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Putin’s Gambit in Syria

Peter Truscott
RUSI Newsbrief, 20 November 2015
Russia, Syria
Recent Russian military operations should not come as a surprise – for twenty years, the Kremlin has been trying to restore the country’s status as a world leader

The world can be divided into two: those who ‘get’ modern Russia and those who do not. At the moment, most of the world falls into the latter category, with much of the commentariat by turns confused, confounded and outraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest international gambit. Exasperated and enraged, US President Barack Obama has accused Russia of disinformation and bad faith with its Syrian intervention, and of short-sightedly propping-up a bloody tyrant. Obama argues that Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) will simply be strengthened in the process and much of the Western media agrees with him. So what is Putin up to?

Moscow’s view of Syria is somewhat different from the West’s. The country’s current approach follows the logic of Russia’s remarkably consistent foreign policy, which has been in place since the mid-1990s. This was the period when the Kremlin’s honeymoon with the West came to an end, first under then-President Boris Yeltsin and later under his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. The country’s disastrous Western-inspired economic shock therapy of the early 1990s, the independence of Kosovo, the insurgency in Chechnya, NATO enlargement, growing nationalism at home and a period of strategic retreat abroad led Russia to ‘Tsarist’ solutions which have had a profound effect on its domestic and foreign policies.

The result was a ‘Russia First’ policy, which represented a wholehearted rejection of the Western model of liberal democracy and a fully fledged market economy. The policy created what has been variously described as a ‘managed’ or ‘sovereign’ democracy and a distorted market economy, both of which were borne out of Russia’s own unique characteristics. Russia First also had a role in reprioritising Moscow’s foreign-policy goals by focusing on the country’s historical, geopolitical and traditional areas of interest.

By the mid-1990s, Russia had begun to realign its foreign-policy goals away from achieving consensus and partnership with the West at all times and at any cost. In particular, Russia sought to centre on areas of strategic interest where Moscow felt it could exert the greatest influence. Its new approach started with the ‘near abroad’: the independent states of the former Soviet Union; the Middle East and North Africa (especially Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt); India; the southeastern Islamic world (including Afghanistan and Iran); North Korea; China; and the Orthodox West (including the Balkans), where Russia is still trying to regain influence after the Kosovo conflict and its unsuccessful attempt to prevent the removal of its Serbian ally, former President Slobodan Milosevic, after NATO’s campaign.

The Kremlin’s Russia First strategy has had mixed results. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia maintained its influence in parts of its near abroad uner Yeltsin through a series of ‘frozen conflicts’ in Nargorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. It continued to use the same tactics in Georgia in 2008 and recently in Ukraine (especially Crimea), under Putin. All these frozen conflicts have had the same objective: to prevent Euro–Atlantic integration (through the EU and NATO) in Russia’s backyard.

Further afield, Moscow has been less successful from its point of view. The fall of Milosevic and the later recognition of Kosovo’s independence by most Western states, both bitterly opposed by Vladimir Putin, were early setbacks. Successive rounds of NATO enlargement have not only detached former satellite states (for example, the Baltics) but brought the Atlantic Alliance closer to Russia’s heartlands. This occurred despite the documented promises that NATO would not expand to the East following the fall of the Berlin Wall. These promises were recently outlined in Rodric Braithwaite’s evidence to the House of Lords EU Select Committee and in its 2015 report on Ukraine, although they were never put in writing to Russia.

In North Africa and the Middle East, Russia retreated in turn from Egypt, Iraq and Libya; it also had its ‘back to the wall’ in Syria. The 2003 war in Iraq was a turning point for Putin; since then, relations with the West have never really recovered. The fall of Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi in 2011 after a NATO bombing campaign largely pressed by the UK and France with US support – in what the Russians see as an abuse of the UN process (the UN Security Council only declared a Libyan no-fly zone, which was enforced by NATO) – further alienated the Kremlin. The Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria, remained Moscow’s only military base in the world outside the former Soviet Union. Tartus is militarily significant in its own right, as it provides the Russian navy with a base in the eastern Mediterranean and acts as a staging post for the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol.

