Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A new order has just begun

Russian military intervention in Syria is but the tip of the iceberg of a determined effort on the part of Moscow to claim a bigger role in regional and international affairs, writes Fadi Elhusseini

Al-Ahram Weekly

At the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Russia limited itself to its traditional role of providing arms, as well as military and logistical experts, to its Arab allies. As Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime weakened, the Russians dramatically increased their military support.

Recently, the Russian “Caesar” opted to expand his role in Syria to include direct intervention against the enemies of the regime. The move towards direct intervention constitutes a revolution in Russia’s role in the Middle East and portends a deeper shift in the region.

Russia has claimed that its intervention in Syria is intended to destroy the Islamic State (IS) group after the US-led campaign proved to be an “abject failure”, according to an unnamed US military official speaking to CBS News.

One might argue that Moscow, well acquainted with terrorism, is undertaking a pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups. But some have linked the intervention to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the desire for increased leverage in the Middle East and more power at the negotiating table.

Russia’s stated intentions have been met with scepticism about the real motives behind the decision to intervene directly. One widespread opinion is that Russia wants to secure a military presence in warm waters — the Mediterranean Sea. While this sounds plausible, Russia has been enjoying this presence for some time already.

Warm-water ports are of great geopolitical and economic interest, given that they enable free movement throughout the year. Such ports have long played an important role in Russian foreign policy. The Russian Empire fought a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire in a quest to establish warm-water port access.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I didn’t give Russia any further control. The Soviet Union had enjoyed access to naval bases throughout the Mediterranean, but the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire brought an end to that access, except for the base in Tartus in Syria. Since 1971, Russian naval forces have had a presence in Tartus, and with Russia’s recent intervention, this port enjoyed unprecedented fame.

So what really lies behind the dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy?

In fact, Russia’s recent direct intervention in Syria gave a goodbye kiss to the conventional regional order that has ruled the Middle East for decades. Traditionally, and even at the peak of the Cold War, Russia (either the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation) was limited to sending arms and military and logistical experts to its Arab allies. The current intervention constitutes a revolution in Russia’s role and marks an extraordinary turnaround.

The recent Russian intervention coincided with a number of important events. First is the Iranian nuclear deal that gives Iran a more prominent regional role — especially when considering the economic potentials this deal entails for Iran.

Second is the gradual US withdrawal from the region, which was symbolised in the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, handing over Iraq’s destiny to the Iranians, cooling off efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that led to the emergence of other initiatives (by the French, by New Zealand), and finally its decision to withdraw the defensive shield from Turkey (for technical reasons, according to the US announcement).

Giving up its historical allies in Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and Tunisia (Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali), in addition to leaving the Saudis and the Gulf to fight Iran’s influence in Yemen alone, are other signs of a declining US role in the Middle East.

A few years ago, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N Haass, wrote that the era of the United States’ domination in the Middle East was coming to an end and that the region’s future would be characterised by reduced US influence. Many observers do not believe the US will voluntarily abandon its role in the region, but the actions of other nations, combined with the Russians’ plans in Syria, clearly point in this direction.

Under the slogan the “fight against terrorism”, China sent the Liaoning-CV-16 aircraft carrier to Tartus and sources revealed that Beijing is looking to reinforce — in coordination with Tehran and Baghdad — its forces with J-15 Flying Shark jets and Z-18F and Z-18J helicopters equipped with anti-submarine weaponry.

France and Britain followed suit. The latter announced that it would mobilise reinforcements and enhance its military capabilities to the Mediterranean, while Paris said it would send the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to participate in operations against IS, in addition to six Rafale jets in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage aircraft in Jordan.

For its part, the US, whose aircraft carriers have been absent from the region since 2007, ordered a mere 50 special operations troops to Syria to help coordinate “local” ground forces in the north of the country. US President Barack Obama condemned Russia’s direct intervention strategy, saying it was “doomed to fail”. And yet, in a press conference in August 2014, he acknowledged that the US “does not have a strategy” in Syria.

