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Russia’s policy in the Middle East imperilled by the Syrian intervention

Russian Sukhoi Su-25 at Latakia, October, 2015. Wikicommons/ D-ANUR. Some rights reserved.The Middle East is the only area where Russia can try to
prove that it is not just a regional post-Soviet power with
a revisionist agenda, but a global actor able to make a difference in managing crucial conflicts. A key reference
point for President Vladimir Putin in this regard is the
success of his September 2013 initiative to dismantle the
Syrian chemical arsenal and prevent U.S. missile strikes
against government targets. Syria has also become a central battleground in the ideological struggle against
the threat of revolutions, which Putin elucidated in his
address to the UN General Assembly on September 28th
2015.

Several shifts in the Middle Eastern political landscape
during 2015 propelled Putin toward a direct use of force.
The conclusion of the difficult negotiations on the Iranian
nuclear programme in the P5+1 format has produced the
prospect of western sanctions being lifted and the Iranian
economy being opened for international business, which
could reduce the usefulness of Russia’s special relations
with Iran. The Russian strategic partnership with Turkey,
which was shaped by the personal rapport between Putin
and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been
significantly eroded, so Moscow was less restrained by the
risk of upsetting this relationship. The forces of the Asad
regime in Syria had suffered several defeats in the summer
battles with opposition groups of various persuasions, so
that Latakia province (the home base of the Asad clan) had
come under threat—and Moscow saw an urgent need to strengthen the grip on power of this key ally in the struggle
against revolutions.

The intervention

The ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine has only been in place
since the start of September 2015, and by orchestrating
this pause in hostilities, Moscow has created for itself an
opportunity to execute a limited intervention elsewhere,
even if its army’s most combat-capable battalions are tied
up inside or near the Donbass war zone. The character of
operations in this “hybrid war” has been such that the
Russian air force was not engaged, so several squadrons of
tactical aircraft were available for deployment in Syria.

The decision to establish an air base in the reasonably safe
vicinity of Latakia was taken in early September (perhaps
immediately after Putin’s return from a military parade in
Beijing). The working assumption was that the capacity of
the naval facility at Tartus was sufficient for delivering
supplies and that the road connection (about 75 km)
between the port and the base was quite secure, so the
bulk of weapons, equipment and supplies for making the
airbase serviceable were shipped in the following three to
four weeks. 

Russian air and missile strikes have been primarily targeting the forces of opposition groupings other than IS.

The active phase of the intervention started on the last day
of September and was justified in Russian statements as
part of the implementation of Putin’s initiative to build a
broad international coalition against the Islamic State (IS).
In fact, however, Russian air and missile strikes have been primarily targeting the forces of other opposition groupings
(ranging from the al-Nusra Front to the Free Syrian Army),
which were surprised but not badly hurt by these attacks.
Bombing other “terrorists” was the only way for Russia to
make a difference against the background of the relentless
(if not that successful) air campaign of the U.S.-led coalition. The composition of the Russian air regiment in Syria
(including a squadron of Su-25SM light fighter-bombers
and a squadron of Mi-24 attack helicopters) indicates that it
is best suited for close air support. This high-risk mission
can only be performed in support of an offensive by
government forces aimed at securing Latakia province
from attacks from the north, where the al-Nusra Front had
been gaining ground. Several attempts at launching such
an offensive were indeed made, but the results were
miniscule.

A key condition for any serious offensive is for the situation
around Damascus to be stablised – the capital city remains
the centre of gravity in the deadlocked civil war. Govern-
ment forces are only able to control this battleground with
the help of Hizbullah troops, but Russian squadrons dare
not fly missions there while Israel continues to carry out
airstrikes on Hizbullah targets.

Regional responses

During summer 2015, President Putin engaged in unprecedented high-level networking in the Middle East in an
attempt to promote his initiative to organise a broad anti-IS
coalition that would include the Asad regime. The meetings
with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Saudi defence minister
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian president Abdel
Fattah al-Sisi and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan
confirmed that there was broad support for an active
Russian role in the region—but also that nobody (with the
obvious exception of Iran) was ready to make Asad a part of
any solution for the Syrian disaster. Putin was aware that
his address to the UN General Assembly would not change
this attitude, but had reason to believe that a forceful
intervention would compel regional leaders to take the
Russian initiative seriously. The most important of these
reasons was the obvious failure of international efforts to
manage the Syrian crisis, which produced a major threat to
global security in the form of IS—and a major spillover in
the form of the wave of refugees arriving in Europe.

While the confusion is profound indeed, Putin has seriously
misconstrued this opportunity. Russia has become a party
to the Syrian calamity, but hardly a contributor to a solution.
Russia’s hard-gained rapport with Arab leaders has been
lost as a result of their feeling misled by Putin and upset by
his disregard for their opinions. They are dismayed by
Russia’s choice of closer cooperation with Iran in Syria and
tend to agree with U.S. president Barack Obama that the intervention is a “recipe for disaster” (Bloomberg, 2015).

