|Author: Iliya Kusa|
THE SYRIAN QUAGMIRE AND RUSSIA’S ADVENTUROUS POLITICS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Russian military operation in Syria proved to be one of the most daring and ambitious geopolitical adventures of Moscow in recent decade. The present analysis suggests a deep review of Russian involvement in one of the most dreadful, tragic and difficult conflicts in the world and offers an interesting insight of Syrian inner politics, the complexity of regional political environment and its effect on Russian stance in the Middle East.
When Russia initially intervened in Syria the situation there was dim and dire. After series of geopolitical setbacks (war in Libya, military coup in Egypt, Lebanese political crisis) Russia heavily sought to discover new ways of resurging its positions in the Middle East and defending at least what remained of their past political and military might. The culminating moment came in 2015 when Russia’s only ally in the Middle East – Bashar Al-Assad – was at the brink of total military collapse. That was the very timing of Russian intervention into regional war in Syria.
Russian military campaign in Syria became the game-changer in a war-torn country reversing almost all gains made by anti-government forces and overturning the military and political situation in Assad’s favor. Russia managed to reform its regional alliances and strengthen its own positions in the Middle East hence achieving objectives laid down by Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2015 – restoration of Russia’s geopolitical power and stance in the region during Cold War having been lost after 1991 Gulf War.
Since 2013 Russian middle-eastern policy was based on six major strategic goals:
These points have been in the very heart of Russian Syrian politics and quickly became one of the brightest reflections of Moscow’s geopolitical opportunism. In August 2015 Syria and Russia signed the strategic military treaty which incited Russian forces on Syrian soil. Next month Russian military jets entered the Syrian sky and became its ruthless and tough campaign which is still intact today. Kremlin’s meddling partially satisfied the foreign policy goals set up before the campaign. Russian intervention became the high point of Moscow’s new global policy aimed at escalating tensions with the West and disrupting American influence in some critical regions after series of concessions made by the US president Barak Obama’s administration in 2012-2014.
Firstly, Russian campaign had a highly effective military outcome. It allowed Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad retain its power and regain much of the lost territory in Central, Western and Eastern Syria. In September 2017 Russian Defense Ministry reported that 87% of Syrian territory lost since 2012 was regained later with the help of Russian military. Particularly, after the Battle of Aleppo in December 2016 – January 2017, anti-governmental forces were steadily defeated in subsequent skirmishes in western, south-eastern and eastern Syrian provinces. In the late 2017 Syrian governmental forces already controlled key territories on Syrian-Lebanese and Syrian-Jordan borders, all of Al-Suweida province, practically all of the Eastern Syria in provinces of Deir-Ezzor, Homs, Raqqa and Hama.
Secondly, Moscow’s intervention in Syria has changed the diplomatic and political landscape of the Levantine sub-region dramatically. Military gains by Syrian government and growing Russian influence on local level of the Syrian battlefield evolved in a new regional alliance forged by Kremlin and in its favor. Turkish-Iranian-Russian axis became a clear counterbalance to American-Gulf alliance being heavily embattled in Syria. The defeat of main anti-government groups in late 2016 during the battle of Aleppo put Russia and its regional allies on top of political and diplomatic light. The pinnacle of their work became known as the so-called Astana peace process launched in December 2016 which was unequivocably seen as an alternative to US-dominated Geneva process. Furthermore, Russia managed to recalibrate its relations with some of key US allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.
Thirdly, Syrian war was a gold opportunity for Russian military projects. Not only had Russians managed to gain experience in training Syrian government forces and combating terrorism but Kremlin successfully tested scores of various new weapons and armaments. For example, it was for Syria where Russian-made new Ka-52 and Mi-28 helicopters received their first operational record in fighting. Vladimir Putin himself admitted in an interview in 2017 that Syrian battleground became an essential set of opportunities for the Russian military industrial complex. According to Russian Ministry of Defense more than 200 new weapons were tested in Syria including new Su-34, Su-35 and Su-57 jets. This strengthened Russia’s positions on arms market and enabled their companies earn more than 8 billion dollars since 2015.
These and many other gains for Russia came with a pretty high cost for its military and diplomacy. According to Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies expert Vasyli Kashyn Kremlin’s campaign in Syria came at a cost of approximately 2 billion dollars. In turn, Russian official never actually disclosed the exact figures. The only moment of truth was when president Vladimir Putin confessed in March 2016 that Russia spent 464 million dollars during the first seven months of their military campaign. However, later this number was rebuffed by the president’s press-secretary Dmitri Peskov.
