Russia In The Middle-East: Altering The Geostrategic Environment – Analysis
In the second half of September, Russia moved military forces predominated by air assets, into Bassel al-Assad international airport in the Latakia province of Syria. This deployment made it impossible for the anti-Assad forces to capture the province and also provided a logistics lifeline to the military forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. An-124 transport aircraft and landing ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet started to deliver equipment to the beleaguered Syrian forces. The same supply chain could also be servicing the Hezbollah forces supporting the Assad regime. On 30 September, the Russian military forces started air attacks on targets in the anti-Assad rebel-held territories. By this action Russia demonstrated its expanding political and military influence in the Middle-East and its will to initiate decisive action.
The Russian initiative complicates the situation where the US-led Western coalition is already undertaking a complex air campaign. The Russians are targeting not only the Islamic State (IS) but also all other anti-Assad rebel/jihadist forces, some of whom are directly affiliated to the Western coalition, some even trained and supplied by the US. Although a direct confrontation between the US and Russia is highly unlikely, it confuses the battlespace even further.
There is speculation that Russian air activity is a precursor to the Russian army commencing a joint counter-attack along with Syrian forces, which would mean a more direct involvement for the Russian military. If this comes to pass, the Russian Army would be clashing with the US-supplied and trained Free Syrian Army—a situation fraught with the risk of escalating consequences. A ground campaign will also create a situation where Russia may not be able to avoid mission creep; although it will provide greater flexibility to the overall campaign and provide the ability to scale up or down as required.
From the start of the Syrian Civil War four years ago, Russia has articulated the need for the survival of the Assad regime to enable a peaceful political transition. In the past few months a controlled regime transition has become the steadfast aim of Russian political, diplomatic and military initiatives. While the survival of the regime is indeed the priority objective, it is a short-term goal, the survival of the Syrian state as an entity being the ultimate aim.
Essentially Russia is protecting its national interests: first, Assad is being supported to be used later as a bargaining tool when the inevitable regime change has to take place as and when the volatile situation has been stabilised; and second, Russia will not give up the naval base at Tartus, the only Russian base in the Mediterranean and critical to power projection. By protecting the Assad regime from the current onslaught, Russia is also ensuring that it has a decisive role in determining the future of Syria—with or without Assad at the helm—and thereby becoming the most influential power broker in the region.
Towards this end Russia has entered into an understanding on intelligence sharing with Syria, Iraq and Iran, clearly indicating that it will not let Assad be removed in a hurry. The move took the US and its allies completely by surprise. There is an unstated understanding that the current regime has to transition to a new rule sometime in the not too distant future. Russia wants to control the timing and the modality of such a transition and also have a deciding vote on who will succeed Bashar al-Assad as the leader of the fractured State. It knows that in any negotiated settlement Assad will have an influential position and therefore Assad must remain beholden to Russia at all times. Bashar al-Assad has revealed himself to be a ruthless pragmatist and will play a transitional role that suits Russia, but is likely to drive a hard bargain for his acceptance of regime change when the time comes. However, that eventuality is far into the future, at least for now. With the Russian intervention, the strategic situation has evolved considerably and Russia is clearly implementing a dynamic strategy, the better to protect its interests.
Russia knows that a fully negotiated settlement will only eventuate, if at all, at a much later date and that event then there is no surety of the deal holding in the long-term. It therefore wants to hedge its bets and broaden the target-base and attack all jihadists, irrespective of whether they have been classified ‘good’ and/or ‘moderates’. Smarting under the US and Western enforced sanctions, Russia has carefully crafted a plan to use the Syrian conflict, which the West has not been able to prosecute effectively, to return to the international arena as an influential global power. This is the first step in its calculated move to break out of the Western imposed sanctions and engage with other nations involved in the conflict. The Syrian Civil War has from the beginning been a quagmire, with it becoming increasingly unfathomable as to who is fighting whom and for what. Conflicting national, regional and global interests have become intertwined with irreconcilable sectarian, religious and ideological doctrine.
By initiating decisive action and taking a direct role in the conflict to steadfastly support the Assad regime, Russia has clearly shown the difference between its approach and that of the US, which has been dogged by ambiguity of strategy and changing strategic aims. Like a chess Grand Master at his best, President Putin has aligned his pieces on the board in such a way that the US-led coalition can no longer act alone and ensured that the Islamic State can only be defeated with Russian participation. Isolating Russia is no longer an option for the West. Russia has also guaranteed that Assad’s post-war role is not negotiable—the choices in front of US has suddenly narrowed.
