By K. P. Fabian
Since 30 September, Russia has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria at the request of Bashar al-Assad, the country’s beleaguered President fighting for political survival since 2011. Assad now controls, and that too only in a manner of speaking, about a third of Syria. His army, once about 300,000, has shrunk to 100,000 or less. Assad admitted in a BBC interview (10 February 2015) that his depleted army at times had to surrender some less important territory in order to retain control over more important territory elsewhere. As a matter of fact, but for the strong and consistent support, military, financial, and diplomatic given by Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah, there is every reason to believe that Assad might have shared the fate of Ghaddafi.
Russia had, to its great regret, abstained on a 2011 Security Council motion moved by the West vaguely permitting intervention in Libya for the security of the civilian population. The West, in Russia’s view, made use of that resolution to start a bombing campaign to remove Ghaddafi from power. Incidentally, the decision to abstain was made by then President Medvedev without the knowledge of Prime Minister Putin who became furious upon learning about it.
Though the Russian bombing seems to have startled the West and the rest, the West knew about five weeks ago that Russia had begun to build up its military assets in Syria. Russia has virtually taken over the Bassel al-Assad air base in Latakia, Syria’s principal port city. [It may be noted that Bassel, groomed by Hafiz al Assad (president from 1971 to 2000) to succeed him, died in a car accident in 1994 making way for Bashar.] Russia has assembled 32 fighter jets, drones, Mi-24 attack helicopters, and even four SU-30 Flankers for its mission. Latakia is in the heartland of the Alawites whose domination of Syria started with Hafiz’s accession to power.
Here it is worth noting that Putin played a game of deception on the US, with partial success. When Russia started building up its military assets in Latakia, an impression was given out that it was concerned about the Islamic State conducting operations in Russia one day and it therefore finds it preferable to fight the IS in Syria itself. Foreign Minister Lavrov asked his US counterpart whether there should be military-to-military talks on the IS. After the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, Washington had cancelled such talks. After some hesitation, Obama gave the green signal and on 18 September Defence Secretary Carter spoke on phone with his Russian counterpart Shoygu. The Pentagon spokesman said Carter and Shoygu “talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap and areas of divergence”, and added that Carter had
“emphasized the importance of pursuing such consultations in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria. He noted that defeating ISIL and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time.”
The two interlocutors agreed to talk again. The media reported that they talked about “de-confliction”, meaning how to avoid running into each other when two air forces are active in the same air space. Kerry came out with a statement that Assad need not go “on day one” a political agreement on transition is arrived at in modification of the position taken by his government till now. Putin and Obama decided to meet in New York. There was some quarrel as to who asked for a meeting.
Putin spoke at UN 28 September after Obama who had scathingly criticized Russia over Ukraine. Obama made it clear that Bashar al Assad who was killing his people with barrel bombs should be out as part of a settlement. Putin asserted the opposite. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face,” Putin said. “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurd militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.” He suggested a “broad international coalition against terrorism” that would be similar to the World War II-era coalition that united the Soviet Union, the US, Britain, France, and China against Hitler’s Germany despite their various disagreements. He said Russia, as the current president of the Security Council, will soon convene a ministerial meeting on extremist threats in the Middle East.
The same day, Obama and Putin met for 90 minutes. The meeting was neither cordial nor productive. The two met at a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki- moon and raised glasses, with Obama looking stern and Putin trying to smile. Within 48 hours, the bombing started after the US Embassy in Baghdad was informed by a Russian military official working at the recently established centre in Baghdad for sharing of intelligence among Russia, Iran, and Iraq. The mode of passing on the information contained a message. Russia could have done it in Washington through its Embassy. Instead, the Russian official in Baghdad asked the US to ground all its flights for the sake of ‘de-confliction’. The US was not amused and it carried out only one sortie on day one.
