Syria, since the 1960s, has been ruled by the Al-Assad family, starting with Hafez Al-Assad. The regime had been one of a quasi-dictatorial rule until the Arab Spring came in 2011. The Arab spring was a revolution involving demonstrations and protests, riots and civil war. It started at Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution and then spread throughout the Arab League and its surroundings nations. While most of these protests began to fade away in the mid 2012 some of them continued, and were referred to as the ‘Arab Winters’. One of such was the Syrian Civil War.
The Syrian civil war too started in 2011 when Assad refused to step down to the protests and started a brutal attack against the protestors. This quickly escalated into a civil war which involved many ethnic groups fighting against one another and thus creating a situation of total political breakdown. It is at this juncture that ISIS – a jihadist militaristic group – jumped into the opportunity to launch an extremist war, to create a totalitarian Islamic caliphate. This Islamic State soon turned out to be one of the most successful terrorist groups and thus was recognized as a threat world-wide. There are also other terror organizations such as the the Al-Nusra (the local branch of Al-Qaeda) and the Ahrar Al-Sham, operating in the region and soon there was a global call to deal with the terrorism in Syria and many nations, chiefly the United States, stepped up to the call and actively aided in tackling the problem. However, Russia, one of Syria’s closest allies made only an indirect support by supplying arms but sending no military support till the very end.
Only recently did Russia decide to deploy a small troop to Syria to aid the Assad government and for the first time decided to actively take part in the now 4 year long civil war, however, this has been subject to much speculation and negativity from the west who seem to be unclear about the intentions of Russia. Russia, though, has maintained the stance that they are desirous of an “international coalition” to fight terrorism and extremism, however this seems not to go down easily through the throats of the US.
To understand the reason for such an apprehension, one has to first understand Russia’s stance in Syria. And the fact that the opposition to the Russian military deployment has been from the United States it is pertinent to understand the differences between the two countries.
United States and Russia havr both deployed their armed forces to no doubt deal with terrorism in Syria, however, the United States’s position is diametrically different in their stance from Russia with respect to the fact that while Russian troops support the Assad government which has been doing poorly in the war, on the other hand, the United States is firmly against the Assad regime.
Further, the differences between Russia and the United States, in their urge to be take the throne has not remained a secret to the world and this has been specially more explicit since the Russian annexation of Crimea. Hence, it comes out as no surprise that the US feels that Russian intervention has been nothing but an attempt to set up a military base in Syria which is otherwise not possible.
There are also strict views on the issue that through this deployment, what Russia actually wants is to pacify the West and ensure that the number of sanctions imposed on them by the west is removed and hence addressing not just the issue of Syria but that of Ukraine and the other western sanctions as well.
Next comes the Iranian factor. Russia was once a global superpower with proxies all over the globe, however, the dynamics have changed drastically after the Cold war ended and now Russia has almost no proxies other than its former Soviet allies. Russia’s only proxy presence in the Middle East has been through Syria, which allied with Russia way back in 1970 during the regime of Hafez Al-Assad. However, post the Civil War the Syrian government began to rely more heavily on Iran because as opposed to Russia they provided active military support rather simply hardware for the war. Hence, Russia was slowly losing its influence in the middle-east and therefore maybe in an attempt to shore up its influence it had to provide its military intervention. It is important to note here that the small military deployment would be much more beneficial to Syria as opposed to the major military deployment by Iran owing to the fact that Syria can depend much more on Russia for diplomatic protection against western intervention, just what the US doesn’t want, and to support this claim, the statistic lie in black and white that Russia has at various times used its veto power of the United Nations Security Council to veto resolutions that would have otherwise condemned the Assad government.
Therefore, the military intervention in Syria is much more than what meets the eye. It is simply not just about dealing with the IS and in fact the IS might not even be in Russia’s first concern given the fact that what the pro-Assad government Russia actually wants is to elevate Assad’s position in the war and to do that, its first enemy would be the numerous non-IS rebel groups such as the Jabhat Al-Nusra. Given that US is targeting the IS and Russia is targeting the non-IS rebels, the most worrisome concern that arose among international lawyers, and thus adding an important dimension to the war to look out for, was whether Russia would use this garb of anti-terrorism propaganda to attack the US backed Syrian rebels and hence taking the war to their former cold war foes.
As per reports, immediately after Russia’s air strike in Syria began, it was soon purported by John Kerry, the present U.S. Secretary of State, that the attacks by Russia were only against the opponents of Assad’s regime and not against terrorism in general and hence the real intention of Russia’s military intervention remains still questionable.
Russia’s intervention may hold two perspectives in the global forum. Firstly, that this intervention might end up with Russia pacifying its relation with the West by being an ally to its campaign against terrorism. Secondly, and the more likely consequence is that even though it might indirectly counter terrorism in Syria but this would only be a veil under which Russia can actively support the Assad government, something which is fundamentally opposite to what the Western Countries, USA in particular, wants and thus end up in souring the relations even further at the international level.
Another consequence that could be forseen is what would lead to lengthy, and often unfriendly, debates on Russia’s relation to the West and on issues such as imposition of sanctions as is the status quo which began after the Crimean annexation.
Boon or bane is what only time will decide but Russia’s intervention has definitely changed dynamics in Syria both in terms of International Relations and International Law. And one can only hope that both nations mature up and keep their aim for the removal of terrorism as its primary objective rather than making Syria a personal battleground and thus, turning it into a possible subsequent Cold War.