Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russian moves in Syria

The Russian military involvement in Syria is designed to support a key Middle Eastern ally and build the country’s prestige in the region and beyond, writes Ahmed Eleiba

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Al-Ahram Weekly

a highly unusual move, Russian state television has broadcast footage of the operation rooms of the Russian military command overseeing air strikes in Syria. Before 30 September, Moscow had not even admitted to having a hand in the military operations in Syria, let alone soldiers on the ground, as was then rumoured.

Following the meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on the fringes of the UN General Assembly earlier this month, Moscow made its intention to intervene militarily in Syria explicit, ushering in another round of Western-Russian friction.

But what is the Russian strategy in Syria? From an analysis of the areas targeted so far, one can conclude that Moscow has determined to strike all the extremist organisations operating in Syria, but with priority given to those affiliated with Al-Qaeda, which is fighting alongside the armed opposition to the Syrian regime.

Moscow’s purpose is to enable the Syrian army and its allies on the ground, including the Iranian Al-Quds force and the Hezbollah brigades, to recover territory captured by the jihadist groups since 2012.

This could explain Russia’s initial air strikes, which were clearly designed to help Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad defend his home territory in western Syria against the growing rebel threat.

This was why the first targets included units of the US-backed rebel coalition instead of the Islamic State (IS) group, which is concentrated in eastern Syria. Russia’s second priority is to target IS strongholds in Idlib, Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor.

Russia’s extensive aerial operations, launched on 30 September, focused on the strongholds of Al-Nusra Front, the Army of Conquest and Ahrar Al-Sham in the environs of Homs, Hama and Latakia in northern, central and western Syria.

Near Homs, Russian forces struck targets in the village of Talbisa, said to be controlled by Al-Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front, which is fighting under the umbrella of Ahrar Al-Sham. Reports also indicate that an estimated 1,500 Al-Nusra Front fighters are based in the Wa’r district of Homs.

In Latakia, the targets were areas occupied by the Army of Conquest. Latakia is strategically crucial to Russia as it is the home of the head of the Syrian regime and it could serve as a future site for a Russian military base. In Hama, the area of Muharada came in for intensive bombardment as it is controlled by Al-Nusra Front.

Russia is involved in Syria for practical domestic reasons, not merely the pursuit of prestige. But global factors are real, too. Mired in diplomatic isolation by his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Putin clearly did not mind being able to command a meeting with the president of the United States last week.

In addition to the significance of these targets as centres of jihadist control, it seems evident that they could also serve as central platforms for future military action. Not only would securing the areas help safeguard the Al-Assad regime, they would also open avenues for the Syrian army to extend its control outwards, expand its sphere of control and raise the morale of the army.

At the same time, the intensive Russian raids will compel these adversaries to retreat in two directions. The first will be eastward, in the direction of Iraq and IS-controlled areas. The second, most likely the preferred choice of Al-Qaeda affiliates, will be toward the borders with Turkey.

Russian forces could then strike the supply lines along these two axes, or attempt to drive them out of Syria. Some of the countries opposed to the Russian military intervention, such as Turkey, fear the consequences of a random expulsion of terrorist elements.

The Russian strikes against IS strongholds have been fewer than those against areas controlled by other extremist groups. Moscow justifies this with the argument that its campaign in Syria is against all terrorist groups. In the process, it hopes to prove that it can succeed where the international coalition has failed for over a year now.

It is interesting to note, however, that while Russian military officials have announced a four-month timeframe for their operations, Al-Assad maintains that “there is no set time limit as long as there is terrorism.”

Russia’s military-political philosophy in this campaign is informed not just by a desire to reverse the damage done to Syria by jihadist militias, but also by the need to prevent the return of jihadist volunteers from abroad to their home countries.

There is a heavy presence of Chechen jihadists in Syria, and the country does not want these to return and become “a sword in the Russian flank.” The Chechen president supports Putin in this and has called for volunteers to fight alongside Moscow in Syria. Beijing, for its part, also does not want Uyghur jihadists to return to China.

The Syrian president, who realises that the Russian intervention will alter the balance of power on the ground in his favour, has cited the foregoing as cause to support a Russian-led coalition.

In an interview with the Iranian Khabar news channel on 4 October, Al-Assad said that he had asked the Russians to intervene to fight terrorism in his country and that an anti-terrorist coalition has been forged between Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq. His purpose was in part to suggest that the coalition is a counterweight to the US-led coalition, which is opposed to Al-Assad and has officially refused to work with him.

The Russians also claim that their intervention is informed by the view that the extremists are a threat to every country and are harmful to Islam itself. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at the “Islam is against Extremism” conference held on 5 October, explained that while Islamist extremists have been abbreviated to IS, the Russian operations take a broader view.

