherit the Syrian military capacities. This is why it signalled the need to create a communications and coordination channel with Moscow. Israel will not allow Hezbollah to obtain missiles or chemical weapons.

Nor does it want its aerial and missile forays to accidentally cross paths with those of Russia. Russia is also keen to avoid this. It also knows that regardless of how the war ends, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will not have enough military power left to constitute a source of concern for Israel.

Russia also wants to show some appreciation to Israel for having abstained on the vote for the UN resolution on the Ukraine, a vote that Israel’s great ally, the US, was so keen on.

Is Moscow taking an enormous risk with this latest move? Could it sink in the Syrian quagmire, just as it did in the Afghani one so many decades ago? Or is the situation different this time? Certainly, today, Russia is not alone in the theatre of military operations. Many powers are involved and all are against IS.

But many of these are also against Bashar Al-Assad and the Baathist rule that propelled Syria to its current hell. To Russia, however, the Bashar regime is the cornerstone of its strategy and the war against IS is part of an operation to save Bashar. The rest is to destroy all other forms of opposition to his rule.

It was no coincidence that Russia’s first aerial strikes in Syria targeted the non-IS opposition. But this creates a major dilemma for Russia: its forces in Syria cannot fight the opposition and IS at the same time. True, there are allies at hand, such as Iran and Hezbollah.

But there are also major intersections with the international-regional coalition and with Turkey, and there is no telling what “friendly fire” could trigger. One wonders whether Obama and Putin, at their meeting in New York, broached the subject of creating a coordinating mechanism similar to that between Russia and Israel, or whether the two leaders merely traded complaints over the unilateral behaviour of the other side.

Will the Russian entry into the Syrian war theatre alter the strategic balances enough to give Al-Assad the initiative again? The fact is that Baathist Syria is a thing of the past. This is not just because Syria has lost 240,000 lives and suffered more than a million wounded, or because half of its population has been displaced and turned into refugees.

It is also because the sectarian conflicts persisted and coalesced around the divides between diverse political “identities”. From a purely military standpoint, from its position on the ground in Syria, Russia cannot possibly handle all adversaries. Also, the job of salvaging Bashar and his army, or the remnants of his army, requires much more than this.

Indeed, the abovementioned Russian aims can only be accomplished with more troops, more planes and more ships for protection. This is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could make Bashar more brutal; on the other, it will present more targets to all of his enemies. Whatever the results, Syria will be under Russian occupation, the outcome of which is impossible to predict.

Syria has changed, as did Iraq and Lebanon before it. Nor are Israel and Palestine the same as they were under the relations forged by the Oslo Accords. In brief, the Fertile Crescent is a mess. It has entered an eclipse that, to some, is reminiscent of the time of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, albeit with the addition of Russia to the various stripes of IS and Al-Qaeda, as well as believe it or not Baathist remnants.

The missing elements in this wretched panorama are ideas and actions to confront the widespread anarchy from inside the area, as opposed to from the outside. What Putin proposes  as though it were an initiative to rescue Syria and the rest of the Fertile Crescent is not convincing at a time when Russia is itself the target of Western sanctions due to its behaviour in Ukraine, when its currency has collapsed by 44 per cent, and when the prices of petroleum that Moscow relies on more than other petroleum exporting nations have plummeted and Russian currency reserves have declined alarmingly.

Under such circumstances, the attempt to play saviour is hard to swallow, especially given Russia’s international isolation and strained relations with other regional powers who have a presence of some sort or other in the Syrian arena.

How will the international community react to the Russian occupation of Syria? As we have seen, it started with protest. This is not only because the Russian decision was not based on any rule of international conduct, but also because it did not began by joining the international coalition against IS but rather by an assault against the entire opposition in an attempt to rescue a regime that was the very origin of the current catastrophe.

The US, for its part, appears confused. It is immersed in the presidential campaigns and in local events such as the Oregon massacre that has shaken the entire country. True, there was that attempt to equip the Free Syrian Army, but that too proved a failure or at best its results were modest. The upshot is that nature will take its course.

Of course, there is the possibility that a phoenix will arise from that hell and act as the sword that will save the nation, a nation that so many outside powers have pounced upon, and whose people, caught between two sources of endless violence, face only a dark fate between foreign occupation and domestic terror.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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