‘Kingmaker’: Putin’s Syria Strategy

President Putin has sent military assistance to Assad and is being dubbed “kingmaker” in any future transition to a new administration in Syria.

Speaking on a European tour mostly overshadowed by the refugee crisis and military escalation in the Syrian conflict, the US secretary of state John Kerry said that Russia’s newfound resolve to fight Islamists may present an opportunity to find a desperately needed political settlement for the war-torn country. After meeting Philip Hammond in London yesterday, Kerry said that they “agreed completely on the urgency of nations coming together in order to resolve this war that has gone on for much too long”. He explained that the Syrian war is the “root cause” of the refugee crisis. In Berlin he announced that the US would take 85,000 refugees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. On 14 September, American officials said that Russia had sent a dozen of its most modern T90 tanks, 200 marines and other military hardware to reinforce an airbase near the Assad regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia. It is now said that 28 aircraft and 28 helicopters have been dispatched and 2,000 personnel will be deployed. Russia has been flexing its vast military muscles in the Middle East again. All eyes are on Putin, an unlikely messiah. For him, in comparison to the jihadis of ISIS,  the murderous Assad regime “is the lesser of the two evils.” (See update here.)

The Russian President, who is internationally alienated because of his despotic interference in Ukraine, quickly riposted allegations of wrongdoing by arguing that his administration aims to support the government of Syria in the fight against a terrorist aggression and is merely offering it necessary military-technical assistance. He is said to be the “kingmaker” in any future transition to another administration taking power in Syria. “Without Russia’s support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger,” Putin said: he equally argues that “our main goal is to protect the Syrian state.” But senior US officials and commanders are mystified by the Kremlin’s emerging military moves in Syria where, along with Iraq, some 2,400 jihadis from Russia’s Muslim North Caucasus are fighting. Below we examine Putin’s Syria strategy and outline other developments and trends in the conundrum. “Call the bear your uncle until you cross the bridge,” as Kemal Atatürk used to say about Russia. 

Context

Russian efforts to annihilate ISIS would appear to be welcome. But the Obama administration has “serious questions” about the military buildup. The Pentagon is still trying to figure out the real motive behind the Kremlin’s continuing meddling in Syria, explained the US Central Command – through General Lloyd Austin – to the Senate in a hearing. It has also emerged that, breaking the deadlock that has endured for a year and ending the freeze in diplomacy because of differences over Ukraine, the US and Russia have held high-level talks in relation to Syria’s war in order to find common ground to bring it to an end. Ashton Carter, the US secretary for defence, held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on 18 September 2015 in relation to the military build up in Syria. John Kerry said in London that the talks would shape the “different options” that are “available” as “next steps”. Yet Kerry maintained the caveat that a settlement remained unachievable “with the long-term presence of Assad.” He said that the London talks with Hammond laid the foundation for upcoming meetings at the United Nations in relation to Syria. Yet it is abundantly clear that in comparison to ISIS,  Assad – who has the blood of 200,000 innocents on his hands – “is the lesser of the two evils.”

In addition to sending surface-to-air missiles, it was said that Moscow deployed four fighter jets to prop up its historic ally (i.e. Damascus). The figure was, however, revised to 28 aircraft and 28 helicopters on 21 September 2015. Earlier on, Washington eagerly entered into high level talks, lasting for 50 minutes, that ended a deadlock following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. President Putin has warned the western world that ISIS has expanded its influence well beyond Iraq and Syria. According to Russian estimates, there are no less that 2,400 Russians – mostly from the Muslim North Caucasus – fighting in Iraq and Syria. According to Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem (17 September 2015), Moscow has been training Syrian soldiers and Damascus is open to inviting Russian forces to fight alongside forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. “If there is a request, within the framework of bilateral contact and two-way dialogue, it will, of course, be discussed and considered,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has explained.

On the other hand, on Saturday (19 September 2015), John Kerry remained unambiguous that “clearly the presence of aircraft with air-to-air capacity as well as surface-to-air missiles raises serious questions.” Raising the question whether Assad was serious about a negotiated settlement and to actually find an end to bloodshed, Kerry explained the US position further by adding:

This is precisely why we are engaged in further conversation about answering those questions and about deconflicting the Russian activities from ours.