IS is the common enemy of all nations and peoples and it seeks to distort the image of Islam and destroy this religion, he said, adding that the fight against terrorism requires a more comprehensive approach.

Moscow, through its military presence in the region, is now pursuing the age-old Russian policy of “reaching warm-water ports.” In the contemporary context, this policy aims to strengthen the Russian role in regional and international security arrangements in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.

The Western powers, with the Ukraine crisis in mind, regard this as evidence of disturbing intentions on the part of Putin. But Russia maintains that it is opening horizons for a diplomatic settlement to the Syrian crisis, which will only become possible by altering the balance of powers on the ground.

To the Russians, the diplomatic process must include Al-Assad as a party in the negotiations and a partner in the solution. This, however, is a notion to which the US and many European countries are firmly opposed.

Still, it appears that Russia, together with Al-Assad, is determined to press ahead with a Geneva 3 initiative based on changes to the balance of power on the ground.

 

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NTERNATIONAL AND REGIONAL REACTIONS: The US has been quick to pounce on the Russian moves in Syria. Even before Moscow officially announced its operations, Washington began to voice criticisms and reiterate its insistence that Al-Assad cannot be part of the solution or have any political role in Syria’s future.

Washington also claimed that Russia has targeted locations held by the “moderate opposition” that the US had trained and armed. It also blamed Moscow for not having coordinated with the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and charged that the Russian raids have killed many civilians.

“Russia is adding fuel to the fire of the civil war in Syria by targeting moderate opposition groups,” said US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter.

Reuters, citing informed government sources in Washington, reported that the US is studying the possibility of increasing support for fighters from the “moderate” opposition in Syria. The support would include weapons to enable the opposition factions to repel IS fighters from strategic areas adjacent to the border with Turkey.

The news agency added that the US is studying with Turkey ways to support the Syrian Arab revolutionary factions that include “representatives of all ethnic affiliations.” Ankara does not want the Syrian Kurds to occupy a large segment of the northern part of Syria adjacent to the Turkish border. The sources quoted by Reuters said that as many as 8,000 fighters have come together under the umbrella of this opposition group.

The British reaction echoed that of the US. Prime Minister David Cameron said that the Russian intervention aims to assist Al-Assad and that it is a “terrible mistake.” He also charged that Russia has failed to distinguish between IS and the legitimate Syrian opposition.

British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said that if Russia wants to counter IS it cannot support Al-Assad, as supporting Al-Assad will only drive more of the Syrian opposition into IS’s embrace.

Turkey was also strenuously opposed to the Russian intervention. In an escalatory tactic, Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to Turkey to protest against what it claims are violations of Turkish airspace by Russian aircraft.

According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, two Russian F-16s violated Turkish airspace over Hatay. The statement cautioned Russia against continuing its operations and said it will hold Moscow responsible for any inadvertent incidents that occur. The Russian Embassy in Ankara did not issue a denial of the Turkish claims.

A somewhat equivalent response came from Paris, opposing the Russian intervention and appealing to Moscow to not hit the wrong targets in Syria. Another important Western power was similarly restrained in its criticism.

While objecting to the Russian military operations in Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel added her belief that Russia and the US, together with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Germany, France and Britain, could work together to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis.

As for reactions in the Arab world, Cairo has officially announced its support for the Russian aerial offensive against “terrorist groups” in Syria. The aim of the Russian raids is to deliver a “debilitating strike” against IS, which will be instrumental in halting and eliminating terrorism in Syria, a Foreign Ministry statement said. Cairo also stressed the need to promote efforts to reach a political settlement to the crisis.

Riyadh, on the other hand, stood with the governments opposed to the Russian intervention. On Friday, immediately after Russia announced the beginning of its operations, Saudi Arabia joined six other nations — the US, France, Britain, Germany, Turkey and Qatar — in a joint statement demanding that Moscow “immediately cease” its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and focus its raids on IS.

The statement held that the Russian intervention is fanning the flames of the crisis and will only fuel extremism and terrorism. The UAE has also come out against the Russian intervention, indicating a general Gulf alignment on this issue.

The lines appear pretty clear with respect to stances on the Russian intervention and positions towards the Syrian regime. Each side not only has its own opinion, but also has forces engaged and/or allies on the ground.

It would be premature to predict how the situation will unfold on the ground. All of the parties may eventually head off to Geneva, in light of the new realities generated by the Russian intervention.

But what is certain is that the intervention has ushered in a new phase in the Syrian crisis. The variables in the balance of power are in a precarious state of flux, whether at the level of the Saudi-versus-Iran conflict or the broader regional and international stakes in resolving the Syrian crisis.

We can also be fairly sure that the Russian intervention has given the Al-Assad regime a new lease of life in the face of its enemies. What is still in dispute is how effective the Russian operations will be in countering IS.

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