The US and Russia have opposing viewpoints regarding the Assad regime although some commonality of ultimate aims in the Syrian Civil War are also noticeable. The US sees Bashar al-Assad as the source of the current conflict and as providing the jihadist elements an opening into the Levant. It believes that removing Assad will be the first step towards resolution of the crisis. Considering the recent history of the region in Iraq and Libya, this is a rather naïve appraisal of the situation.
Russia on the other hand considers Assad as a bulwark against the further spread of the jihadist groups, a diametrically opposing view and perhaps closer to the truth than is being admitted by the Western coalition.
Even though the short-term goals are at odds with each other, both the US and Russia agree that defeating the IS is a prerequisite for the success of any negotiated transition of political authority in Syria, even though the reasons vary slightly. The IS is a direct threat to Russia with its declaration of the Islamic Caliphate that includes the volatile North Caucasus, already home to a violent jihadist separation movement. Additionally, there are an estimated 1700 Russians fighting in the army of the IS who could return home to foment trouble. The US is opposed to the IS more in an altruistic manner than as a direct threat to the homeland, at least for the present. However, there is no reason that the US and Russian strategic aims cannot be reconciled and aligned.
It has to be accepted that the current strategy of the Western coalition is unlikely to produce the desired end-state in the Syrian conflict. When viewed in a detached manner, three factors come out very clearly as being fundamental to altering the strategy in order to pave the way towards a sustainable stability.
One, functioning governance by local authorities must be established in the areas that are not IS-controlled, including the areas that are still under Assad’s control, in order to improve the credibility of the non-IS factions. Two, enforceable attack free zones within the Syrian borders, where no party is able to attack or coerce the civilian population, must be created. This will be the first step towards ensuring stability that should gradually spread. Three, the Western coalition and the Russian group should negotiate and create a common military strategy to win the war and subsequently to stabilise the future. This can only happen if the US accepts firstly that Assad has a role to play in the transition phase and secondly the importance of Russia as an influential, and perhaps even controlling, factor of the Assad regime.
After the Russian intervention, the options available to the US-led coalition reduced drastically. In fact the only viable solution to stabilise a situation that is spiralling out of control will come from arriving at an understanding for military cooperation, which should then lead to the creation of an effective coalition that involves the regional nations including both Saudi Arabia and Iran. This might sound far-fetched, considering the pervasive hostility between some of the regional countries, but is achievable if both the US and Russia are willing to pressurise their allies to do so. Within this scenario, Assad has to stay in power for the near term to ensure an orderly transfer of power after the IS has been defeated. This three step process is the only way that the IS can be defeated and the region brought back to normalcy.
Not far behind the Syrian imbroglio is the question of Iraq, which is also violently unstable at the moment. The West’s relationship with Iraq vis-à-vis the Iranian influence is vexed. Even so, Iraq has given tacit support for Assad because of the belief that his removal in the current circumstances will only strengthen the IS. Iraq has also permitted Russia to use its airspace to transport weapons and equipment to Syria and even gone to the extent of declaring that it would not be averse to Russian air attacks on IS elements operating in Iraqi territory. There is a definitive feeling that Iraq is cautiously moving away from the stranglehold of US influence.
Impact on the Region and Participants
The Russian initiative has created both short-term and far-reaching consequences for the participants in the conflict as well as for other nations in the region. Israel is the one nation that is not participating directly in the conflict but has constantly involved itself in attempting to steer the course of events as far as possible. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Israel-Russia relationship has been complex with both nations regularly meddling in each other’s spheres of influence. Israel has managed to cultivate strong military-technological relations with a number of former Soviet States.
Almost in return, Russia has staunchly supported Iran and Syria—nations that are inimical to Israel and its perceived security needs. However, both Russia and Israel have maintained an acceptable level of reasoned cordiality in their dealings with each other. Israel is a pragmatic nation with a clear long-term view of its place in the Middle-East and the risks and challenges that it faces. It is not difficult to imagine that Israel and Russia could arrive at a mutually agreed, beneficial security deal.
The Russian air campaign creates impossible complications for Turkey’s strategy to emerge from this conflict as a stronger and more influential player in the region. Turkey’s ultimate aim is to create a pliant Sunni-led Syria that functions fully within Turkey’s own sphere of influence. The critical factor in achieving this is the removal of Assad from power and hence the concerted support to anti-Assad forces and also turning a blind eye to IS activities for a long period of time. The Russian support for Assad through the conduct of an air campaign directly negates Turkish ambitions to create a no-fly ‘safe’ zone in Syrian territory contiguous to its own. A brief background is necessary to understand the implications of recent actions by both nations.