Did the US believe that Russia was finally going to bomb only IS targets? Probably. If so, it miscalculated the intentions of Russia. As the bombing continued, it was abundantly clear that Russia was bombing mainly non-IS rebels including some that the US is supporting. There is good military logic in Russia’s choice of targets. The prime motive was to shore up the crumbling Assad regime and it is the non-IS rebels who are currently posing a threat to Assad. Would Obama have agreed to meet Putin if the US had known that in 48 hours US-supported rebels would be bombed by Russia?
Though initially Russia had claimed that it was targeting the IS, soon it clarified that it was going to hit all terrorists. As far as Assad is concerned, all armed opposition to him consists of terrorists. Faced with criticism for not bombing the IS, Russia did bomb some IS targets. The targets hit by Russia include armed groups supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, and their allies. Senator McCain was one of the first to say that US-supported rebels have been hit.
There have been reports that Iran might send ground troops and these along with the Hezbollah might cash in on the damage caused by the Russian bombing and try to capture territory. However, it is too soon to say whether Iran has sent ground troops.
Will Russia bomb IS targets in Iraq? Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has stated that he would welcome Russian bombing of IS targets in his country. This shows his frustration with the US-led bombing of IS targets in Iraq for a year without any significant weakening of the IS. However, Lavrov has clarified that there are no plans to do any bombing in Iraq. He might change his position.
Are we witnessing a triangular relationship in the making among Iran, Iraq, and Russia? As of now, Russia and Iran are working together. So are Iran and Iraq. The triangular relationship is likely to get stronger.
What are the motivations and goals of Russia? Western media have speculated that Putin wanted to stage a comeback to the Middle East as a Great Power after the exit of the Soviet Union from the region in the 1970s. Perhaps, that motivation is there up to a point. But, the immediate impact of Russia’s action is the shoring up of the Assad regime which was hitherto crumbling. It is doubtful whether Assad would be able to regain lost territory lost, but he might stop losing more.
Will the action of Russia make it easier to find a negotiated political agreement on transition among Syrians? Most unlikely. In fact, the chances of holding a meeting between Assad’s representatives and the multitudinous rebel groups and making them agree on a transition are rather slim. This is primarily because the rebels are in a way united only on one goal, namely, removing Assad from power. There is a formula often repeated, by Assad and some others, namely, let the Syrians decide for themselves. This formula does not make any sense since more than half of the 22 million population are displaced, with more than 4 million out of Syria. Even within Syria, there are four broad divisions: Assad, IS, Kurds, and a variety of armed groups. As of now it looks as though Syria has been cut into many pieces and there is no way that the pieces can be put together to resurrect Syria as a single political entity. Therefore, what is urgently required is a cease-fire to put an end to senseless killings. But, hardly anyone in authority in or out of Syria is interested in seeking such a solution.
What has been the response to the Russian bombing campaign of the US and other countries?
President Obama has harshly criticised the Russian bombing. It will lead Russia into a “quagmire”. For Secretary Carter, the bombing by Russia is a recipe for disaster. The US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have called upon Russia to stop bombing non-IS targets, but to no avail. By sending four SU-30 Flankers capable of air-to air action to Latakia, Russia has sent a warning to Turkey which wants a no-fly zone along its border with Syria. Egypt has endorsed Russia. It is to be noted that Egypt has run the risk of incurring the displeasure of Saudi Arabia, its main aid giver.
But what are these countries likely to do? Will Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide the rebels they support with missiles to bring down planes? Till now, they have followed Washington’s advice not to part with sophisticated weapons lest they land up in wrong hands. Obama is right when he said that Putin has added fuel to the fire.
To conclude, as of now it appears that it is a stalemate with no final winners. The only painful certainty is unending bloodshed and more Syrians seeking refuge in Europe. Recently an Indian newspaper carried a story that the refugee crisis faced by Europe is the largest since the end of World War II. Obviously, media memory is short and it cannot recall the 10 million refugees who came to India before the birth of Bangladesh.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India. Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/RussianMilitaryInterventioninSyria_kpfabian_061015.html