Putin Doubles Down In Syria – Analysis


By Stephen Blank*

(FPRI) — A year ago, President Obama opined that Russian intervention in Syria would turn into a quagmire. One year later, however, Russia is expanding and consolidating its positions and goals in Syria. Bashar Assad’s rule looks more secure than ever, buttressed by Russian weapons (including chemical weapons), intelligence, diplomatic support, and money. Moreover far from reducing its military footprint, Russia is expanding it. The Duma is about to ratify agreements essentially giving Russia permanent air bases like Hmeymim air base and Tartus. Thus Moscow, for the first time in over forty years, now has permanent bases in the Middle East, both in Syria and in Cyprus. Moreover, it is an open secret that Moscow would like to obtain a base at Alexandria like the one it had in the 1970s. In August 2016 Moscow revealed that it is now operating out of the Hamadan air base in Iran. However, within days the Iranian government pulled the plug on Russia, criticizing its inconsiderate and ungentlemanly attitude. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan also noted that Moscow acts like and wants to show that it is a great power.[1] Obviously this episode cries out for explanation but it should not be taken as indicating that Moscow has now descended into a quagmire or, in the Russian phrase, stepped on a rake.

While this episode strongly suggests that Russo-Iranian ties are more fragile than Moscow believed, it does not disprove the fact that both sides have hitherto collaborated quite well up to this point in Syria and that they share a common objective of preserving the Assad regime in power. Iran apparently could not stand the publicity about this base and was upset that Moscow had “blown its cover” by announcing it was flying missions form Hamadan. Evidently Tehran would have preferred not to open itself up to charges from the entire Middle East (and presumably Washington) or to the domestic opposition within Iran about letting foreign powers have a military base in Iran from which they could launch sorties with impunity. Indeed, the presence of this base was surprising for the following reasons. Moscow’s acquisition of the right to use an Iranian air base is the first time the Iranian regime has allowed any foreign military presence in Iran, something that contravenes the fundamental message of the Iranian revolution of 1979 that is the regime’s claim to legitimacy. It also represents a violation of UN Resolution 2231 forbidding foreign bases in Iran — passed as part of the 2015 deal to prevent Iranian nuclearization. It may well be the case – though we cannot be certain – that once the implications of this fact became clear to Tehran, notably that it jeopardized the continuation of the agreement with the 5+1 of 2015 regarding Iranian nuclearization and could lead to serious economic harm that second thoughts about having this base prevailed. Beyond that, this base, especially if it had continued, would have extended Moscow’s rapprochement with Tehran and the two states’ military cooperation beyond arms sales. As it is, Iran has not only now acquired the formidable S-300 surface to air anti-pair missile, it is now negotiating for Sukhoi fighter jets. And that negotiation appears to be unaffected by the decision to suspend Russian use of the base.

Russia’s and Iran’s violation of UN resolutions in this context are not totally unexpected, since Iran’s ongoing missile program is also a violation of Resolution 2231. The Russian use of incendiary weapons against civilians in Syria violates the Chemical Weapons Convention going back to 1925. Thus both Iran and Russia have ignored agreements while Washington and the international community look the other way, and are basically saying, we will do as we please whether you like it or not and you either cannot or will not do anything about it. So while this episode suggests that Irano-Russian ties are more problematic than Moscow might have imagined, there is no reason to see here a rupture of those ties or a divide in the fundamental identity of Russian and Iranian interests regarding Syria. Nor is this an obstacle to these two governments’ further cooperation on Syria and other issues.

None of this should surprise anyone. Since Catherine the Great, Moscow has sought bases in the Mediterranean, and even the Adriatic Sea. Thus Catherine’s forces occupied Beirut for 18 months in 1772-74, and a generation later Paul I went to war on behalf of Malta, undoubtedly with similar objectives in mind. Throughout the nineteenth century Russian encroachments on the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans were a fundamental aspect of European diplomacy. In World War I, in the allied negotiations around bringing Italy into the war on the side of the Entente, Russia sought to gain a naval base through Serbia in the Adriatic. Stalin sought bases and colonies in the Mediterranean after World War II; Brezhnev obtained and lost the base at Alexandria. And now Putin has obtained the bases in Cyprus and Syria and has sought a naval base at Bar in Montenegro on the Adriatic and a land base at Nis in Serbia. Indeed, Moscow has consistently sought bases for what is now its Mediterranean Eskadra (Squadron) – even when it did not have the capacity to operate or utilize them – in order to lay down a marker, stake a claim, and force others to recognize it as a great power with a sphere of influence in the Mediterranean. These bases would also challenge NATO’s Mediterranean presence, guarantee Russian freedom of maneuver in the Black Sea, and encircle Turkey, a centuries-old Russian objective.

But the loss of the base at Hamadan does upset Russian plans. Had it been able to preserve that base, Russia would then have been able to project power constantly throughout the Levant, (the Eastern Mediterranean) and the Middle East, and force its way to an equal status with Washington in determining future security outcomes there. Apart from its logistical and tactical advantages in having a base in Iran from which to pursue Syrian targets and objectives, Moscow would also gain from a base in Iran because it could then project Russian air power all the way out to the Gulf where the US Fifth Fleet is stationed. Acquiring such a capability is a long-standing Russian objective; so Iran’s decision does strike at Russia’s larger ambitions. In 2014, Moscow indicated its desire, even well in advance of its actual naval capabilities, to project power into the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, so this base could have been a down payment on that ambition as well. Meanwhile Washington keeps appealing for Russian cooperation in Syria only for Russia to break every agreement and intensify its support for Assad to the point of using chemical weapons in Aleppo, if not elsewhere.