In June 2012, a reconnaissance Phantom of the Turkish Air Force was shot down by Syrian air defence forces. Turkey immediately changed the rules of engagement and started to carryout intrusive interceptions of Syrian Air Force aircraft coming even remotely close to their border. With the start of the air campaign, the reported Russian air violations into Turkish airspace takes on a new meaning. While Russia has dismissed these violations as navigational errors compounded by bad weather, they will have to be seen as a test of Turkey’s ability and will to enforce the changed rules of engagement. Ankara is being dared and is on show.
Turkey under President Erdogan is facing a foreign policy debacle, compounded by the Russian intervention. After being recalcitrant, it opened its air bases to the Western coalition calculating that by doing so it would achieve two objectives—one, that it would hasten the fall of the Assad regime; and two, that it would facilitate Turkey’s own efforts to counter the Kurdish advance along its border with Syria. Defeating the IS is not a priority for Turkey, which declared it a terrorist group only in September 2014. However, Russia now stands as an unmoving obstacle to Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions.
After a recent Erdogan-Putin meeting there was no joint statement made, which is an ominous diplomatic speak for stating that there is ‘respectful’ disagreement between the two nations on matters that were discussed. Russia will not provide even diplomatic support for Turkey’s ambitions regarding the future of Syria, since their own ambition is at odds with that of Turkey. In the meantime Turkey has taken up the fight against the Kurdish groups—the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey—with the real risk of these actions escalating into a full-fledged Turkish civil war. Turkey is suddenly left with very limited alternatives.
Another irksome factor for Turkey is that Russia has become the de facto guarantor-power for the security of Azerbaijan, a nation that has so far been a close ally of Turkey. The strong bilateral relationship that Turkey shared with Russia, especially the personal friendship between Erdogan and Putin, has been buffeted by the deep differences that have surfaced regarding the future of Syria.
The visions are at complete odds with each other. Diplomatic cordiality has now been stretched to the limit and could snap at any time. In these tense times, it only needs a single catalyst for overt animosity to crystallise. At the moment building the pipeline that was to carry Russian gas to Turkey has been kept on hold, an indication of the changed geo-strategic situation.
The United States
Russia-US relations were at an all-time low after Russian interference in Ukraine and the subsequent Western sanctions that were imposed on Russia. Russia believes that the intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea were legitimate actions initiated to secure Russian interests. In this event, it is not surprising that Russia considers the US to be its chief rival.
The US-led coalition’s lack of an articulated strategy to stabilise Syria is seen by Russia as an opportunity to restart a common purpose dialogue with the US, which could subsequently lead to regular bilateral talks and gradual normalisation of relationship. The fact that the US has indirectly indicated that it is not too particular about the time-frame of Assad’s departure, as long as a deliberate and orderly transition plan that will be executed at some future date exists.
In Syria and the fight against the IS, the US has painted itself into a corner. It supported the Free Syrian Army, labelling it the moderate opposition, whose intended aim was to oust the Assad regime. Through a $500 million program run out of Turkey to train soldiers for this ‘moderate’ group, the US was able to produce inly 75 soldiers for insertion into Syria, most of whom scattered at the first sign of the IS with some of them ‘donating’ their weapons and equipment to the al Qaeda elements in Syria. With the IS continuing to further their single-minded focus to create an Islamic Caliphate, getting rid of Assad has slowly, but surely, been moved down the list of prioritised objectives by the US. It is soft-pedalling the initial demand for regime change.
There is thinking that the long-term requirement to remove Assad from power could be achieved with Russia-led negotiations after the defeat of the IS. That the Russians are currently targeting the so-called moderates is now being considered, at least in some quarters of the strategy development area in the US, as a minor inconvenience. So much for the reliability of the US regarding support to friends and allies. Russia’s long-term goals of keeping Ukraine within its circle of influence and getting the economic sanctions lifted just got a fillip with the air campaign in Syria.
The US and Russia have now signed a memorandum of understanding on air safety in the Syrian airspace to minimise the risk of in-flight incidents. The agreement specifies safety protocols, the use of specific communication frequencies and the setting up of a working group to ensure smooth implementation. This is tacit acceptance by the Western coalition that the Russian Air Force cannot be willed away from the battle zone.