But in relation to the changing balance of power, the Russians have countered Kerry’s concerns about surface-to-air missiles by calling his comments “disingenuous”. They are merely conducting the “first phase of the mission there” and have urged the world to note that there is “no reason to cast doubt on our initiative to fight the Islamic State.”

With more than 11 million people having fled their homes (four million refugees and more than seven million IDPs) and more than 250,000 dead, the whirligig is still turning. For example, the Russians are also reportedly conducting surveillance drone flights in Syria’s limited airspace and, in the absence of any agreement on coordination or objectives with Moscow, the US is eager to avoid any incident/misunderstandings between American and Russian forces in the region. On behalf of the Obama administration, John Kerry explained that the possibility of a Russian proposal – articulated by his counterpart Sergei Lavrov – about solving the military conflict in Syria is a clear possibility. Notably, 24 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is also progressing with plans to establish a military air base in Belarus with which it has a defence pact, whereby Russia and Belarus agreed to defend their common external frontier and airspace, which the two countries signed in 2009. (The Russian move is seen as a threat to Poland and the Baltic republics, i.e. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.)

James Rubin, assistant secretary of state under the Clinton administration has argued, in his article While Obama shrugs, Putin struts into Syria to play world policeman, that “the Obama years have seen an abdication of the leadership role America has played in the Middle East for the past 60 years.” Rubin also laments – in light of General Lloyd Austin’s disclosure to John McCain, the chairman of the Senate armed services committee – that only four American trained Syrian soldiers are active (in Syrian operations) out of a cohort of several thousands on whom $500 million of American money has reportedly been spent. (Lloyd Austin has also conceded, to a rather bewildered John McCain, that America has “boots on the ground” in Syria and they are conducting special operations with British forces.)

Clearly, the Russians are eager to protect their interests in the Middle East and they want to stop the Assad regime from imploding and they want to avoid the debacle witnessed in Libya. (As we know, both Iraq and Syria are imploding.) The conflict in Syria can endure indefinitely, that much has been acknowledged. Russian air power, however, is likely to be a game-changer in Syria’s war. Notably, American plans to end the jihadi menace in Syria have resulted in a cul-de-sac; the so-called “Free Syrian Army” is nowhere in the equation. However, as reported in the media, a large Russian convey is reported to be on the move in Syria and Moscow has been pursuing an aggressive diplomatic campaign involving the Saudis, the Europeans and the Americans in rallying support in relation to their presence in Syria.

Ever the opportunist, Putin is eager to come across as the leader who can fill the void in the Middle East by crushing ISIS/ISIL; it is the Pentagon’s view that Moscow is establishing a “forward looking base” which seeks to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s bruised but not beaten regime. Veteran Republican politicians such as John McCain have expressed concerns about what they consider the largest Russian military build up in the last four decades and accused Putin of playing “kingmaker” in any future transition to another administration taking power in Syria.

Senior British and US officials in London are concerned that the Russians are doing more than supplementing Damascus. It is said that the Russians are taking over the air war for Assad’s forces because the latter are considered poor at attacking ground forces. But the writing should be on the wall for the Russians. For example, in Afghanistan, a country from where Russian body bags came back by the thousands, ready recruits are available for ISIS because disgruntlement with Taliban is rising just as in the case of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. A hardcore turf war is unravelling between the Taliban, who are in serious disarray after the death of Mullah Omar (which was concealed for years), and ISIS. Fighters united under the latter’s black flag are mushrooming everywhere in Afghanistan and the jihadis are taxing communities by taking their children for conscription into their ranks and are also recruiting paid servicemen for a month salary of $400 which is twice as much as the rate paid to Afghan soldiers. The jihadis are also reportedly taking women and girls for forced marriage – and the life of bondage and sexual servitude that accompanies it.

