Introduction

It is often remarked that Syria is the only Russian ally in the Middle-East, which up to a great extent is true. Syria heavily relies on the Russian support in its fight against the West-backed opposition. Since the very beginning, Russia has opposed any kind of military intervention from the Western block in Syria, most of the times citing the precedents of Libya and Iraq, where the tactics of intervention and subsequent regime change miserably failed with the countries ending up in a much worsened situation.

In September 2015, the Russian Federation Council had approved the use of Russian military in Syria in order to help the Bashar al-Assad government to fight the militant groups, primarily the Islamic State. There were much expected sharp reactions from the Western block after it was discovered that Russia had started sending its forces to Syria and that the first fleet of its tanks had already arrived by the early September, followed by its troops. Initially, there was no official announcement pertaining to the same as it was only gradually that Russia accepted and subsequently announced its involvement. Most importantly, Russia claimed to have sent its forces in order to curb the everyday rising strength and influence of the Islamic State. This reason is the primary point of analysis and inspection. It was alleged by the Western counterparts that in the guise of fighting the Islamic State militants, the Russians were mostly targeting the rebel groups such as the Army of Conquest coalitions, including the Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria), et cetera, and therefore the Russian agenda of fighting the Islamic State was by and large flawed. The Russian mission however, is restricted only to the aircrafts and some troops on the ground and thus far, the brutal techniques which were deployed by it during the Afghanistan invasion have not been deployed. Within the course of this article, I intend to analyze the probable and compelling reason for which Russia took the decision to move in its troops in Syria and its take on the geopolitical atmosphere of the region which is grappling with a prolonged conflict with hardly any solutions in sight.

Involvement of State and non-state actors

Before proceeding, it is necessary to look at the various state actors involved in the Syrian conflict, either extending support to the Bashar al-Assad regime (hereinafter as ‘the regime’) or to the Syrian Opposition, Free Syrian Army or other rebels. The Syrian Civil War, or rather an ‘uprising’ began in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 with people demanding an end to the regime. However, the war after that took the color of a sectarian struggle between the Sunnis and the Shias, with Assad representing the elsewhere tormented Shia minority. The support of the state and non-state actors to the war too is largely divided on the sectarian lines.

The Syrian opposition acting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army largely receives its support from Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, where Turkey has been active since the very inception in nurturing the resources and necessary logistics for the rebels, and is also alleged, besides Saudi Arabia, to provide funds to the Islamic State. The exiled Syrian Opposition too operates from Turkey. After the Gulf War, the relationship between Syria and Jordan was good, but it deteriorated in the wake of the civil war with Jordan’s army clashing with the Syrian army at the border. Saudi Arabia is known for funding a number of Sunni militant outfits, including the Islamic State and staging proxies against the regime. The regime also faces strong opposition from the Syrian Kurds who have long been persecuted, discriminated and neglected by the regime. On the other hand, it primarily receives its support from Iran and Russia, mainly in the form of weapons, artillery, etc., besides ostensible military support from Russia since September 2015. Besides state actors, there is a huge involvement of non-state actors as well who are mostly divided on the sectarian lines in the conflict and have accordingly taken sides. Countries supporting the Syrian opposition or rebels have their proxies engaged in war. Saudi Arabia has its proxy Jaish al-Islam, while Turkey has Ahrar as-Sham on the front.

The regime is backed by the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah (backed by Iran), besides receiving support from Russia and Iran. Since 2011, strength of the Assad regime has considerably decreased which is evident from its strong reliance on Russia and Iran. The conflict has serious chances of confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds, Iran and Saudi Arabia, besides Russia and the US. Some analysts have referred to this war as the “proto-world war” due to the involvement of a dozen of countries in the conflict.[1]

The two frontal wars

It is necessary while analyzing the Russian involvement in Syria to keep in mind the two different fronts of wars at which Syria is engaged. At the one end, Syria is grappling with its own civil war, with the regime trying to suppress (largely successful) any attempts of its divided opposition to topple it. While on the other hand, the Islamic State has now occupied large swathes of the Syrian territory, with its de facto capital in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. Russian involvement makes this already complex situation even more complex, as before getting involved directly with the Islamic State (which it at least claims), it will have to deal with the proxies which lie between Syria and the Daesh (as Islamic State is popularly known), which in turn will demand serious policy decisions from Riyadh and Ankara. Therefore, the two frontal wars will play a key role in deciding the future of the region and the enduring conflict.

