With news of Russian drones humming over Syrian skies, the Kremlin’s military operations in Syria appear to be in full swing. And Russian president Vladimir Putin looks set to address the UN General Assembly next week on Monday 28 September 2015 where he will reiterate his intentions to fight ISIS and support the battered regime of Bashar al-Assad. Equally, it appears that Putin’s American counterpart Barack Obama, who will also be attending, has approved meeting him in New York to bury the hatchet over Syria and Ukraine. Both the White House and the Kremlin confirm the meeting but the Obama administration stressed that it has huge differences with Putin and that the meeting had been called on Russia’s request. It is the first time the two leaders will be meeting in a year and the event signals an end to American attempts to diplomatically alienate Putin for his annexation of Crimea. Representing a significant propaganda victory for Putin, these rather interesting developments come off the heels of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent remarks that: “We have to speak to with many actors. This includes Assad but others [US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia] as well.”
So building a coalition to save Syria from ISIS is on the cards and these events will dominate the agenda during next week’s UN meeting – the 70th session of the General Assembly. Meanwhile, it is reported that Putin will take unilateral military action in Syria if the west does not support him. Like America’s message on the war on terror in 9/11’s aftermath, there is an “either you are with us or against us” ring to it all and world leaders are taking care to avoid unnecessary confrontation with Russia. Explaining that Russia does not plan to “occupy” Syria but instead wants to “rescue” Assad, Putin says that he is merely keeping his side of the bargain by performing defence contracts signed with Damascus “five or seven years ago”. The international community’s resolve on removing Assad from power is softening. One of his sternest critics Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan flatly conceded: “the transitional process could be with him.” It is reported that 1,700 Russian specialists are already in Tartus and that Moscow has also sent a squadron of 28 state-of-the-art warplanes to help Damascus. The force consists of various combat aircraft including ground attack designs such as the Su-24 Fencer, the Su-25 Frogfoot and the multi-role Su-27 Flanker/Su-30Sm. Moreover, the deployment of dozens of military helicopters including Mi-24 gunships and two batteries of SA-22 surface-to-air missiles clearly proves that a seismic shift in the balance of power has already occurred while the west had its head buried deep in Syria’s blood-soaked soil. Russia, which has reportedly also sent top military brass to Iraq for enhanced coordination in the region, is clear that it will thwart all attempts to remove Assad from power and even Downing Street has accepted that he may remain in power until transition is made to a new administration. Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, has said that Assad may be part of a “transition authority”.
But will it be a second Afghanistan for the tough talking Russians? Apparently the jihadis are thirsting for Russian blood. In this round up we address the interests of various actors such as Iran and Israel and the analyse strategic implications of recent events in the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Hitherto, despite leaving hundreds of thousands dead, the Syrian regime’s air attack capabilities were tactically ineffective and did little to help in the battlefield. However, the Syrians have confirmed delivery of military assistance and the air force acknowledges taking “delivery of at least five fighter planes from Moscow as well as reconnaissance aircraft which allow us to identify targets with great accuracy.” Similarly, the Syrian army explained that, in comparison to the past, infantry forces are now in a tactically superior position because of accurate satellite imagery of ISIS positions provided by Russia. It is claimed that this data has also enhanced the accuracy and frequency of airstrikes. As for Merkel, the irony is that she is willing to talk to Assad despite the fact that Germany is experiencing extreme difficulties in absorbing the 800,000 refugees she has pledged to take; people who would not have been refugees but for the actions of his murderous regime. By saying that the timing of his departure should be decided through negotiation, even John Kerry was heard rowing back from America’s old position to get rid of him immediately and unconditionally.