Experts mulling over the situation keenly make the observation that the Kremlin is not denying involvement in the Syrian conflict unlike the crisis in Ukraine, which is in economic turmoil, where Moscow did not accept that it was backing rebels kitted out in green military fatigues. Damascus has been Moscow’s historic ally in the Middle East. Analysts have suggested that the move in Syria is a ploy designed to divert attention away from the festering problems of Ukraine, a country facing default and is immersed in a financial and political crises, where Russia’s role has won it universal international condemnation. Equally, in his historic opportunism, Putin will inevitably seize on the moment and share in ISIS a common enemy with the Americans. This will naturally harmonise relations between the historic rivals and they will together defeat the evil of Islamic extremist and jihad. Notably, 6,800 coalition air strikes have caused ISIS to lose 25 percent of its territory. Although 400 vehicles have been destroyed others remain at large as the jihadis had captured more than 2,000 of them. Jordan is keen to protect its borders and may have to intervene into the conflict.

It has been reported that these days jihadis involved in the Syrian conflict are no longer happy with old style political arrangements. “We don’t trust al-Qaeda,” explains Liwa al-Tawheed’s leader, Sheikh Omar Othman in Aleppo province, to Martin Chulov of the Guardian. Equally, although 700 Britons have left the UK to live under ISIS control, British jihadis wanting a life under the black flag in caliph county, who have abandoned their lives in the UK to join ISIS such as Omar Hussian (moniker Abu Saeed al-Britaini) – a former security guard in Morrisons – are of the view that his ISIS “comrades have no manners”. Omar Hussian reportedly said that:

You could be waiting in line for half an hour and then another Arab would come and push in the queue and go straight in … Unfortunately I had to treat them like primary school students … Syrians love to stare at foreigners, maybe because no tourist has ever visited Syria … they see no issue in unplugging your mobile phone to charge their own phone, even if it is your own charger … Arabs in general do not know where the red line is in giving another brother his space … We have many European battalions which one can join if he finds it problematic … In fact, I would strongly advise my Western brothers to join a non-Arab battalion if the above traits are something one cannot live with.

Other Emerging Developments

In other news, the prime minister of Bangladesh has issued a strong warning to 10 Downing Street that it must do more to prevent British jihadis from radicalising Bangladeshi youths in order that they participate in holy war. Sheikh Hasina recently warned David Cameron – who only recent announced the Royal Air Force’s drone strikes in Raqqa, Syria which killed terrorists Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, both of Bangladeshi origin, see here – that his nationals posed a security threat to Bangladesh (which the world’s third largest Muslim country). “The British government should take more steps on the ground,” she said to the Guardian. Moreover, an ex-army intelligence officer from the Bangladeshi army underlined the fact that:

ISIS has its eye on Bangladesh.

Radical Islam has strong roots in Bangladesh and like Pakistan it is fertile ground for jihadis to team up with local mullah outfits such as Jamaat-e-Islami to acquire funds and fighters. Sheikh Hasina’s administration is worried that disgruntled youths will rally to the jihadis’ black flag – from her perspective, the allure of jihad in poor countries (with high unemployment and soaring corruption) is very powerful indeed. In fact, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Al-Qaeda in the Subcontinent (AQIS) and ISIS are finding it easy to penetrate poor countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan to establish roots there. UK and European jihadi recruiters, who are university educated and sophisticated, are arguably more cunning and adept and luring youths to join their cause of fighting for the global caliphate. (All this comes of the heels of the first ever interview given by a head of MI5 in its 106-year history where Andrew Parker has said that the terror threat to the UK was “severe”, that six attacks had been foiled over the last year and that in light of cyber jihad more up-to-date surveillance powers were apposite.) Number 10 has acknowledged that more needs to be done but has pointed to the need for a “cross-country effort.” However, as regards Britons acting as catalysts for the recruitment process, the British prime minister’s spokeswoman dismissively said that:

I don’t think I have seen particular evidence pointing to that. Clearly we have concerns about British foreign fighters going to fight for ISIS … But when you look at the number of foreign fighters ISIL are recruiting it illustrates the fact that many countries are facing this problem whether it is other European countries or Asian countries too.