While at the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the United States President Barack Obama remarked that it was ready to work at all the fronts even with Russia and Iran in order to solve the conflict, yet despite several invitations and intimations by the Russian leadership, there has been a consistent refusal so far from the US to work with Russia on any front.

Historical perspective of the Syria-Russia relationship

The relationship between Russia and Syria date back to as far as 1893 when the Russian consular office was established in the Syrian capital city of Damascus. Though the October Revolution (1917) brought a brief interlude between the relationship, the diplomatic relations were however restored in 1944. Syria allied with Russia during the cold war which added strength to the relationship between the two.[2] However, a crucial juncture in this relationship arrived in 1971, when through an agreement with the then President Hafez al Assad, Russia established its military base in the middle-east, at Tartus. Russia has also stated that one of the reasons for its presence in Syria is the protection of its naval military base.

As stated earlier, Russia has always opposed any kind of military intervention in Syria or any resolution sought to be adopted by the United Nations which either imposed sanctions or authorized an intervention. It has always advocated for a solution which either proposes a dialogue or peacefully seeks to resolve the conflict without bringing down the regime. It shall however be noted that Russia has openly condemned the actions of the regime at a number of instances.

Though earlier Russia had not overtly sent its forces or military experts in the field in Syria, it had backed the regime through the supply of weaponry, training and advisors. In September 2015, Putin issued a warning, accusing the United States and its allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia of causing the Syrian civil war through its so-called “pro-democratic” propaganda by supplying mass weaponry and providing training to the Syrian opposition.

The Russian involvement

Russian President Putin had once remarked that “A bear doesn’t ask for permission”. It shall be noted at the outset that this is the first-ever direct Russian involvement in the middle-east. There can be two theories suggesting possible reasons for the Russian involvement in Syria. First, that Russia has it’s only military base of the Middle-East located in Syria and given the rise of the Islamic State, it decided to extend its support to Syria (and this is precisely what Russia claims). In this context, it can also be said for once that since Russia has considered itself as the traditional protector of the Christians in Syria, hence it seeks to protect their displacement due to the expansion of Daesh (a number of similar reasons can be cited, such as “establishing democracy”, the reason which the Western block has persistently used). Second, that since a number of prominent state actors such as the United States support the rebel groups or the Syrian opposition, it becomes Russia’s prerogative and imperative to extend its support to the regime and ensure the stability and balance of power. Though at any moment both the reasons might seem plausible, it is the second reason which appeals to me the most, given the cold war rivalry and constant struggle to maintain the equilibrium of power, and at the same time to control the rising influence of the Islamic State and non-state actors such as the Al Nusra front and similar Sunni militant outfits. It is an accepted proposition that the United States’ invasion of 2003 led to the creation and success of the Islamic State and Russia too has used this very proposition to legitimize its military actions, citing both personal as well as global interests.

Russia states that the support extended by the United States to the rebels in turn jeopardizes Russia’s security and also that it has consistently precluded the Russian efforts to advocate a peace deal.

Though large focus of this article will be to analyze the Russian and the Western equation, before moving on directly to it, it is also necessary for a moment to understand the existing relationships between Russia and the US allies which are working with the Syrian opposition. The past relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia haven’t been good, with Saudi being a prominent ally of the US and it took several steps which were anti-Soviet in nature. Recently, the Russian and Saudi relations seemed to take a new level with both the countries inking a nuclear project deal, besides agreeing to collaborate in the field of agriculture with investments worth billions of dollars. However, while Russia is working besides Iran in the region, Saudis will not at all be happy at least to work together in the region (owing to Iran being Saudi’s prominent adversary and its historical animosity towards Russia) and the Russian move even has the potential of jeopardizing the various constructive moves made by both the governments with respect to economic development in the recent past. The Saudis have also warned that the Russian intervention might just turn out to be another Afghanistan. It can be concluded that the relationship between the Russia and Saudi Arabia is a strained one and Saudi Arabia anyway would wage its alliance to the Western block as it always has. Russia’s relationship with Jordan however has been considerably good and therefore it will remain to be seen if Jordan will make any changes in its foreign policy,it being a prominent West ally, while dealing with Russia in the region. Russia’s relationship with Turkey has been stable in the past few decades. Therefore, it will be crucial to watch out that how these countries, who are a part of the West-backed coalition, react to the Russian involvement in the region.