It is in its dealings with Europe that Russia’s frustrations at the loss of super power status manifests with great intensity. The loss of influence in the ‘near abroad’ of the Soviet era through the expansion of NATO and the transformative power of the European Union (EU) is anathema to the spread of Russian power and the nationalistic fervour of its leadership.
A united Europe is a potential threat to Russian ambition and therefore, Putin’s strategic goal is to divide, disrupt and interrupt any policy initiatives aimed at achieving some semblance of unity. The creation of energy projects that would pit European nations against each other is one of the moves that facilitates and perpetuates this approach.
Russia’s Syrian initiative is connected to the volatile situation in Ukraine. With the US and Europe pre-occupied with Syria, there is relative calm in Ukraine where the Russia-backed opposition is growing stronger and consolidating its position. Further, the Russian air campaign also has the potential to create dissonance between the US and Europe, especially with the unforeseen refugee crisis that has enveloped Europe, which in turn has increased the terrorist threat in broader Europe. European governments are becoming increasingly anxious and some have even indicated their support for ground intervention. Willingness to put boots-on-the-ground is clear indication of the enormity of the challenge that they face. Europe’s view of Assad is altering with him playing a limited role in the transition process becoming acceptable along with a tacit acceptance of the pivotal role that Russia is likely to play in any such political transition. The US non-success in defeating the IS after more than a year has eroded its credibility and has assisted Putin in his attempt to create European support for his actions in the Middle-East.
The anti-Russian sanctions are expensive and a divisive effort for the European nations who have a long-standing desire to rebuild trade with Russia. Moscow is craftily posing itself as an alternative source of power to Washington and Brussels, playing directly to populist anti-EU parties in most European nations. The aim is to further create disharmony in trans-Atlantic relationships. Russian activities in the Middle-East must not be viewed purely within the geographical boundaries of that region, but strategically in an overarching manner, with an understanding of the angst that Russia suffered immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union that led to the loss of status and power and its very long term aim to once again becoming a global power. Europe is clearly in Russia’s sights.
It is a tense time in Russia-Arab relations. Saudi Arabia has taken few tentative steps towards improving its relationship with Russia by arriving at some agreements on economic cooperation, a move that led to speculations regarding the Saudi-US relations being in the doldrums. However, Saudi Arabia wants Russia to moderate its support for the Assad regime, especially since it supports anti-Assad forces being targeted by the Russian air campaign. There is an inherent risk in this situation since Russian air strikes could lead to inadvertent and unintended military confrontation. The Saudi monarchy is caught in a cleft stick in terms of available options; with the US ability, and perhaps more importantly, reliability, to keep regional opponents in check coming increasingly under a cloud; and the underlying belief that negotiating a full deal on Syria with Russia may lead to unknown and unpredictable consequences both in the short and long term. The US is running out of policy options to placate Saudi Arabia and may not be able to bring it back fully into the American orbit.
For Russia, Saudi Arabia could also turn out to be the joker in the pack. Russia will not have forgotten that Saudi Arabia was the prime mover in its Afghanistan debacle in the 1980s and even now provide support, both materiel and financial, to the Islamic rebels in Russia. It was also Saudi Arabian charities that financed the Chechen rebels in the 1990s. Saudi clerics have already started to paint the Russian intervention in shades of religious hue, calling it a new ‘Christian Crusade’ against Islam.
It is also possible that the Gulf nations could ramp up their support for rebel groups that are operating in the lawless Iraq-Syria region. However, Russia has cautioned the major Arab nations against supplying the jihadists with man-portable air defence systems, which they have said will be a red line, never to be crossed. The questions remain: will the Saudis create and lead a coalition to remove Assad from power, irrespective of the state of the war against the IS? And, if such a situation comes to pass, how will Russia react? Will it start a greater conflagration in the region that could subsume even non-participants in one unholy fire?
First and foremost, it has to be squarely recognised that there has been an inexorable failure of Western strategy in controlling the initial Syrian Civil War and its subsequent explosive expansion through the activities of the IS. The US has so far instituted only half-measures that have not shown any indication of success. The Russian intervention creates a small window of opportunity to initiate a long-term strategy to achieve a political solution. Russia has taken over the Syrian air base from which it can undertake missions across the entire Levant and Eastern Mediterranean and the naval base that gives it unfettered naval access to the Mediterranean Sea. It has also expanded the ground facilities and turned the air base into a major Russian base, indicating an intent for protracted use. Effectively this creates a permanent Russian footprint in the Middle-East with the ability to project power into the Arab world. The foundation for the quest for global status is gradually being laid.