In any event, Israel’s prime minister travelled to Moscow (on Monday 21 September 2015) in order to understand the rationale behind the build up of Russian forces in Syria. It was Benjamin Netanyahu’s first visit to Moscow since 2013 – when he personally went to urge Moscow not to sell the S-300 advanced weapons system to Tehran – and he raised important issues of Israeli security with the Kremlin because he is concerned about modern weaponry falling into the wrong hands – not only ISIS but also the Iranian proxy terrorist organisation Hizbollah. A shrewd character, Putin countered Netanyahu’s apprehensions about Hizbollah with his pitch on ISIS whose black banners are attracting an increasing number of disillusioned fighters deserting al-Qaeda ranks. Israel considers the transfer of weapons as a no go area, or a “red line” which if crossed will be met with lethal force. Israeli neutrality in the raging four-year Syrian conflict is one thing but Netanyahu is extremely keen to have close coordination with the Russians vis-à-vis their presence in Syria. “Israel and Russia share a common interest to ensure stability in the Middle East,” the Israeli prime minister said during the trip. However, Putin played down Netanyahu’s concerns that the Syrian regime is supporting Hizbollah by condemning attacks against Israel but maintaining that they were conducted by “internal elements” and not by the Syrian army. Netanyahu is also planning to visit Washington on 9 November 2015 to discuss the Iran deal with Obama which the former leader has equated with a “second Holocaust.”

As Martin Chulov so expertly reports about an extroverted Iraqi jihadi named Abu Ismael who has been fighting in al-Bab in Aleppo province since the second half of 2012 and has switched loyalties:

I was a member of the al-Qaeda organisation from 2005-11 … I joined them with my father when I was 16, and apart from one and a half months in prison, I was very active in every way.

According to Chulov, Abu Ismael’s boss, Sheikh Omar Othman, who leads the Liwa al-Tawheed group explains:

We don’t trust al-Qaeda … They don’t want what we want, but as Muslims we must accept wayfarers, especially if they come to help.

The British foreign secretary has said that 330 ISIS fighters have died in Royal Air Force air strikes whereas no casualties had been sustained by the British military.

As noted in an earlier post, Parliament opposed taking military action against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad inn 2013 and David Cameron suffered a serious political defeat. Cameron has now renewed his bid to take military action. This time things may well be different as half of the shadow cabinet is rooting for military action which leaves the newly elected Labour leader in an invidious position. During his career, Corbyn has voted against 13 pieces of anti-terror legislation and it is reported that the security services are to deny him information on live operations.Yet the shadow justice secretary, Lord Faulkener, who used to be Tony Blair’s flatmate, has said to the BBC that “my view in relation to the attacks on Syria is that if there is a military and legal basis to doing it [i.e. taking military action], then we should do it.” Similarly, the shadow foreign secretary, Hillary Benn has also said on television that “if the government has a proposition [about taking military action] we need to look at what it is.”

It is also reported in today’s Observer that the MI5 (British military intelligence) has been paying UK Muslims to spy on terror suspects; a source in the Muslim community said that an informant had been paid £2,000 to watch over a local mosque. Furthermore, as regards obtaining parliamentary approval for the sixth war (after Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again and Libya) of overseas British intervention in just two decades, condemning British drone strikes (see here), Simon Jenkins said:

If ever in the past quarter century there was a clear humanitarian case for intervening to pacify, reorder and restore good governance to a failed state, it must be in Syria. I still regard this as none of Britain’s business, which should be to help refugees. But if parliament were to decide otherwise, there is no other moral course but to insert ground troops. If winning is Cameron’s goal, he should put his army where his mouth is and pledge a massive British presence in a UN intervention force.

This would almost certainly suck Britain into another Helmand. But at least it would be morally and strategically coherent. Dropping bombs is politically cosmetic. It is trying to look good to a domestic audience; a cruel delusion, a pretence of humanity, ostentatious, immoral, stupid.

The US Congress is divided in putting ground troops in Syria. But as the media says, the decision in the US to take military action of that type required is an executive one – it is Barack Hussein Obama’s call. We at PIIA think that it is really immoral that in Syria’s war, the whirligig keeps turning and the costs are paid by the victims of the war and we can only agree with the warning issued by Selim Yenel, the Turkish ambassador to the European Union that:

If Aleppo falls to the regime or to ISIS, we could have another flood of million people from Syria.

Posted by Editor.

4 Comments

Filed under Disarmament, Discussion, Europe, ISIS, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, Politics, Russia, Syria, Taliban, The Middle East, United States

4 responses to “‘Kingmaker’: Putin’s Syria Strategy

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