Russian position vis-à-vis the West

Earlier when after the alleged chemical attacks on the Syrian people, the clouds of international intervention sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council had started looming, it was Russia’s intervention and diplomacy which had averted such an action. Russian Foreign Minister in 2011 had described the Syrian conflict as the one which “did not present a threat to the international peace and security” and warned that any intervention might extend the conflict beyond its borders[3], while issuing warning to the United States and Europe to encourage anti-government protests.

Some critics however portray the picture of the conflict stating that in a war between the Saudi supported Sunni sect and the Iran supported Shia sect, the Russians have chosen to take the Persian side in the conflict. This in my opinion however should not be seen as such, as given the strategic or the geographic importance which Russia is and should be concerned about; the sectarian division doesn’t seem plausible at least at the moment. In the bombarding or the air strikes which were concluded recently, the West and its allies have accused Russia of rather targeting the rebel groups instead of the Islamic State, to fight whom Russia claims to have intervened in Syria. This contention of the West might seem tenable in the light of the fact that Russia has chosen to launch air strikes in the regions which are also strategically important for the Assad regime.

Until the Russian involvement, the narrative of the Syrian war was confined to the West, Riyadh, Ankara and their proxies, besides Iranian involvement from the regime side. But now, there is another chapter which will form a part of this narrative besides the regional dominance of the hitherto established state and non-state actors.

Probable consequences

An author/ analyst has remarked that Syria could have turned into Somalia or Bosnia, but after the Russian intervention it seems that it will turn into another Afghanistan[4], yet it shall not be the conclusion one should arrive at for the episode which has just begun.

Russia has used the umbrella (ostensibly at the least) of fighting the Islamic State while sending its military in the two front war-torn Syria, for which it has been subjected to long criticisms. While the United States and its allies have tried to draw an analogy with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1989 and the consequences which followed it, the leader of the Al Nusra Front has called for a strong response to Russia’s decision of sending troops to Syria by planning and executing terror attacks on the Russian soil. This becomes important in the context that the federally controlled Chechnya Republic is known for breeding terror organizations who have propensity to launch attacks in Russia and given that the attacks which took place just two months prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics had emanated from Chechnya. Further, the responsibility of the recent crash of a Russian civilian plane over Egypt’s Sinai province has been claimed by an Islamic State affiliate which in a way could be understood as a possible backlash to the Russian decision to get militarily involved. Recently, the United States has accused Russia of targeting in its air strikes the groups backed by CIA.

Further, as the Syrian conflict in itself is very complex, Russia might be found in a position from where it will be attacking the direct proxies of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc., leading to further escalation in the current geopolitical turmoil.[5]

Another perspective suggests that the Russian involvement in Syria might not be necessarily to keep Assad in power but to keep the ball in Russia’s court while deciding his successor. The West is largely known for supporting the powerful, be it the case of Arab Spring, where at occasions where it was clear that the autocratic ruler in all probability would be overthrown, it chose to support the masses (the case of Libya). The opportunistic attitude of the West is compelling enough for Russia to safeguard its interest in any adverse event besides keeping its only base of power in the middle-east alive.

The expansion of the Islamic State has created troubles not only for Syria or Iraq, but for the whole of Europe as it has resulted into the on-going refugee crisis, where the numbers have only escalated. Russia on the other hand will not want to repeat the Afghanistan humiliation. Russia’s approach in the Syria is anyway a tactical move which seems to satiate dual interests. Its involvement becomes crucial at this juncture and will play a key role in determining not just the imminent future of the region, but also in deciding the means of engagement of Russia with the West. The Syrian conflict will remain far from any solution unless there is a cohesive approach on the part of both the Western block and Russia.

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External References:-

[1] Pecanha et al, Untangling the Overlapping Conflicts in the Syrian War, New York Times, available at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/16/world/middleeast/untangling-the-overlapping-conflicts-in-the-syrian-war.html (October 18, 2015).

[2] Trenin & Dmitri, Russia’s Line on the Sand in Syria: Why Moscow wants to hold the Arab Spring? Foreign Affairs, (February 5, 2012), available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137078/dmitri-trenin/russias-line-in-the-sand-on-syria.

[3] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-06-01/russia-warns-u-s-nato-against-military-aid-to-syria-protests-after-libya. (June 2nd, 2011).

[4] Andrew J. Tabler, The Not-so-Great Game in Syria, Foreign Affairs.com, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2015-11-04/not-so-great-game-syria (November 4th, 2015).

[5] David Rothkopf, Putin and Politics are behind Obama’s decision to send troops to Syria, Foreign Policy.com, available at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/30/putin-and-politics-are-behind-obamas-decision-to-send-troops-to-syria/ (October 30th, 2015).