Russia will protect the Assad regime, at least for the near-term, with all its resources. It will demonstrate effectiveness in its campaign and may even try to create another coalition with Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq and Iran to counter the Western coalition. The Iraqi government has already consented to Russian use of its airspace while the Russian air operations constrain the uninhibited freedom of operations that the Western coalition had so far enjoyed.
The violations of Turkish airspace and the reaction that it has provoked increases the chances of miscalculations spiralling out of control. The violations could also be considered probing missions that were meant to test NATO’s ability and willingness to invoke Article V that provides collective defence provisions for member nations, since Turkey is a member. Russian air activity is a serious blow to the credibility of the Western coalition.
Some strategists have opined that Russia is implementing the concept of ‘reflexive control’, a concept built on effectively shaping the environment in such a manner that the adversary is forced to choose a course of action that one wants it to choose, and is ready to counter. The decreasing effectiveness of the Western coalition and their unstated acceptance of the role that the Assad regime will play in a future power transition is a manifestation of this concept. There is already an informal Russia-Syria-Iran axis that has formed making it necessary for the US-led coalition to fundamentally reassess their geo-strategic alignment.
The facts on the ground is that Syria has already been geographically partitioned and there is no reason to believe that the country will return to its pre-war boundaries as a single entity—that is an impossibility. The next phase of the Civil War, which Russia controls, will eventually shape the contour of the region.
The long-term stability of the region is dependent on the ability of the intervening forces to settle the simmering discord in Libya, Iraq and Syria, all created by Western interference and wayward use of force. Russian viewpoint is that there are no jihadist groups that can be termed as moderate and that the difference between them is only their degree of affinity to the IS. All of them have to be treated as terrorists. The Russians have clearly, and cleverly, divided the conflict into Assad versus the rest. Russia has also demonstrated its strategic will to initiate decisive action with a willingness to take and accept risks. At the operational level, the Russian Air Force is functioning under a much more relaxed set of rules of engagement than the Western coalition, which could make a tangible difference in the war against the IS. So far the US and Russia have managed to de-conflict their missions and moves. However, the downside is that despite the flight safety agreements there is no assurance that a wrong tactical action that could lead to a confrontation at the operational level will not be made. This is the reason for some analysts to assert that the Russian intervention will create further geo-strategic disorder.
Russia is now engaged in a long-term game of patience, perseverance and persistence, willing to wait even for the next US administration to take charge and settle down more than 15 months later. It has three strategic objectives to secure. First is emphasising the sanctity and legitimacy of a sovereign government and the non-acceptance of external intervention to effect regime change. Second is to demonstrate Russia’s steadfastness in supporting its friends, in sharp contrast to the track record of the US who is seen to have abandoned its friends at will. Russia wants to be seen as a better ally than the US. However, this could become a double-edged sword. Political inconsistency and nuanced double-standards may not be avoidable in global diplomacy, especially in the prevailing volatile circumstances and Russia might find itself in the same position as the US in the future. This might become apparent to Russia only when it becomes as involved in international politics and interventions as the US has been in the past two decades.
Third, Russia wants to emerge from this conflict as the protector of the minorities in the greater Middle-East. With the IS rampaging across the region, the minorities have lost faith in the ability of the West to protect them and believe that on a number of occasions they have been sacrificed to radical Islam and/or totalitarianism. The IS has deepened the sectarian schism in the Middle-East far beyond at any other time in history. Russia believes that it can use the minorities to create an enhanced Russian influence in the region. This could involve direct involvement of Iran in the endeavour since Russian national interests are more aligned with Iran than with any other nation.
Russia is pragmatic enough to accept that the only way to end this conflict is through a negotiated political settlement. However, the collective defeat of the IS is fundamental to any progress in the political front and such a defeat cannot be achieved by a conditional fight against it. Russia’s advantage is that it is the only entity that has the influence to make Assad compromise and accept a negotiated settlement. Even so, it wants Assad to come to the negotiation table from a position of strength, although he currently controls only about 20 per cent of the country. There is also no chance of bringing the old Syria together without engaging in a bloody and protracted ground war. A future Syria can at best be a federation of quasi-independent states—controlled by Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis and Druze—the Civil War has gone too far to even hope for a reconciled country to emerge.
