Fierce Russia ups stakes

syrian airstrikes : For Vladamir Putin, intent on projecting power in a geostrategically critical ar

Fierce Russia ups stakes
With its traditional Cold War flair, Russia has waded into the murky waters of West Asia. Two days after US President Barack Obama warned against Russian action in defence of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russian air force started its bombing campaign in Syria.

Since then Moscow has taken its muscle flexing in Syria to a whole new level by deciding to launch cruise missiles from four warships in the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria. The strikes were part of a larger Syrian ground offensive to push toward the city of Idlib, which has been a stronghold for a coalition of primarily Islamist rebels.

The Russians have also parked 10 warships in the eastern Mediterranean, and have placed mobile rocket launchers, attack helicopters, and artillery pieces around the government-controlled areas in Syria. Russian airplanes remain aggressive in the skies. After repeatedly violating the Turkish airspace and locking their radars on Turkish warplanes, Washington has suggested that at least one American fighter plane had to redirect its route to avoid coming into contact with one of Moscow’s warplanes.

Though Russia has claimed that its airstrikes have targeted the Islamic State, Syrian rebel groups are complaining that the strikes have hit other groups as well, including some rebels believed to have participated in a CIA-supported training programme. Moscow is trying to frame this move as part of a stepped up counterterrorism plan that will include targeting the Islamic State.

But the decision to include other opposition groups in its air strikes has raised the stakes much higher. Russia is targeting those militias that are battling the regime of Syrian President Assad, leading to the strengthening of the regime in the process. In Russian President Vladamir Putin, Assad has found a coalition partner at a point when he appeared to be perilously close to losing key territory under his control.

Russian officials themselves have been making contradictory claims about who has been targeted. While Russian Forei-gn Minister Sergey Lavrov categorically rejected “the rumours” that the targets of these strikes were not positions of IS as “groundless,” a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin underscored that the strikes did indeed target multiple groups. “These organisations (on the target list) are well-known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” he suggested. Iran, meanwhile, has announced its full support for the Russian air campaign.

With this move, Putin is trying to live up to his uber macho image that he has assiduously tried to cultivate. And it com-es at a time when there are growing disagreements between the United States and Europe about what potential international negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war should look like and the extent to which Europe should participate.

While some western leaders appear to be softening their opposition to a Russian role in the coalition against the IS and backpedalling on demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down, Saudi Arabia, which supports a number of rebel groups in Syria, has called the Russian role in the fight against IS a “non-starter” and said flatly, “there is no future for Assad in Syria.”

Riyadh has also hinted that the Saudis might increase their support for the rebels. In his remarks to the UN General Assembly, Putin, on the other hand, had argued that Washington’s efforts were failing and that Western nations needed to partner with Assad to fight the Islamic State rather than continue working to unseat him.

So even as Russian bombs have started falling in Syria, Washington is groping for a strategy. The message that Russia wants to send out is quite obvious: while Russia is prepared to use force to defend its interests and to defend its clients, those who have accepted Western patronage will not enjoy such support.

Stark contrast

A decisive Russian response stands in stark contrast to the dilly-dallying witnessed in western capitals on the Syrian issue, where red-lines have been drawn only to be erased. The strikes are by no means a surprise for Washington. Moscow cannot really afford to abandon its Mediterranean client state. Russia’s only overseas military base is located at Tartus in Syria, which houses 1,700 Russian troops and gives Moscow a much greater forward presence than it would have otherwise.

For a leader like Putin, intent on projecting power in as geostrategically critical an area as West Asia, this is clearly a risk worth taking. But not only is Syria important for Russia as a foothold in the region, but by taking the lead in sharing intelligence with the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi military personnel, Putin has made Moscow impossible to be ignored in the fractious debate over what to do next in the fight against the IS. Washington’s insistence that Assad must go if any long-term solution is to be found for the Syrian quagmire, is now meaningless with Russians putting their military foot down, literally.

For all the military bravado, however, Russia is not the great power of yore howsoever hard Putin might like to project otherwise. With falling oil prices and western sanctions making it difficult to do business in Russia, Moscow’s economy is in the dump.

With its military forays into Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, Moscow has 25,000 hungry troops stationed in Cri-mea, is supporting rebels (and its own troops) in Ukraine, and now has stretched supply lines into Syria to support troops and dozens of high-tech fighter planes. Russia may be risking being sucked into a West Asian quagmire by its actions in Syria. Opinion polls in Russia show a majority of its citizens remain opposed to a military intervention in Syria.

But that is for another day. Today, Moscow may once again be relishing its moment in the sun where Putin’s machinations have marginalised the West and re-established Russian footprint in West Asia. The West is scrambling to react adequately even as the crisis in West Asia has gone from bad to worse. The stakes are high. New Delhi should take note and start formulating its own response, one that takes into account the growing divide between Russia and the West.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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