Same situation with the number of troops Russia lost during its campaign. In accordance with the official record of Ministry of Defense, 72 Russian servicemen and officers were killed during Syrian campaign. In addition to that, Russia acknowledged having lost another three military jets and seven helicopters. However, some sources include additional 70 deaths of Russian mercenaries from private military companies and more than 100 Russians killed during American air raid in Eastern Syria in February 2018.
In political sense Russia has three fundamental points lost in Syria which will certainly backlash in the near future if nothing is done about it.
First of all, new regional alliances forged out of heat of battles on Syrian soil led to gradual worsening of Russian-Kurdish ties. Historically, relations between Russians and Kurds have been mostly friendly since Soviet times. But after Kremlin formed a closer partnership with Ankara and Tehran, Kurds had to turn to the United States. This led to a dangerous standoff between Russian-backed Syrian pro-government forces and US-backed Kurdish fighters in Eastern Syria near critical oil and gas fields. Russian airforce even conducted several strikes on Kurdish positions in the east. American military retaliated in February when bombed pro-government troops near the town of Khasham in Deir-Ezzor province killing more than 100 troops including Russian citizens.
Moreover, Syrian conflict led to an unprecedented dismantlement of Russian-American relations. Neither Moscow nor Washington don’t have direct and robust contacts over Syrian issue. After the US rocket bombing of Syrian territory in April 2017 the bilateral dialogue further declined with the low-point reached in December 2017 when Russia hosted the highly antagonized by Washington Sochi Syrian conference.
Finally, Russia worsened its international image. Ironically, Russian campaign in Syria was aimed at forming a positive and attractive image of a global player capable of countering international terrorism networks. But it backlashed and now Moscow is closely seen as the main advocate of Syrian government which is often accused of allegedly conducting war crimes, mass killings, intentional bombing of humanitarian objects and using chemical weapons.
The strategic goals set up by Russian leaders ahead of their Syrian campaign were partially achieved. Russia is still far from been considered as the dominant force in the Levant and several key regional players are still to be appeased by Moscow in order to finish forging its image as the new dominant force in the Middle East. This includes Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia did everything it could to present its Syrian efforts as a big victory of President Vladimir Putin against his main enemy: the West. It was of special interest to promote this discourse ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in March 2018 which saw Putin’s swift reelection. Now Russia is turning away from military operations and gradually taking on the peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts in a post-war Syria. Without a strong multilateral approach in stabilizing its status-quo, Russia could not retain its positions in Syria and hence bring an end to the conflict under its own conditions. However, Russian peace process and its postwar politics being shaped now are facing the very new challenges and problems which had been long lying under the thick layer of sand in the Syrian Desert. These new challenges brought up before Russia and their allies after the dust settled will dominate the political and diplomatic discourse throughout 2018 and beyond.
With the battle of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus unfolding at the end of February 2018 Russian and Syrian governments came to an abrupt collision over a number of issues where they have always stood on different sides of the trench. In fact, Eastern Ghouta has become the apotheosis of Russian-Syrian friction having been poisoning bilateral relations since 2015 albeit in a latent form. Starting from January 2018 when Turkey, greenlighted by Russia, invaded northern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, Syrian government has been vigorously protesting that move. Although Syrians never talked of Russia been responsible for giving Turkey away with the occupation of northern Syrian provinces, this message has been circulating Damascus since then. Part of the Syrian military and Bashar Al-Assad and his team became especially frustrated with the latest Russian moves toward a political settlement in Syria. By allowing Turkey to attack Kurds in Syria’s northern Aleppo province Russia intended to pressure Washington and put their relations with Kurds on test. However, for the Syrians and Assad himself Turkish operation was a mere occupation – the second in only two years which constitutes an existential threat to the territorial integrity of the Syrian state and contradicts Assad’s ultimate goal – regain all lost territory and return to pre-2011 status-quo. Hence, Assad directly supported Kurdish forces in Afrin by allowing them to transport supplies through government-controlled Aleppo. This infuriated Ankara which demanded Moscow and Tehran to intervene and pressure Assad.
