Commentary

What Does Russia's Increased Presence in Syria Mean?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Russia’s decision to become more overtly involved in the Syrian civil war has generated a considerable amount of discussion in the region. Though Russia has made no secret of its support for Syrian president Bashar Assad in the past, Moscow has recently deployed a great deal of military supplies and arms to Damascus. In Russia, the news has been received with some trepidation, considering Russia’s track record in oversea adventures, particularly Afghanistan. In the Middle East press, meanwhile, a number of observers and editorials have expressed varying explanations for Russia’s motivation, including the need to place itself for a post-Assad and post-Iran nuclear deal region. To the degree that a more assertive Russia might spur the United States to do more at the negotiation table, some have expressed hope that as long as such a solution is achieved, Russia’s involvement may be acceptable.

In Russia, some see shadows of wars past, fearing that Syria might turn into another Afghanistan for their troops. Referring also the ongoing civil conflict in Ukraine, where Russia and Russian paramilitary forces are heavily involved, the Moscow Times’ Georgy Bovt wonders whether a face saving deal is in the making: “Will Syria become a second Afghanistan for Russia? Is it wise for Russia to intervene in that conflict? Rumors are circulating that Moscow is planning a face-saving maneuver whereby it gradually ‘hands over’ the Donbass in fulfillment of the Minsk agreement while aiding the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria to get back on good terms with the West. The plan sounds good in theory, but it looks unfeasible in practice.”

For some, it is undeniable that the nuclear deal with Iran has changed the calculations in the region. Fearing a reversal of fortunes, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed opines in the pages of Asharq Alawsat, Russians are looking to secure a long-term presence in Syria in case Russian-Iranian relations deteriorate: “Iran and Russia have for four years been attempting to implement one plan—preserving Assad’s rule. However, they are now realizing that this is an impossible task, as Syria is no longer a united country with a sole army and security apparatus....The Syrian reality has become very difficult, and it will become more complicated if it is indeed true that there is an Iranian–Russian dispute. The Middle East will change after the nuclear agreement with Iran. Tehran may swing politically towards the US in opposition to Russian policy. Maybe this is why Putin wants to make a preemptive move in regard to this change, by suggesting the solution itself: a political authority in Syria that includes Assad and some opposition forces protected by Russian forces—but without the commander of Iran’s Quds Force Gen. Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and all the other Shi’ite militias currently operating in Syria.”

For some, like Todays Zaman’s Yasar Yakis, Russia’s involvement is a sign that they may have lost faith in Assad and that the Russians are jockeying for position in a post-Assad Syria: “[W]hy is Russia still giving assistance to Syria? This may be a last-ditch effort to save a ‘weakened Assad,’ but it may also be part of a longer-term strategy: If the Russian support cannot save Assad, Russia may remain a strong player in post-Assad Syria. Or, Russia may have seen in the meantime that nothing but a military intervention can change the stalemate in Syria. Whatever Russia's reasons or its ultimate goal, this may be a tipping point in the power balance in the eastern Mediterranean in favor of Russia. How Russia will emerge from such an involvement in the Syrian imbroglio is still an open question.”

There seem to be clear strategic calculations in play for Russia as well, with securing continued naval presence in the Mediterranean being among its top priorities: “The coastal region offers Russia vital access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia already has a naval base in the port city of Tartus, about 60 miles south of Latakia, that it is reportedly upgrading....at the very least it seems the Kremlin wants to help Assad, by giving a boost to his flagging military in order to preserve the limited control his regime now has over the country....The fact is that with this region every country in the neighborhood has an endgame in mind. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, etc., have all played a role in financing the supporting of various groups on the ground, which is only helping ISIL.”

The question in many people’s mind now is whether an overt Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict will have a positive or detrimental impact on the ongoing migrant crisis. Daily Sabah’s Kilic Kanat believes that the latter is more likely, given that Russia’s support is going toward the Assad regime, which many believe is the real reason for the current migrant crisis: “A major danger that Russian involvement can create in Syria is the intensification of the civil war, which would dramatically increase the number of casualties and would generate another major wave of refugees from the country. This would turn the country into a black spot for international security. Russia is familiar with these forms of black spots as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath generated one of the most dangerous black spots in the region. The post invasion involvement and its support of a pro-Soviet government only fueled the conflict in the country and made it one of the biggest exporters of insecurity to the world and international system. Considering all these dangers, the Russian goal in Syria will be one of the hardest issues to understand in the coming weeks and months for observers of the region.”

Of course, with over 250,000 Syrians killed, the current crisis badly needs an international diplomatic solution. For the Khaleej Times editorial staff, U.S.-Russian diplomatic engagement could be just the thing that has been missing up to this time: “Russia and the United States, it seems, have found some common ground on Syria. Their eagerness to find a diplomatic solution to the five-year-long conflict is a welcome step. It indicates a return to talks after years in the wilderness of violence during which the Arab country slid into an abyss of chaos and anarchy. With more than two million people homeless and around 250,000 killed, the country's infrastructure is in ruins. Ordinary Syrians have suffered enough. Good sense has now prevailed and calls from Moscow and Washington to give diplomacy a chance could stop the catastrophe....In other words the refugee crisis and the rise of Daesh have spurred the latest round of talks. Finding a diplomatic solution to the mess in Syria is, therefore, important.”

On a more pessimistic note, it is worth considering whether given the violence and the country’s fragmentation, Syria as we know can still be salvaged. In an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Seth Frantzman argues that Syria as we know no longer exists and is unlikely to come back: “Some fear that the radicalization of the rebel movement means that if Assad falls then a combination of al-Qaida and Islamic State will run the country, but they neglect to note that the longer Assad has stayed in power, the more brutal the war has become and the more Islamist groups have been empowered....That is why of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians making their way to Europe, many of them are from Aleppo....And all they’ve seen is Assad go from strength to strength. Assad and his family are survivors....They have been willing to sacrifice most of Syria for their own need to cling to power. They have looked on with pleasure as places like Palmyra were destroyed, knowing that the evils of Islamic State would make them seem like the ‘moderates’ who are ‘fighting terrorism’ and preventing a ‘foreign conspiracy of imperialism and Zionism’ from creating ‘regime change.’ The destruction wrought on Syria is unprecedented and in its scope it is fair to conclude, we have seen the end of Syria.”


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