President Putin has consistently sought to re-create Russia as a great power, with a seat at the world’s top diplomatic table. The West should not be surprised; the years of Russian retreat and submission under Boris Yeltsin, who led his country at a time of great historical weakness, were an aberration. Much has been made of Putin’s statement that he saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as the ‘greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century’. Less reported, however, has been his comment that ‘you would need to be heartless not to regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union. You’d need to be brainless to want to restore it’.

In Syria, Russia has specific aims. It wants to be seen as a global player of consequence and be respected as such. Time and again, Putin has objected to the ‘unipolar’ world which he sees as being led by the attempted global hegemony of the US. Russia wants to retain its bases in Tartus and Latakia, and its influence in Syria and in any future political settlement. It wants to be seen as a leading player in the Middle East, building on its role in the Iranian nuclear deal. It is a mistake to think Moscow is wedded to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in perpetuity: Russian diplomats (including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) have repeatedly said it is up to the Syrian people to choose their leaders. However, Moscow objects to forcible regime change, which has proven so disastrous in Iraq and Libya, and has seen it lose regional and global influence. The days of Russia’s strategic retreat, Putin is telling the world, are over – the West needs to get used to it.

Russia’s military build-up and air strikes in Syria have taken many by surprise. The talk is of Putin deliberately wrong-footing the West, and there is an element of that which the Russian leader undoubtedly enjoys. But no one should accuse Putin of a lack of clarity about his aims in Syria. He made Russia’s position crystal clear during his speech to the UN on 28 September. Russia would back Assad and the Syrian army, because together with the Kurds, they were the only ones capable of defeating Daesh. A year of US-led bombing had done little to degrade the terrorists. He told the UN General Assembly:

We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face. We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and the [Kurdish] militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.

Putin singled out not only Daesh, but ‘other terrorist organizations’. Later in the speech he spoke about ‘coordinating the actions of all the forces that confront the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations’.

Moscow does not differentiate between terrorists, as Lavrov told a press conference on 1 October: ‘if it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?’ It was not therefore surprising that Russia’s initial air strikes hit many non-Daesh opposition groups, including the Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and groups trained by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Russians see strengthening Assad as a way of defeating Daesh and views all opposition groups as legitimate targets. However, early Russian air strikes also showed Moscow was not afraid to hit Daesh in its heartlands like Raqqa and will be less squeamish than the West in hitting civilian areas, which Daesh uses as cover.

Of course, Russia has its own Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, which spread from the now-subdued Chechnya, led by its pro-Moscow leader Ramzan Kadyrov, to Dagestan and Ingushetia. An estimated 4,000 Muslims from the former Soviet Union (including Russia) have made their way to Syria and the Kremlin would prefer they stayed there. Privately, a number of Western intelligence agencies would share this perspective. Daesh represents an existential threat to the West in a way that Assad does not.

President Putin not only hopes to prevent the otherwise imminent fall of the Assad regime (which it supplies with arms and munitions) but to encourage the recalcitrant non-Daesh Sunni rebel groups to the negotiating table – by bombing them if required. In that effort, Russia will be supported by Iran and Hizbullah, which are both Shia supporters of Assad. The Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between the Shia Alawite-dominated Assad regime, backed by Shia Iran, Hizbullah and Russia, against Sunni rebels backed by Sunni Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the US. In the mix are the Kurds, detested by the Turks but one of the most effective fighting forces against the extremist Sunni Daesh. The allegiances are fluid, both between jihadi and rebel groups, and their allies and opponents. Meanwhile, President Putin is pressing for his initial contact group – which includes Syria, Iran, Iraq and others – to broker a deal in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have already approached the Kremlin to hold talks.

No one can be sure whether Putin’s Syria gambit will work but the Russian president thinks the stakes are high enough to try, as he fills the power and leadership vacuum left by President Obama and the US in the Middle East. He may even get the West to give him an easier ride over Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Crimea. Whatever happens, the West will not be able to ignore Russia, and that is the way Putin likes it.

Lord (Peter) Truscott of St James’s
Member of the House of Lords and member of RUSI’s international advisory board.

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