The same collision came during Eastern Ghouta campaign. This operation from the very beginning was Syrian initiative. Eastern Ghouta enclave was long a direct threat for Damascus. Though contained inside, the Ghouta militants tied down thousands of Syrian governmental troops which were needed in other regions to combat more menacing enemies – Turkey, US-led SDF and Idlib-based Al-Qaeda. Moscow supported the military operation in Eastern Ghouta. But the problem was that both Syria and Russia had different approaches to it. Kremlin viewed this offensive more as a psychological tool to pressure militants and their donors Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Given the partnership between Russians and Turks in northern Syria annoying Ankara by a large-scale operation to destroy some of its loyal islamists in Eastern Ghouta was a bad idea. However, the Syrian government saw it in another way. From the outset of the operation “Damascus Steel” the Syrian military planned to close this question once and for all. This led to a conflict between the Syrian Supreme Military Command generals and Russian military advisers. And when the operation began, the Syrian army threw all its forces to totally crush the militants - not only Al Qaeda-linked terrorists from the Tahrir Al-Sham coalition or even hardline Islamists from the Faylaq Al-Rahman group but also the Jaysh Al-Islam coalition which at first wasn’t meant to be destroyed. The two opposite views of the operation ultimately collided on February 25 when the UN Security Council passed the resolution 2401 urging all parties to cease hostilities. Despite the fact that Russia supported the text of the resolution and took an active role in its conclusion, the Syrian government was uninterested by it and continued the operation not paying attention even to Russian Defense Ministry’s calls to begin peace talks with the militants.
The arising problems in communication between Syria and Russia are rooted in a deeper and more complex phenomenon that once menaced the American presence in the Middle East and finally threw the US out of Syria. The name of this phenomenon is Syrian Arab nationalism. It has always been an interesting feature of Syrian domestic and foreign policy. After the BAAS party came to power in Syria in 1940s Arab nationalism became a state ideology. Its ideas were cultivated to mobilize population against the enemies, primarily the USA, Israel and. Over time, Arab nationalism has become the main component that patched the nation together. Today, Syria is one of the few Arab countries that, since the end of the First World War, managed to form a nation, despite the fact that the borders of the state were drawn by the Europeans artificially, and the Arab people were divided into different "nations" which had never existed before: Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese. But Syria managed to lay down the foundation for its own national identity.
Ironically, today Russia is facing the very same nationalism, which for decades played in favor of Kremlin’s efforts to undermine the West. With hundreds of troops on the Syrian land, dozens of aircrafts in the sky, and close political ties with Syrian elites Moscow dragged itself into the heart of this Arab kingdom with a radical form of nationalism. What emerged as the most powerful weapon against the Americans began to undermine Russia, albeit not in such a manner than the US given the corresponding historical background. Dramatic decline of the number of Russian diplomats specializing in Middle Eastern Affairs after the collapse of the Soviet Union escalated the problem for the majority of the most experienced diplomats on the Middle East are by now diseased or retired. There is no new generation which is concentrated on MENA region and this has become the reason for Russia’s communication crisis with some countries partially including Syria.
For Syrians their land, flag and name of the country are sacred things, the basis of statehood. With the onset of Syrian conflict in 2011, the country saw a strong consolidation of people around the idea of protecting the homeland from external and internal enemies, the containment of radical Islamism (the historic enemy of nationalists) and the preservation of their own homes and land. Polarization of the society has led to partial radicalization of both nationalist and Islamist views of people on both sides. As the intensity of the war grew the Syrian authorities mobilized people cultivating nationalistic views and bringing up specific images of the enemy: Turks, Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Saudis and others. The radicalization of Syrian society has led to reconsideration of the main symbols of the state - the land, the Constitution, the name, the flag, the anthem. They eventually were turned into some kind of sacred artifacts, the loss of which would mean the loss of the country. Therefore, all state propaganda began to promote the idea of “regaining all the Syrian territory”. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise when the Syrian government became angry with Russia's initiatives to change the Syrian Constitution, particularly changing the name of the country from the “Syrian Arab Republic” to “the Syrian Republic”.
Therefore, with the Syrian government fueling nationalist ideas among people, Russia, which began to work directly with Syrians on the ground, found itself increasingly difficult to cooperate with its allies without harming their national feelings. All in all, it was Russia’s ultimate goal to end the Syrian conflict with a somehow rigged political solution comprising all regional players. However, for the Arabs (especially Syrians) bidding about territories and various intrigues over the fate of people are signs of a shameful coward policy which, as they say, are more common with Europeans and Saudis. Hence, Syrian nationalism is becoming the first obstacle Russia has encountered in Syria during its military campaign.
The second major challenge for Russians today is its own alliance with Iran and Turkey. Despite their “situational marriage”, all three countries have their own interests and goals in Syrian war. The main problem for Turkey is the “Kurdish issue”. Ankara plans to eliminate the threat of Syrian Kurds on their borders and to form “security zones” in the border areas leaving these Syrian territories under their firm control. In the strategic perspective, these lands can be either “sold out” during international negotiations with a pro-Turkish local administration in place or left under Ankara’s control further changing the demographics of the population in favor of Turks.
