Syria – Russia’s Next Power Grab?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday evening to thank Putin for launching air strikes against Islamist militants in Syria. Picture taken October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.   - RTS5E2ZRussian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday evening to thank Putin for launching air strikes against Islamist militants in Syria. Picture taken October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. - RTS5E2Z

By Adithya Sivakumar

In the fall of 2013, the United States faced the possibility of initiating military action in yet another Middle-Eastern country. This time? Syria, specifically against Bashar al-Assad, whose regime reportedly employed chemical weapons to attack opposition strongholds in the Syrian Civil War, killing thousands.[1] However, the Syrian government accepted a deal that prevented direct US involvement at the time, as this deal stipulated that the Syrian government would agree to destroy its chemical weapon stockpile.[2]. The lull in official foreign involvement in Syria changed due to the rise of the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL); led by the United States, a coalition began to conduct airstrikes in Syria in the September of 2014. For a time, this appeared to be the only official international effort against ISIL. Then, on September 30, 2015, another world power decided to get involved in Syria, launching coordinated airstrikes against not only the infamous ISIL, but also other groups opposed to the Syrian government.[3]

That world power? Russia, the U.S.’s perennial competitor.

        The timing of the attacks seems quite convenient. According to The Economist, the Russia’s decision to attack occurred when the overall non-ISIL Syrian opposition was in its best shape since the war began in 2011. And indeed, rebel groups traditionally backed by Western donors have taken notice of this timing, asking for more aid to fight what they deem as a second occupation by the Russians (the first being from Al-Assad’s other ally, Iran). This occupation, however, has many observers puzzled.  Russia’s last direct military involvement in the Middle East occurred in Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union still existed. Its result was a massive defeat that likely factored into the demise of the once dominant super power.

        Some experts point to the relationship Russia has with the Syrian government. It is a relationship that stretches back to 1967, when the Soviet Union assisted Syria in its war against Israel; in return, the Soviet Union gained a port access to the Mediterranean, and ever since Syria has remained sympathetic to Russia. Additionally, Russia has firmly backed the Assad regime, even in the face of chemical weapons allegations, and despite numerous global calls for its end. In effect, by forming this implicit military alliance with Iran, a country that has officially backed  the Syrian government, and now even Iraq, with its Joint Military Operations Command stating its intention to share intelligence with both Russia and the Al-Assad’s government,  Russia is not necessarily focused on fighting ISIL, but rather strengthening Al-Assad’s regime, a tactic that appears to be working in light of an apparent ground assault in the works. [4]

        Another motivation for the Russian government’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War could be its thirst for international credibility, especially due to heightened tensions with its number one competitor, the United States. Due international uproar over Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis (supplying military aid to separatists that may have brought down a passenger airline, as well as taking over the Crimean peninsula), Russia has certainly built a negative image globally. This has made the nation more keen to involve itself in matters of global stability, such as the Iran nuclear deal, that increase its global influence and perhaps builds a more positive image.

Furthermore, it appears that the United States is losing its global influence, especially in terms of the Syrian conflict. The CIA’s program to train and equip moderate rebels failed miserably.  In exasperation, members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL have started to give military equipment to their proxies in Syria, without giving much thought to American objections, indicating the lack of adherence to American leadership. Additionally, the coalition-led airstrikes have not been particularly helpful for coalition-backed Syrian rebel groups either, as the attacks are aimed to attack  ISIL, not the Assad regime, giving the government time to regroup and strengthen itself as its other major enemy is under fire. These weaknesses caused by the Americans are easy for the Russians to exploit, allowing for Putin’s government to have a greater say in what group stays in power at the end of the Syrian conflict.

         No matter what Russia’s logic is, global attention will be on Russia’s next move in the conflict, which includes the possibility of ground troops and continued clashes with American interests. Run-ins already have been reported between Russian and American planes, and tensions continue to grow between the two countries.[5] In essence, Syria appears to be becoming a proxy battleground between two rival countries. As Mouaffaq Nyrabia, the Syria National Coalition’s (the organization recognized as the legitimate government in Syria by a variety of nations)  representative to the Benelux and European Union, describes to the Huffington Post, an ISIL-only approach by the U.S.-led coalition has emboldened the Al-Assad regime, causing many deaths due to civilian targeting, a factor that drives more people from Syria into the arms of ISIL. This situation is further exacerbated with Russian involvement, as these airstrikes are specifically aimed to help the Assad regime.[6] With competing interests between the United States and Russia, the likelihood of a comprehensive solution to end the conflict seems slim, despite meetings between Russian and American diplomats. Until such a solution can be created, however, Syria will continue to be a land where complex alliances, interests, and violence resides.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/31/syrian-air-strikes-obama-congress

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/10/syria-chemical-weapons-convention_n_3901417.html

[3] http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21672031-what-russian-intervention-means-opposition-down-not-yet-out

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/27/world/russia-syria-involvement/

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/07/politics/u-s-diverts-aircraft-to-avoid-russian-fighter/

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mouaffaq-nyrabia/isis-no-fly-zone_b_8015784.html

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