It is early days as yet in the renewed conflict with Russia flexing its muscle and there is still no indication regarding how long the conflict will drag on into the future. However, Russia has indicated that it wants the other regional nations, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to be part of the negotiations regarding Syria’s future while it plays the role of the arbitrator. Saudi Arabia at least seems to be inching towards acceptance of a transition period with Assad continuing to be part of the equation. In a subtle diplomatic move it has indicated that it does not rule out talks with Iran and is conscious that it needs to continue the dialogue with US, Russia and Turkey who are the other major stake holders in the war.
It is revealing that some Western analysts have been quick to denounce Russian intervention as having been made in haste with no exit strategy. This accusation indicates the height of hypocrisy, since they seem to have forgotten that the US and its allies has not been able to articulate an exit strategy from the Middle-East for the past 14 years. The Russian action immediately exposed the bankruptcy of the US non-strategy and empty diplomatic rhetoric. The US has irrevocably damaged its reputation through fickle and ill-conceived diplomacy, injudicious employment of its mighty military forces, failed attempts at supporting a number of local forces—the list of failures is long. It is likely that the US may have abdicated the leadership of the region by default. This is a self-created vacuum of power and nature abhors a vacuum. Russia seems to be willingly stepping up to fill the emerging vacuum.
The Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War reveals two visible failures of Western, read US, policies—first, of isolating and punishing Russian for the actions that were initiated in Ukraine; and second, placing regime change as a precondition for the success of the Syrian intervention. The Western coalition, beset with weak and indecisive leadership, lacks the moral authority to ensure success even though billions of dollars have already been expended with very little to show for it. Russia has entered the fray cautiously and not without calculating the pitfalls as some people claim. Its action should be seen as reinforcing its veto in the UN Security Council with actions on the ground that metaphorically amounts to another veto. From a Russian viewpoint the air campaign in Syria is only one part of a greater ‘war’ being conducted to increase its influence in the global political environment.
For some obtuse reason, the Western coalition, including its Arab allies, seem to think that the removal of the Assad regime would in itself miraculously create a moderate alternative leadership that is entrenched in democratic values. This is delusional fantasy, if ever there was one. There is no doubt that Assad has been ruthless in his attempts to suppress the rebellion and may even be susceptible to charges of war crimes, but he has never been a threat to the broader region or a destabilising force for the outside world. The IS on the other hand is a barbaric, inhuman and philistine group that poses the biggest threat to normalcy that has so far emerged and is dedicated to the creation of a global Islamic Caliphate. The question that the Western coalition and Russia should be asking in concert is whether or not it is possible to build an all-inclusive grand coalition against the IS to ensure its defeat and destruction.
If such a coalition is to be built and be successful, certain preconditions will have to be accepted by all parties. First, Assad will have to be accepted at least as the lesser of the two evils necessary for short-term continuity of governance in order to avoid creating another Libya. Regime change will have to wait for the right time. Second at the operational level, there will be no creating of a no-fly zone in Syrian territory; there will be no ground incursions from the Turkish side of the border, even in hot pursuit; and there will be no air strikes on Assad-held sites in Syria. With the misleading confusion regarding which nation is openly or clandestinely supporting which jihadist group, it may be impossible to make the participating nations with their increasingly differing objectives subscribe to the Russian belief that there are no god or bad rebels or jihadists. However, distinguishing jihadists in such a manner is an ideological cul de sac, a dead end, and should not be pursued any further.
As it stands at the time of writing the US seems to be merely hoping that Putin fails, which unfortunately is not much of a policy option. However, who holds a stronger suite of cards is debatable and unclear although it looks as if the US will have to accept the inevitability of Assad being at least part of the initial solution in the political transition, whenever that takes place. The Sunni-ruled autocracies of the region could be coerced by the US and Russia to swallow this bitter pill to create the scene for longer-term stability, but by the same token, the reprieve might be short-lived. The sectarian divide in the region is far too deep to be papered over by coercion.
In the Middle-East for some time now, secularism has been confused with democracy much to the detriment of stability. Secularism, irrespective of the type of government, is a dire necessity in the region—unfortunately a utopian concept under the current circumstances. But unadulterated secularism may well be an ideal to be placed on the table lest the concept itself is lost.
Putin is acting to advance Russian interests and to protect his nation, which cannot be considered to be totally wrong actions whichever way one looks at it. Russia is purely pursuing the practical issue of national security. If the Russian intervention leads to stabilisation in Syria and Iraq Russia will achieve a monumental increase in its influence, prestige and status in the region as well as in the global geo-strategic environment. Getting unintentionally enmeshed in the sectarian fights of the region through mission creep remains the biggest risk to Russian intervention and will no doubt influence its future strategies.