As we have seen, intoxicated with power, as “kingmaker” in the region president Putin is eager to restore Russia to the lost glories of the Soviet Union. Indeed, reports that Moscow is planning on deploying 2,000 personnel to an airbase south of the coastal city of Latakia are a rising concern for the west (reportedly there may even be three bases). Notably, Putin’s spokesman denies claims that the president has drafted but has not yet submitted a request to the upper house of parliament to approve stationing 2,000 air personnel to Syria. As far as alliances are concerned, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 Winston Churchill had the acumen to have one with Stalin and choose the lesser of the two evils between him and Hitler (who Sir Winston called a “bloodthirsty guttersnipe”). From that angle, the west’s potential alliance with Putin has a sound precedent and is likely to strangulate the expansion of jihad in the Middle East. The Russian defence ministry announced on 24 September 2015 that “traditional” planned naval exercises have been in the offing since 2014 and will go ahead this autumn. The missile cruiser Moskva, destroyer Smetlivy and the landing craft Saratov will be among the vessels participating in the exercises, the ministry explained.
Shifts in the Balance of Power
Although Bashar’s genocidal regime can still rely upon historical alliances carefully forged over the decades by his late father Hafiz, it cannot disguise its impotence in retaining sovereign Syrian territory most of which has been lost to ISIS or other belligerents. Yet, with the above developments in mind, the pendulum is swinging back in the regime’s favour and below we examine the gamut of issues at stake and the changing fortunes in the region in light of the Russian military build-up. Interestingly, the regime reportedly runs an exit ban to keep moderate middle class people in what is left of Syria so that some support for Bashar remains but with almost half of Syria’s territory in ISIS hands and entire provinces falling without a shot being fired by government forces, until recently the demise of the Assad regime looked inevitable. But if Putin’s gambit pays off, the situation on the ground may well be different in a matter of months.
With only a quarter of his country’s de jure territory under his control, Assad is struggling to hold on to the basic infrastructure supporting his regime but with Russian forces fighting side by side with the Syrian army some like Emile Hoayem predict battlefield victories for Damascus in the months to come. But this may be a case of too little too late because the formerly neutral or pro-Assad Druze and even some Alawites are turning against him and ISIS is consolidating its power in the areas it holds and the jihadis are eager to pierce into the scraps of territory, running from Latakia in the north to Damascus in the south, held by the regime. Hokayem argues in the Economist that “Mr Putin could play a positive role in this, if he chooses to use his power to nudge Mr Assad towards talks rather than goad him into battle,” but he also warns us that:
This conflict has the fuel to last a few more years.
With the Americans, British and Turks keeping their eyes peeled, the Russians are at pains to explain that a vacuum of power such as the one evidenced in Libya cannot be repeated in Syria. From that perspective, making sure that the Damascus regime keeps breathing accords with preserving the little stability that can be found in the Middle East. Putin, for whom a Hobson’s choice is the only option, has argued that “our main goal is to protect the Syrian state”.
The Israelis, who have been conducting air missions over Syria for years, have made sure that there are no misunderstandings with Moscow’s forces in the region and prime minister Netanyahu, who just met Putin a few days ago, has explained that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are operating a joint working group designed to “prevent misunderstandings”, shorthand for inadvertent military clashes, between their two militaries. Indeed, with so many forces engaged in the conflict, the Americans, the Russians and the Israelis are extremely eager to avoid potential dogfights over Syrian skies.
Notably, elsewhere there is plenty more tension between the US and Russia in Europe where Moscow has threatened “counter-measures” if the Americans deploy a new type of nuclear weapon in Germany. “Unfortunately, in the case of these plans, this can lead to a violation of the strategic balance in Europe,” explained Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov as Moscow vowed to take “counter-measures” but failed to specify what they might be; Washington is also accused of “deception” on this strategic issue. Experts suggest that the tit-for-tat escalation may cause the Kremlin to deploy nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the Russian Baltic enclave of Kallingrad but the Russian military has said: “A final decision will be taken after detailed analysis of the potential threat.”
Back in the Middle East, satellite imagery demonstrates that two bases are being prepared for the reception of Russian forces. Construction is underway at Al-Sanobar military base and Istampo weapons storage complex both of which lie north of Latakia close to where the Russian warplanes are situated. According to IHS Janes:
These new discoveries highlight how the rapid build-up of Russia’s expeditionary force in Syria is continuing apace giving it significant capability to target rebels opposed to the Syrian government and to secure the Latakia homeland of president Bashar al-Assad.