Demotix/Liberation KaFranbel. All rights reserved.Israel—which has cultivated its own dialogue with Moscow—is particularly concerned that large amounts of modern
weapons could fall into the hands of Hizbullah, which to all
intents and purposes has become Russia’s military ally.
Turkey found itself exposed to new security risks when
Russian aircraft deliberately violated its airspace, so
President Erdogan initiated a joint statement with Qatar and
Saudi Arabia (as well as Western coalition partners)
condemning Russian airstrikes on Syrian opposition forces. Erdogan was so offended by Putin’s betrayal of trust in their
special relationship that he threatened to cut gas imports
from Russia and cancel Rosatom’s contract to build the
Akkuyu nuclear power plant. Public opinion on Russia in
the region, which showed high levels of disapproval at the
start of 2015—80 percent expressed unfavourable views in Jordan,
74 percent in Israel and 64 percent in Turkey (Stokes, 2015)—might turn
even more aggressively negative. 

Prospects and consequences

Sustaining the air campaign at an intensity of 30-50 sorties a
day is difficult, given the low preparedness of the Hmeymim
base and stretched lines of sea/air communications.
Setbacks of various sorts, from technical accidents—the
Russian air force has a dismal record of crashes (Baev, 2015)—to terrorist attacks on the perimeter of the base, are
certain to happen. It is possible that the arrival of Russian
forces will promote cooperation among feuding opposition
groupings that could combine to defeat the “infidels”.
Expanded support to the Free Syrian Army by the U.S. and
Turkey and the overstretch of Syrian government forces,
which have to defend several major cities, primarily
Damascus, could lead to a rebel victory in Aleppo and
advances in the north of Latakia province, which Russian
airstrikes will not be able to check.

By intervening militarily in Syria the Russian leadership has engaged in a risky gamble with a short-term horizon.

Such developments would push Russia into the “mission-creep” trap typical of many ill-conceived interventions.
Keeping the air war going means wasting the initial effect
of the initiative and waiting for troubles sooner rather than
later; expanding the intervention by deploying two or three
tactical battalion groups (of about 1,000 troops each) to
Latakia would stretch Russian strategic mobility capabili-
ties to the limit and increase domestic concerns; and a withdrawal would mean a humiliating loss of face. One
way of escaping from this trap could be created by the
recently opened Vienna talks.

Moscow seeks to present the expanded format of these
talks—and in particular the engagement of Iran—as a
major diplomatic victory on its part. In fact, however, the
gathering of 19 delegations has little in common with
Putin’s “broad coalition”, firstly because there is no place
for Assad around the table, while even Iran is more interested in ending its long isolation than recuing the dictator-in-distress. The Vienna talks could constitute a step
toward shaping a more coherent U.S. and EU policy, but
this would reduce Moscow’s opportunities to play on the
confusion inherent in the Syrian situation.

Regional stakeholders in the Syrian crisis were perhaps
impressed by Russia’s boldness in launching an intervention with minimal coordination, but after six weeks of
bombing they have made reasonably good assessments of
the limits of this projection of power. Russia’s attempt to
expand the scope of its air campaign in response to the
IS-planted bomb that destroyed Metroject Flight 9268 over
the Sinai on October 31st 2015 by using its strategic
bombers to launch cruise missiles has not changes these
assessment in any significant way. Initial reactions were
mixed, but as the air war has reached its capacity, the
balance of opinion has shifted to the negative, not least
because of Moscow’s total disregard of civilian casualties in
the targeting of air strikes. Some voices (particularly in
Egypt) are still arguing for the further integration of Russia
into the joint work on stabilising and reconstructing the
Syria-Iraq war zone, and Moscow has indicated readiness
to contribute to a negotiated solution. The only real contribution it could make to such a solution would be to help
peacefully dismantle the Asad regime, which would hardly
signify a strengthening of Russia’s authority and influence
in the wider Middle East.

By intervening militarily in Syria the Russian leadership has
abandoned its policy of cautious opportunistic manoeuvring
in the Middle East and engaged in a risky gamble with a short-term horizon. Arab leaders (as well as Israel) are
increasingly inclined to agree with U.S. conclusions on the
lack of strategy in President Putin’s enterprise (Schleifer &
Scott, 2015) and recognise that he is far more interested in
scoring geopolitical points than in solving the Syrian
problem and has a propensity to covering one mistake with
another blunder. Whatever the fate of this Russian intervention, however, it has succeeded in increasing the
pressure on western stakeholders to stop temporising and
produce a feasible plan for rebuilding Syria. 

Originally published
by NOREF on November 27, 2015.

References

Baev, P. K. 2015. “Russian air power is too brittle for
brinkmanship.” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo. November. 

Bloomberg. 2015. “Obama: Putin’s Syria strategy is ‘recipe
for disaster’.” October 2. 

Schleifer, T. & E. Scott. 2015. “James Clapper: Vladimir
Putin in Syria is ‘winging this’.” CNN, October 30. 

Stokes, B. 2015. “Russia, Putin held in low regard around
the world: Russia’s image trails U.S. across all regions.”
Pew Research Center, August 5. 

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