In turn, Russia plans to end the war with international political negotiations which would bring the US and EU to recognize Moscow’s dominant role in the Levant. Kremlin's bid was made to preserve Bashar Al-Assad in power as a guarantor of domestic political stability and further federalization of the country. Unlike in 2015, the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad does not feel himself at the brink of collapse today. Moreover, nowadays he even promotes the idea of a “total victory” and the return of all territories under the control of the central government. If Moscow is clearly willing to make some political concessions to several players in the region like Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Kurds, then Damascus is not going to buy this and instead ready to give some limited autonomy only to the Syrian Kurds. Similarly, if Russia considers the “Lebanese model” of power-sharing applicable for Syria it is absolutely out of question for Damascus.
Additionally, Iran is the third winning player in Syria whose interests are worth noting. From the outset of the conflict Tehran supported the Syrian government as part of its broad regional war with Saudi Arabia and Israel. One of Iran's major geo-economic challenges was the construction of a gas pipeline through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea with an entrance to the European market. For Russia, such gas competition is unacceptable, so Kremlin is in no hurry to withdraw its forces entirely from Syria. In addition, Russia is struggling to balance the interests of Israel, with which it maintains good relations, with that of Iran. The latter is actively developing logistic communications with its main allies on the ground - the Shiite Hezbollah movement in neighboring Lebanon. This is a disturbing sign for Israel, which has already developed a plan to create “security zones” on Syrian borders. Unlike Iran, which is aggressively opposed to the Israeli forces near Syria, the Russian Federation partially shares concerns of Tel-Aviv about pro-Iranian forces amassing the border regions in western Syria. Therefore, when Syrian air defense systems shot down the Israeli F-16 over Western Ghouta, Moscow did everything to avoid ruining relations with Tel-Aviv and settling the situation peacefully.
Iran is one of the long-standing allies of the Syrian authorities. The influence of Tehran on decision-making in the high offices of Damascus is sometimes even greater than that of Russians. And given the above-described communication problems of Moscow in dealing with Syrians, Iran often overplays Russia. Iran's ground forces play a much larger role in Syria during numerous military operations. The only advantage of Moscow is the domination in the skies and the supply of weapons, especially that of heavy equipment. And the less Assad is threatened by various anti-governmental groups, the less Russia is actually needed in Syria. Therefore, Russia is trying to preserve some enclaves as vases of instability to justify its military presence in Syria and deter Iranian influence.
In this context, the battle for Eastern Ghouta near Damascus has become a confrontation between Russian and Iranian military advisers. Tehran actively supports the nationalist rhetoric of Syrian generals and advocates the elimination of all possible strongholds of anti-government forces in Syria, except for the Kurds. Iran is also hostile to the military adventures of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which further exacerbates the relationship along Tehran-Moscow-Ankara tripartite allied line. Hence, after the cessation of major hostilities the allies themselves will begin competing over leverages on the Syrian government and reconstruction efforts of post-war Syria.
Along other challenges for Russian involvement in Syria could be a new war with the Kurds in north-east, rise of Islamist insurgency, showdown with Turkey, competition with ever more powerful China and further worsening relations with the West. All in all, Russian dangerous liaisons with Tehran, Ankara and Tel-Aviv aimed at driving out the US could eventually bring about the so desired goals but could also pose a threat to Russian vital interests after the war.
The Russian Middle East campaign has become one of the most active and most dynamic foreign policy projects of Kremlin since the end of the Cold War. Although Russia has gained more than lost by now, next few years will show how successful will Moscow be in capitalizing on these results. It depends on how the war will end, which role Russia will have in future political agreement over Syria and what relations will Kremlin maintain by the end of the war. Nowadays Russia is facing an existential dilemma in Syria: is Moscow going to leave Syria after political settlement or play in a long run and stay there indefinitely so as not to let its rival Iran to benefit from what is seen on Kremlin as Russian efforts toward ending the conflict and dismantling ISIS terrorist network. Furthermore, Syria is being transformed in a kind of a Russian asset which could be easily “traded” on something more vital for Moscow’s interests elsewhere. But again – this depends on Russian constant military and political presence in Syria. Given the dreadful economic and humanitarian situation in a post-war country, it is unlikely Russia is going to afford itself to contribute fully to reconstruction process alone. This means that some other countries should be included in the process, and this also comprises an interesting dilemma for Russians: whom they are ready to embrace as a partner for stabilizing Syria?
After the successful presidential elections in Russia, Vladimir Putin will do his best to end the Syrian campaign by forging a robust political agreement under Russian conditions and on Russian-led international platform like Astana or Sochi. And even after the US will be driven out of Syria, it remains unclear how will Russia contain is presence in the Levant for years to come.