Iran versus Israel
Western diplomatic sources claim that Iran’s footprint in Syria is growing by the day. But Tehran is keen to emphasise that it is not running a proxy state. Eschewing reports of a large-scale military presence, the Iranian ambassador Mohammed Reza Shaybani rebuffed western contentions about Bashar al-Assad’s dependence on his country by highlighting that “Iran does not interfere in Syrian domestic affairs.” Pointing out that respect needs to be paid to “Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, Shaybani keenly argued that the Iranian presence in Syria is to advise the government and army and that Iran does is not playing a “direct role in the fighting” and its role is limited to helping out with “combating terrorism.” Be that as it may, the scale of Russia’s military support for Damascus – with thousands of soldiers and an assortment of modern warplanes being stationed in Syria – is much wider than Iran’s and despite an ostensible “consensus on the solution” Tehran is nevertheless clear that it will not be lead in Syria by Putin.
Whilst many journalists – somewhat controversially – lean towards suggesting a hardcore Iranian involvement in the war, the veteran Ian Black reports from Damascus: “Hard facts are illusive, but most analysts agree that Iran’s direct military presence is indeed fairly modest.”
With the map of the Middle East being redrawn only a century after the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916 (see here) and the Balfour Declaration 1917 that deprived the Palestinians of nationhood and self-determination, we can add to Black’s analysis that hard choices also need to be made to restore order and as Putin pitches it the choice between the regime and ISIS is a question of choosing between the lesser of the two evils. Indeed, even the Americans acknowledge the need for international unity vis-à-vis fighting the jihadis.
Equally, the Iranians are also keen to keep their differences with Israel – whose unrivalled military supremacy in the region is second only to the US – at bay. Israel is clear that the Vienna Agreement or JCPOA (see here) is a complete disaster because it leaves the door open for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Netanyahu has likened the Obama administration’s great diplomatic triumph as nothing less than a “second Holocaust”. Israel has long maintained a policy of conducting air raids in Syria and it reportedly attacked a nuclear reactor in 2007 but failed to acknowledge it. Now with the Kremlin redrawing the battle lines in the Middle East, despite the assurances provided by Putin Israel is on the back foot. In fact, in the long run, Israel is the clear loser. Because of the presence of the Russian military, Israel will no longer be able to act in the region with the impunity and freedom witnessed over the last decade. Despite all the diplomatic niceties, the costs to Israeli freedom of movement over Syria’s skies will be substantial. Putting a brave face on it all, a frustrated Netanyahu – who is keen to prevent the transfer of Russian weapons to Hizbollah via the Syrian conduit – said during his recent official visit (21 September 2015) to Russia:
Iran, under the auspices of the Syrian army, is attempting to build a second terrorist front against us from the Golan Heights.
But Putin has sought to put Netanyahu’s mind at rest by emphasising that:
All of Russia’s actions in the region will always be responsible.
With prospects of normalisation of relations with the world through this July’s historic Vienna Agreement, the centrist government of Hassan Rouhani is eager not to jeopardise the opportunity to patch things up with the west. Iran does not want any direct conflict with Israel and even in the tense Ahmadinejad era it was satisfied to take the offensive to Israel through its proxy, i.e. Hizbollah. Thus, it is arguable that a pragmatist Iran will insist on Assad remaining in power but will certainly consider any viable alternatives that can be identified in order to replace him. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs, said on 22 September 2015 that Tehran and Moscow had arrived at a “consensus on the solution and the details of how to help resolve” the festering four-year war in Syria. Equally, the commander heading foreign military operations for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Major General Qassem Soleimani (head of the elite Quds force) had also reportedly travelled to Moscow twice prior to Abdollahian’s visit. Yet, the supreme leader who has final say in everything, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is yet to pronounce an edict on the scope of Iranian diplomacy in finding a solution to the conflict.
With the Russian intervention, the balance of power is already shifting in Syria and it has been reported that on 22 September 2015 government aircraft – acquired from Moscow – launched an attack on Palmyra killing dozens of enemy fighters. But these small successes will have to be quite frequent for ISIS to be dented or to reinstate the regime’s grip on Aleppo in the north or Deraa (which lies to the south of Assad’s stronghold of Damascus).
