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Russia is nowhere near as isolated or as bereft of options in Syria as Western governments would like to believe.

‘We’re not going to make Syria a proxy war between the United States and Russia’, US President Barack Obama told journalists recently, as Russian jets continued their air strikes over the war-torn country. But that statement can only be interpreted in one of two ways: that the US no longer cares about Syria, and is prepared to abandon it to Russia’s sphere of influence; or the White House is simply unwilling to face today’s strategic realities.

The Middle East is heading precisely into the proxy-war scenario which President Obama has vowed to avoid. And, notwithstanding US warnings, Russia has plenty of cards to play in this confrontation. Syria is not merely about a tussle for influence in the Middle East; it represents another major Russian push to destroy the credibility of all Western security institutions.

Surprise Only for Those Who Don’t Look

Russia’s decision to launch air strikes should not have come as a surprise. Moscow's covert preparations for military involvement were detected by Western intelligence agencies from early August. But, in an eerie repeat of their tepid response to last year’s war in Ukraine, Western governments preferred to ignore inconvenient evidence, rather than plan for the eventuality of Russian military action.

The result was that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine tactic – that of a secret and sudden military deployment, which remains utterly deniable until it becomes an irreversible fact on the ground – has worked yet again.

And it is President Putin who retains escalation dominance in this conflict: he can increase or decrease his military involvement in Syria, in the sure knowledge that the risks of miscalculation remain small for Russia.

No Quagmire, Yet

Western governments like to point out that President Putin has sent his jets into Syria not because he feels strong, but because he feels weak. And every Western leader is now warning Putin that, if he continues with the bombing, Russia will be ‘sucked’ into a ‘Middle East quagmire’ of ‘Afghanistan proportions’. But that too is an exaggeration. Moscow military planners are only too aware of harrowing comparisons with the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan; that is why the Russians are merely copying the West’s model of waging modern warfare: spraying people with bombs and missiles from a safe distance.

To be sure, the Russians do face some potential dangers. Their military installations – including Putin’s much-prized naval ‘facility’ on Syria’s Mediterranean coast – could end up being besieged by rebels, forcing the Russians into either a hasty and humiliating retreat or a bloody battle. Russia’s estimated 30,000 citizens in Syria could also come under threat, presenting Putin with another horrible military problem. And there is some danger of an accidental military clash between Russian and Western military units operating over Syria, as well as the possibility that, at some future date, President Putin will begin to commit ground forces. But the risk of all these eventualities remains small and, at least for the moment, is manageable.

And Not Only Enemies in the Middle East

Undoubtedly, by opting to prop up Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, Russia has acquired new Middle Eastern enemies. Yet it is nowhere near as isolated as Western governments like to assume. Despite all its current vehement protests, Turkey knows that it needs Russia more than Russia needs the Turks: everything, from stability in the Caucasus and the Black Sea to Turkey’s dreams to become a regional energy hub depend on Russian co-operation.

The same applies to Saudi Arabia, which hates what the Russians have done but is privately awed by the way the Russians are cocking a snook on the Americans. Plenty of deals over the supply of Russian weapons or the management of energy prices can be had between Moscow and Riyadh in the future; in little-noticed recent comments, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak has already said that his country is ready to ‘consult’ Saudi Arabia about ‘stabilising’ global oil markets.

A similarly intricate strategic game is being conducted between Russia and Israel: the Jewish state doesn’t relish Russia’s military return to the region, but is already secretly dealing with Moscow over Syria.

And then, there is Russia’s budding alliance with Iran. Putin has been careful not to formally align himself with Iran. However, he doesn’t need to; that option is known to all. In short, what we are witnessing is not a Soviet-style cack-handed return to the Middle East, but a shrewder and more flexible Russian policy which offers Moscow plenty of opportunities and can be pursued at a relatively low cost.

The Far Bigger Objective

President Putin’s short-term objective is to make it clear that no international conflict can now be solved without Russia’s involvement; he is bombing his way to the world’s top diplomatic negotiating tables. But his long-term objective is far grander: through a series of actions, he aims to discredit NATO as a military alliance and, with it, the entire security arrangement constructed in Europe a quarter of a century ago, at the end of the Cold War.

That objective is being achieved not in one big move, but in a series of small ones. Each time the airspace of NATO member states is violated with impunity, each time Russia uses force but ends up paying no price for its adventures, the credibility of Western security institutions is being diminished. The Russians will not be foolish enough to invade a NATO-member state in order to test the validity of the Alliance’s famed Article V mutual-security guarantee. But they do not need to, since they can achieve the same objective if NATO fails to act repeatedly.

Either way, the Middle East is heading precisely into a proxy war, and one which also drags into it the very foundations of Europe’s security arrangements.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is Director of RUSI International.

*Header image: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the UN General Assembly, September 2015. Image courtesy of the office of the president of the Russian Federation


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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