Media talks aside, Washington cannot have been taken by surprise when the Russians commenced their operations in Syria. Assuming that the Obama-Putin summit, which came hours before the Russian move in Syria, did not tackle Russia’s intervention plans, there were many clues that show that the US had prior knowledge of Moscow’s decision.

In July 2015, Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow to coordinate the Russian military intervention, thus forging the new Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria. According to a Reuters report, Soleimani’s visit was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contact and meetings to coordinate military strategies. Two months later, Iraq, Russia, Iran and Syria agreed to set up an intelligence-sharing committee in Baghdad in order to harmonise efforts in fighting IS.

A senior US official confirmed on 18 September that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria, followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close-support aircraft, four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships.

Hence, it is clear that the US administration was at least aware of the massive Russian preparations and yet opted to keep its own presence to a minimum. In this vein, it can be said that this decision was in line with the aforementioned US grand plan in the region and marks a calculated strategic gain, securing a small share in a Russian traditional sphere of influence: Syria.

The stated Russian motivation behind this involvement does not match the facts on the ground. In other words, fighting IS, which does not have fighter jets or missile defence systems, is commensurate neither with the sophisticated air defences that the Russians installed at the Humaimam base (such as SA-15 and SA-22 surface-to-air missiles) nor the Russian announcements that 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets.

For that reason, some other experts see Russia’s intervention as evidence of a new maritime strategy, which was published 26 July 2015. The new maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation to 2020 is a comprehensive state policy for governing all of Russia’s maritime assets, military fleets, the civilian fleet, the merchant fleet and naval infrastructure.

Russia, therefore, might be looking to kill as many birds as possible with one stone. Moscow will first and foremost dictate its political will on any future solution in Syria, and the inclusion of Iran and Russia in the Vienna talks is part of this plan. US Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Russia’s long-time ally, might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the West would have to engage with Al-Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war, and the British indicated a similar shift in policy. Second, Russia is now guaranteed a bigger role in the formation of a new Syrian government, even if Al-Assad is pushed out of power.

Any nascent Syrian regime would be obliged to seriously consider Russia’s role and presence in the country, including military, investment and commercial interests (in 2011, Russia invested $19 billion in Syria).

Third, Russia is undertaking to expand its military presence — not only in Syria but also in the region, and the announced intelligence-sharing agreement demonstrates this aim. For example, Russia offered a large array of military hardware to Iraq (such as military helicopters in 2013 and Su-25s fighter aircraft) that the US had refused to sell.

Fourth, although it looks like Russia and Iran have a common goal in Syria, Russia’s blatant involvement ended Iran’s monopoly over the Syrian file. Fifth, Russia is making pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups from which Russia has long suffered. Russia can’t tolerate the return of Chechens or other fighters who joined IS and is concerned that the West may use those radicals against Russia, in a scenario similar to the case of Afghanistan.

Sixth, Russian intervention came amidst confirmed military reports that the Syrian regime was about to fall — it controlled only 18 per cent of the country and its army had exhausted 93 per cent of its stock. Seventh, the mounting leverage of Russia in the region will give it a bigger seat at the Ukrainian negotiations table.

Finally, Russia wants to revive its military industries market. It is promoting itself as an international player that can be relied upon to contain Iran, to prevent the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, to contribute actively in the fight against terrorism, and to sell technologies for peaceful energy in the Middle East.

For example, the Russian Defence Ministry is currently working on major deals with Gulf Arab states to develop the Marine Corps, along with sales or training related to air defence systems, unmanned aircrafts, armoured vehicles and signal systems.

Russia is now building two nuclear facilities in southern Iran, and in February Russia agreed to build nuclear reactors in Egypt. Moscow is negotiating as well with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan on deals to develop nuclear power — the biggest deal was on 19 June 2015 when Moscow agreed to establish 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.

In short, Russia must now be taken seriously as a major player in the Middle East. Russian military intervention is Syria was not the first move in that direction. Moscow may soon become an important stop for Middle Eastern leaders.

The writer is a Palestinian analyst.

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