Despotism: Chechen Analogy
However, despite the great need to build a robust coalition in Syria, Putin’s record on democracy is rather pockmarked indeed. His recent annexation of the Crimea may be the icing on the cake as regards his hunger for power, but it is equally clear that he supports despots everywhere. For example, as Oliver Bullough recently explained in the Guardian, Putin’s “solution” in Chechnya is highly dubious and provides a great analogy to examine the problems of Syria:
Ramzan Kadyrov is vulgar, vicious and very rich … Ramzanism is almost the ur-expression of Putinism: equal parts bling, violence, nationalism, kleptocracy and religion.
Bullough’s interlocutor, Ilya Yashin, a liberal politician explained the situation in the following terms:
Kadyrov stands above Russian law … Any attempt to remove him from his job, or to prosecute him, could provoke a new Chechen war. Putin is undoubtedly scared of such a development, which is why he can’t solve the Kadyrov problem.
Coupled with his open support for dictators in Central Asia, the above sets a rather poor precedent for solving Syria’s unrelenting conflict. But Putin would be right to say, and his scion Kadyrov would probably agree, that by directly stationing his forces in a dangerous hotspot he has done what the “chicken” Americans and NATO were too scared to do.
Critiquing Russian Vetoes: United Nations Reform
As noted above, world leaders are meeting in New York for the 70th session of the General Assembly and the Russian and American presidents are due to meet face-to-face. However, it is equally interesting to note that the US has pilloried Russian tactics in the UN Security Council – which is crumbling under the pressures created by a new age of global problems – in relation to Moscow’s failure to act over Ukraine and Syria. In relation to the latter country, Russia has used its veto powers on four occasions in the Security Council to block resolutions so as to prevent damage to its allies in Damascus. The French have proposed that the permanent members of the Security Council (US, Russia, France, UK and China) should voluntarily suspend their veto powers when it comes to circumstances turning on mass atrocities and genocide. The French ambassador, François Delattre believes that the “veto power is not a privilege. It’s a responsibility.”
One of seven diplomats giving her views on the subject, Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the UN said that “forum shopping” in diplomacy would continue because of the problem. She voiced her concerns by saying that:
It’s a Darwinian universe here. If a particular body reveals itself to be dysfunctional, then people are going to go elsewhere … And if that happened for more than Syria and Ukraine and you started to see across the board paralysis … it would certainly jeopardise the security council’s status and credibility and its function as a go-to international security arbiter. It would definitely jeopardise that over time.
Britain’s ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft complimented the American diplomat’s views by adding:
Syria is a stain on the conscience of the security council. I think it is the biggest failure in recent years, and it undoubtedly has consequences for the standing of the security council and indeed the United Nations as a whole.
But the west’s stance on the veto exposes a double standard. The history of the use of the veto power can be summed up in the following manner. As reported in the Guardian, the US has used the veto three times over the past decade to protect Israel. The Chinese have used six vetoes in collaboration with Russia which itself has used the veto on 10 occasions over the past decade. But the twenty year picture is different and since 1991, when Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s UN seat, the US has used 14 vetoes (inevitably in defence of Israel) opposed to Russia’s 13 and China’s eight. Against that, the Russian permanent representative, Vitaly Churkin, is makes no bones about the fact that his nation’s vetoes aim to preserve the Security Council’s integrity by disallowing the body from being misused as a vehicle to topple governments. Despite widespread support for the reforms, Churkin finds no reason to tamper with the existing system as for him any changes may produce “crazy” and “exacerbating” results. He posited that:
Some countries were trying to involve the security council in regime change operations in Syria and we were telling them that it’s not the business of the security council to go into regime change mode … This is a fundamental difference and it’s not the fault of the security council that this difference is there.
Thus, drawing the threads together in light of the foregoing, we at PIIA believe that serious changes in the balance of power in Syria are afoot and irrespective of all that has been said on the world political stage about changing the regime in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s friend Vladimir Putin has put the west in a tight spot by rapidly building up his forces and by changing the tempo of the game in Syria. Viewed from that angle, Putin is the new messiah – he is the “kingmaker”.