After being isolated due to his aggression towards Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently back in the game. This time it is far from his traditional sphere of influence: Syria.
Under Mr. Putin’s leadership, Russia has sent armaments and warplanes to Syria without any coordination with the United States and coalition forces fighting the Islamic State or ISIS. This development has caught Washington by surprise, and is now mulling on how to respond to this latest Russian intervention. While Russia deems it legitimate to secure its interests by helping the Assad regime in its struggle of survival against ISIS and other armed groups in the country, it also has a major geopolitical agenda that needs to be taken seriously by the US and rest of the western nations.
And that is Russia will not accept a regime change in Damascus by the US, as occurred in Iraq and Libya. For President Putin, regime changes in the aforementioned two states have led to the rise of terrorism and extremism in the region. In addition, his efforts to bolster Assad must be seen as Russia supporting its only ally in the region, and a country that has had a longstanding relationship with Russia over the decades. Another reason is to maintain its strategic naval base in Latakia region that is essential in projecting Russian military power across the Middle East and Mediterranean Sea.
To this end, Russia will commit itself via whatever political and military efforts it takes to support the Al-Assad regime to hold on to power and fight the Islamic State and perhaps other opposition groups inside Syria.
There is no doubt that Russia’s decision under the guise of fighting ISIS and helping Assad will further complicate the Syrian dilemma and make it much harder to find a political settlement for the already war-ravaged country. Furthermore, a Russian military buildup is also in stark contrast to the US strategy in the region, particularly with regard to the issue of Syria’s future. For the United States, a political settlement sans Assad and his associates in power is the key to end the current Syrian crisis. While Russia’s aim is to support Assad and his forces, which Washington believes is responsible for killing of hundred thousands of its own innocent civilians. The United States also sees Assad in power as magnet for various groups to fight in Syria due to his ruthless force against, and suppression, of his own people.
Given these widespread rifts between the United States and the Russian Federation in their policies toward Syria, it is highly unlikely that the two countries would reach an agreement that could effectively fight the Islamic State, as well as bring an end to the current bloodshed in Syria.
Russia has also stepped up building its own coalition against the Islamic State that according to US officials will not serve a good cause in the current fight against ISIS. The Russian coalition, which consists of regional countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syrian regime, will coordinate military and intelligence operations against ISIS and other extremist groups. According to some reports, Russian military and intelligence personnel have already reached Baghdad in order to set up a command and control center that can ensure unity of efforts among coalition countries.
Moreover, it appears that Mr. Putin’s goal behind building the coalition is to show that he does not only want to have Assad in power, but also to fight the Islamic State with what he calls real and genuine partners. Indeed, it is interesting to see Iraq — a major US ally — inside the new coalition formed by Russia.
While it may seem odd, if not unthinkable, to see Iraq work with the Russians against the will of the United States by allowing access to its airspace for the Russian planes to transport military cargoes to Syria and share vital intelligence, for Baghdad it is all about the defeat of ISIS. The main reason that Iraq is eager to join the Russian coalition is because Washington has been loath to support the Shia-led government without any significant Sunni representation to fight the Islamic State. Now that the Russians are keen to help the Iraqis against ISIS, Baghdad is more hopeful that the Russian intervention could lead to a paradigm shift on the battlefields against the seemingly invincible forces of ISIS. That help is something the Iraqis have been expecting from the United States for a long time.
It is important to note that while the United States and Russia may not agree on every aspect of their respective strategies towards Syria, one common factor that can bring the two major powers together is the threat from the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in the region. The two states are cognizant of the fact that ISIS shares equal animosity towards Russia and the US and will seize every opportunity to inflict harm.
Therefore, this very threat should prompt the two countries to coordinate their military strategies in order to eradicate an invasive cancer that has already spread across the Middle East and is rapidly gaining footholds in different regions. As for the future of Syria, the US and Russia again may not agree on every strategy due to their conflicting geopolitical interests in the region, however, they can certainly work towards a political solution that can eventually lead to a peaceful transition of power from the Assad regime. This could take place by a moderate political force that can stabilize and rebuild the once peaceful, united and colorful Syria.
*Ahmad Murid Partaw, former Afghan Senior National Representative SNR to the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and a recent graduate of Political Science from the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, FL. His research focuses on Afghan politics and the Middle East. He is an Alumni of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA) as well as United States Special Operations Command (SSOCOM) and Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). His most recent piece, The Dynamics of Peace and Political Change in Afghanistan, was published in Foreign Policy Journal FPJ.