While Russia will undertake the occasional bombing of ISIS, it clearly is more interested in equal status with Washington in an anti-terrorist coalition against Assad’s opponents, not Washington’s. And this is the case even though ISIS clearly presents a threat to Russia by its own admission and has evidently now carried out some small-scale terrorist operations in Russia, even beyond the North Caucasus. Therefore we can expect that Moscow will use its ever-stronger position in Syria and the Middle East to coerce Assad’s opponents still further into preserving his state if not his leadership. It will also likely demand that Washington support Assad’s remaining in power, or at least his regime’s remaining in power. Moscow appears wedded to Assad personally, especially as Putin has told him that Russia would not let him down. So while there may be interludes where the attack on Aleppo is stopped for a while ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, it is most likely that the overall battle will continue on Assad’s and the Russians’ part to vanquish the insurgents and force them to accept his rule over most, if not all of Syria.

We may also expect broader diplomatic initiatives by Russia to extend its weapons and economic connections to Iran, and not only regarding the Middle East. The revelations of a Russian base in Iran suggest as well that Moscow is looking for other bases in the greater Middle East even if this episode has had an unfortunate ending for Russia. In this context we should remember that, since “power projection activities are an input into the world order,” Russian force deployments into the greater Middle East and economic-political actions to gain access, influence and power there represent competitive and profound attempts at engendering a long-term restructuring of the regional strategic order.[2] And that region is not just the Middle East.

The recent tripartite summit with Azerbaijan and Iran clearly signals an effort to involve Iran in the latest of Russia’s transcontinental trade and transportation initiatives of a railway from Russia to Iran thorough Azerbaijan. Moscow will also undoubtedly continue to pursue expanded arms sales to Iran and endeavor to persuade Iran and other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, to raise energy prices by curtailing production or by some other means. Russia’s position in Syria will undoubtedly be used as leverage to induce Riyadh to accept such ideas although there are clearly no guarantees of success. We can also expect Russian efforts to insert it into schemes for a Gulf security bloc and to sell more weapons to Middle Eastern clients (e.g., Egypt and Algeria). Indeed, past experience shows that energy deals, arms sales, and the quest for Russian military bases are all intimately linked as part of a grand design. Russia will continue, for example, building an anti-access area denial air and ship capability for its Mediterranean Squadron at its bases in Syria, Cyprus, and in the Caucasus as it already is doing.

Finally, Moscow has successfully forced Turkish President Erdogan to come to St. Petersburg and fawn all over Putin, and not just for supporting him against the insurgents who tried to oust him in a coup on July 15, 2016. Erdogan now says Turkey will implement the Turkstream energy pipeline, Akkuyu nuclear plant, and engage in military-technical cooperation with Russia. Indeed, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has offered many recent statements attacking NATO, and all but saying that Turkey will buy weapons in the future from Russia among other producers. Both sides are also establishing a mechanism for ongoing military-intelligence coordination, supposedly against ISIS. Apart from this Russo-Turkish cooperation against ISIS there are signs that Turkey might have to agree to a “decent interval” for Assad to stay in power before leaving as part of a projected settlement. Yet Putin has certainly not stopped supporting the Turkish or Syrian Kurds whom Ankara suspects of having committed recent terrorist attacks in Turkey. Neither is Russia going to be deterred from supporting Assad, and it will only lift its economic sanctions on Turkey dating back to the end of 2015 only gradually. Meanwhile Turkish officials have more than once hinted at offering Moscow access to Incirlik Air Base. Therefore it is hardly surprising that there are mounting reports in the media sounding alarms that Turkey is in fact compromising its membership in NATO as Erdogan ruthlessly moves to stamp out all opposition and re-establish an authoritarian-cum-Islamist state in Turkey rather on the model of what Putin has done in Russia.

Even with losing the base in Iran Russia has achieved virtually all of its strategic aims in Syria including some it had not originally sought or expected. In addition we also see the evisceration of the pro-Western Kemalist Turkey, the expansion of Russian military power throughout the Middle East – even if that expansion has hit a temporary bump in the road – and the continuing disarray – to put it mildly – of U.S. policy. Indeed, insofar as Syria is concerned, it is not inaccurate to say that Washington neither has a strategy, nor a coherent policy, or any idea how to use the instruments of power at its disposal to achieve anything in Syria. One year after intervening, Putin – rather than entrapping himself in a quagmire – has achieved his avowed political and military objectives: coordinating with virtually every Middle Eastern state, exposing the fatuousness of U.S. policy, forcing Washington to accept its leadership in Syria, and establishing permanent and expanding military lodgments, all at a very low and affordable cost. Indeed, it is the U.S. that appears to be in a quagmire in Syria, not Russia. Given this unbroken and consistent series of successes for Putin in the Middle East, the prospect of a Russian quagmire seems low.

About the author:
*Stephen Blank
is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research institute as well as at the American Foreign Policy Council.

This article was published by FPRI

[1] Andrew Roth, “Iran Ends Russian Use of Air Base Because Of Unwanted Publicity,” Washingtonpost.com, August 22, 2016

[2] Henk Houweling and Mehdi Parvizi Amineh, “Introduction,” Mehdi Parvizi Amineh and Henk Houweling, eds., Central Eurasia in Global Politics: Conflict, Security, and Development, International Studies in Sociology and Social Anthropology (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004), p. 15.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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