Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s space in Syria

Russia has stopped using the Iranian Hamadan military base, indicating a possible setback in its campaign to carve out new strategic space in Syria, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russia declared last week that it would use the Hamadan air base in Iran to stage strikes on Islamist factions in Syria and launched several sorties from the Iranian base targeting positions in northern Syria and the city of Aleppo.

However, less than a week later it has now announced that it will suspend its military operations from the Hamadan base. Iran had said it was disturbed by Moscow’s earlier announcement, saying Moscow’s declaration was a violation of Iranian national sovereignty.

Russia’s announcement that it would use Iranian bases came as a surprise to all the parties in the conflict in Syria. Washington protested, saying it would monitor any infringement of the arms embargo on Iran, and the Russian announcement coincided with China’s statement that it would begin to train Syrian regime fighters.

 Russia also said that it intended to expand the Hamimi military base on the Syrian coast, making it permanent and possibly nuclear-armed. Russia also declared that its military base in Armenia was “operating at high capacity” and that it was on the brink of an agreement with the US to coordinate military operations in the eastern Mediterranean.

The announcements were part of a Russian attempt to strengthen the impression that it controls military deployments along the line of engagement with the West, from the Sevastopol base in Crimea to Belorussia where Russia has significant deployments and to the Russian military base in Armenia, the Hamadan base in Iran and the Hamimi base in Syria.

But perhaps as a result of fears of Russian political and military hegemony in the region, Iran then cancelled the agreement. Russian influence in the region helps to perpetuate the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and is also important for Iranian foreign policy.

However, Iran has found that the political cost of strengthening military cooperation with Russia does not serve its agenda of opening up economically to the West. Any further strengthening of military ties with Moscow would deepen mistrust in the West, especially the US, and could contribute to deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, states with which Iran is attempting to ease tensions until the Syrian issue is resolved.

The Russian sorties from the Iranian base were no different from the raids launched from its bases in Syria. They did not target any known terrorist positions, but focused on positions occupied by various Syrian opposition factions.

Syrian opposition figure Sayed Moqbel said that Moscow’s moves were “related to the conflict with NATO in Central Asia and Eastern Europe and not only with the Syrian conflict. This is an example of the Russian bear flexing its muscles.”

“Days before the Russian announcement, NATO started implementing a deterrence plan against Russia by deploying four brigades in Eastern European states to strengthen the NATO presence on the Baltic and Black Seas. It was a politically naïve move because it did not take into account the poor relations that could result between Russia and the Arab Gulf states and between Turkey and the US,” Moqbel said.

But some in the Syrian opposition think the alliance between Russia and Iran has showed that Moscow has taken the upper hand in Syria and that neither state can continue its participation in the Syrian conflict without the other. They believe that the problems resulting from the US absence from the Middle East will grow, with negative consequences for the Syrian opposition.

Syrian opposition figure Hazam Oday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to redraw the features of the new world order to ensure Russian interests in the Middle East.

“He has been aided by the passivity of US President Barack Obama and the American preoccupation with the presidential elections,” she said. “The Kremlin fox will not let this opportunity go to waste, even if it is just a way of showing its strength.”

But the Russian flexing cannot last long, as the Russian alliances are fragile and with other parties that have contradictory goals. Russia’s insistence on imposing itself as the number one player in the region has been delaying a resolution to the Syrian crisis and other related crises, such as the crisis in Iraq and Iranian attempts at hegemony in Lebanon through its proxy group Hizbullah.

Putin will continue to make a show of force, but this does not mean that other powerful actors in Syria will continue to sit on the sidelines. They will take action based on their interests, disregarding Russian muscle-flexing and relying on the fact that Russia has come to realise that it is sitting on shifting sands in Syria and will be hard pressed to open up a second front.

The US appears to have no objection to deferring the whole issue until after the presidential elections. With the Syria issue having moved from the State Department to the Pentagon, matters will remain in the US army’s hands for the next six nerve-wracking months, and the US military will work assiduously to preserve the balance of power.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been extending logistical and weapons support to Syrian armed opposition forces in northern Syria. It has allowed opposition forces to move through Turkish territory and to prepare to take the border town of Jarapulus from the Islamic State (IS) group and to prevent the Kurds from getting there first.

Turkey has also been using its artillery to shell areas close to the border inside Syria to keep out both the Kurds and IS and to prevent the Syrian Kurds from forming the separatist region they have long dreamed of.

While Ankara does not want to clash with Russia, it will not allow such gains to be lost and will not change its stance on the Syrian regime. That would mean allowing Russia, Iran and the Kurds to dominate the regional situation, and Turkey knows that the Russian moves are temporary and that the decisive actions will come from the US.

The stated objective of Russia, Turkey, the US and Iran is to fight IS, but each also has secondary objectives. Although theoretically Turkey needs Russian support to strengthen its hand against Washington’s insistence on supporting the Kurdish forces, an overlap between the two countries is proving extremely difficult.

The Turkish-US alliance remains the most important strategic objective for Turkey. Many Turkish politicians believe that though interim objectives may differ, the country’s long-term strategic interests still lie with the US.

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