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Solution or problem?

Last Updated : 08 October 2015, 17:16 IST

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Russia has stolen the thunder from the Europe-Syria refugee crisis, which occupied prime time international discourse until a few days ago. Signalling that Moscow is getting back into the ‘big game’, President Vladimir Putin launched a Russian military and diplomatic offensive in Syria late September. More telling is the fact that he chose to elaborate the new strategy from the United Nations General Assembly headquarters in arch-rival United States.

In the prevailing global milieu where the red bugles of war are more valuable than the white flags of peace, it is hard to fathom if the Russian intervention is further internationalising the Syrian civil war to achieve a solution or to add to the woes.
For long, Moscow has insisted that it has a legitimate role in Syria while criticising the West for intervening “uninvited”. Referring to the failed role of foreign powers in Libya and Iraq, Putin lamented: “I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realise what you have done?”

Russia’s intervention in the four-year war has been masked in the garb of being “anti-terrorist”. The problem, however, is that the definition of terrorist groups varies for each of the international camps involved in the conflict.

For the West-supported camp – which includes most of the Arab countries – the Islamic State (IS) is the main target. For the Russia-led camp, which includes Iran, Iraq, and Hizbollah of Lebanon, terrorists encompass IS and other terror groups like the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, which are backed by the West and Arab countries to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. 

The divergence was glaring when France also launched its first air strikes on IS training camps in Syria in late September. The French anti-IS mission was hitherto centred in Iraq. President Francois Hollande’s justification for expanding the operations is that the IS is planning attacks against several countries, including France.

Paris is also pressing for a political solution. “France is talking with everyone and excluding no one,” Hollande said. While “all concerned parties” must be included, he also emphasised that “the future of Syria cannot include Bashar Al Assad.” This pitches France and the rest of West directly against Russia and Iran, which are backing Assad.

This sentiment is consistent with statements from Turkey, Germany, Saudi Arabia, United States, Britain and Qatar, among others. All of them claim that Assad has no role in any political solution. They also fear that Russia’s actions would only encourage “more extremism and radicalisation”.

But, in his recent meeting with Western leaders in Paris, Putin questioned the distinction between moderate Islamist rebel and jihadist opposition groups. Egypt, which is being propped up by the Gulf countries, is ironically the only mainstream Arab country to back Russia’s biggest West Asia intervention in decades. Though Cairo has avoided showing support for Assad, it is using this opportunity to confront IS-linked insurgency in North Sinai.

Encouraged by the turn of events, embattled Syrian President Assad said that the success of Russia’s military intervention was vital for the entire West Asia. Simultaneously, a ‘helpless’ and taken-by-surprise Washington diplomatically supported the Russian initiative by highlighting the shared goal of combating terror. This suggests that Washington could be coming to terms with realpolitik, influenced by President Barack Obama’s penchant for pragmatism over ideology.

Good or bad, there is no doubt that Russian entry has served as a fresh impetus to find a way out of the diplomatic and military impasse in Syria, which has had serious local, regional and international ramifications. While the Russian intervention is important, it is imperative to address some domestic and international factors that conditioned this move.

‘Russophiles’

One, Syria and the Assads are longtime ‘Russophiles’. A newly independent Syria under Hafez Al Assad and his Baath Party aligned with the Eastern Block during the cold war in the 1970s. Since then, Russia-Syria economic, political and military ties have intensified. Damascus also allowed the Soviet Union to build a resupply station at Tartus, which is now Russia’s sole remaining naval base in West Asia and on the Mediterranean Sea.
Two, given the above-mentioned relationship, it could be that Moscow sensed Assad’s ouster sooner than later. With just about 20 per cent of Syria under Damascus’s control, Putin may be attempting to create ‘Alawistan’ – a Shiite enclave of Alawiites in Damascus
and Aleppo.

Three, domestic dissent is on the boil again in Russia, both due to lack of democratic channels to express opposition, as well as declining economic conditions, triggered by low oil prices. Syrian intervention serves as a domestic distraction and whips up nationalist feelings, thereby helping the government.

Four, Moscow could be using this opportunity to bargain and end the diplomatic and financial isolation the West imposed following Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and support for Ukraine separatists. Five, several Russians from the north Caucasus are reportedly IS members, who, Moscow fears, could return from Syria at some point to stage attacks at home.

Six, Russia’s apparent feeling of declining influence or even isolation in the international affairs of the world necessitated this dramatic move. A proactive step amid the US ineffectiveness and the possibility of some success at breaking the logjam could give Russia a foothold again in global politics.

Where the Russian story takes a twist is the likely Arab position hereon. Peeved at the US inability to turn the tide in Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition is militarily regaining ground lost to Iran-influenced Al Houthis. If its Yemen ‘success’ continues, Riyadh may be tempted to join the Syrian military offensive bandwagon, thereby putting the West, Russian and regional players at loggerheads and their efforts to solve the Syrian logjam rudderless yet again.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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Published 08 October 2015, 17:16 IST

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