Air strikes in Syria: What's Russia's plan?

How will IS respond to the air strikes? Is the Russian presence going to embolden US strategy to fight IS?

The UN General Assembly’s annual gathering this year generated lot of interest in more than one ways. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were shaped, Pope Francis addressed the Assembly and Palestinian flag was hoisted. But what probably attracted most attention of media, policy makers, and politicians was the Russian President Vladimir Put-in’s address hitting out at his US counterpart’s West Asia policy.

What followed soon was Russian fighter jets launching attacks in Syria. Targets of Russian attacks, according to US media, was not against the Islamic State but groups fighting against President Bashar al Assad’s regime. Russians and Syrian go-vernment made counterclaims – the attacks did affect IS stronghold of Homs. Russia has also issued a warning to the US to stay away from Syrian airspace.

Moscow has termed its actions as legitimate – the deployment was made at the request of the Syria government. Putin’s action backed by the Russian parliament is an attempt to counter check the further expansion of IS. Was is it a surprise attack? No, Russia has been hinting about it for some time to strengthen Assad to counter the IS.

Is there any Russian game plan in the country or in the region? Despite isolation of Russia after Ukraine crisis, its ties with Iran, Iraq and Syria have strengthened over the months. Assad, whose hold in Syria has shrunk consistently, is an old ally of Russia. Syria is also important for Moscow where it maintains its only outstation port Tartus. For Putin, it is an action theatre outside Europe, and to tell the international community not just about its capacity but also about its decisiveness in dealing with IS. 

So far, Russia, China and Iran have backed the Assad regime, each with their own calculations in the region. For Iran, it is important to maintain a Shia- Alawite (Assad’s sect) government in the region. China though not a significant visible actor in West Asia politics, has oil interests. Russia and China have worked in tandem at the UN Security Council to block resolutions which are perceived as anti-Assad.

The US, which along with its allies, has been staging air strikes in the IS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq for about a year, disapproved of Russian military intervention. So far, the IS has expanded with hardly any resistance and the US actions have not achieved any tangible results. President Obama’s policy has come in for criticism by Republican leaders and some Democrats.

The Republicans view that such Russian actions will make US look like a secondary actor in West Asia. Moreover, Russia using airpower against IS, which does not have fighter jets, is display of disproportionate power. The US has always maintained a stand that Assad has to step down to reach any solutions for Syria.

Saudi Arabia, which is fighting Shia rebels in Yemen in recent months and supports anti-Assad rebels, has already threatened to launch more aggressive options against the Assad government if Russian presence continues. So far, Syria has been a ground for proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia with Shia militant group Hezbollah and several Sunni militant groups fighting for and against Assad, respectively. 

The IS threatThe IS, an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq and formed in 2013,
has emerged as the most potent security threat in the region. For Russia, the Sunni
terror is the main domestic security threat. It is believed that about 2,500 Russians have joined the ranks of IS.

Not just Russia, nationals from at least 50 countries, including the US and the UK, have volunteered to join the jihad to establish the caliphate as pled-ged by the IS as its ultimate goal. The group has used barbaric methods against those whom it perceives as enemy. In past two years, it has occupied substantial portions of Iraq, Syria and bordering areas of Turkey.

The civil war in Syria which enters fifth year since 2011, is not coming to an end anytime soon. It is getting complicated with each passing day. Assad controls about 25 per cent of the Alawite – dominated country, rebels also have huge swathes of land under its control. The war has killed more than 3,00,000 people and displaced almost about 8 million Syrians.

Immediate neighbours have not been able to absorb all refugees with their limited resources. Syrian refugees are also reaching the shores of Greece and Italy, and Hungary by land. Fleeing to unknown land and unwelcome attitude of European countries have created humanitarian crisis.

Coming weeks will tell us if Russia would be in Syria for a short or long term. How would IS respond to the air strikes? Is the Russian presence going to embolden US strategy to fight IS? Can Russia sustain both in Europe as well as in West Asia if there is a full scale war?

It might be the next direct battleground for world powers – near and distant ones – for regional dominance. Whatever comes next, the war is not getting over anytime soon and humanitarian crisis will continue.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Political Science Department, St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru)

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