Today, Putin and Obama are set to meet on the sidelines of the current United Nations General Assembly. It is not unlikely that the Syrian quagmire will be central to their meeting. After Russia exponentially increased its assistance to Syrian president Assad these past few weeks, western countries increasingly fear Putin’s expansionism in the Middle East. Or as some would put it: after Ukraine, is Syria next in Russia’s bid to expand its global influence? (Featured image © Beshr Abdulhadi)
Russian influence in the Middle East had been obliterated after its predecessor lost the Soviet-Afghan War in 1989. Moscow has since tried to renew its influence in the region. At the crossroads of three continents, control of the Middle East is a keystone in any attempt at global power projection. After its acquisition of Crimea, this region south of Europe may very well become Russia’s next effort to hedge its western opponents.
Emerging powerbroker Iran has grown to be Russia’s most valuable partner in this endeavour. Despite nuclear fears, the country could aid in rebuilding Russian influence by proxy. Important to Iran, and thus Russia, is keeping Syrian President Assad in power. Not only does Iran otherwise risk losing an ally at its border, it also risks losing Syria as its supply route to allied Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since the start of the civil war, Iran has been supplying the Syrian government with weapons and ordered Hezbollah to fight on Assad’s behalf. This has long been quietly supported by Russia, so it should be clarified that their involvement in Syria actually predates the crisis of Ukraine.
At the beginning of September 2015, sensational news articles reported that Russian troops had also joined the fight against the Syrian opposition. More extensive research showed that only limited contingents were deployed to reinforce Tartus, Russia’s sole naval base in the Middle East, and to defend the nearby airfield of Latakia. Only later reports would show how Moscow has enormously increased its military presence, while Latakia has been expanded to serve as their fortified base of operations. Actual involvement is currently limited and concealed in a strikingly similar fashion to the alleged Russian troops in Ukraine. Large scale Russian intervention therefore seems more of a threat to Syria’s international opponents rather than an immediate reality.
Large scale Russian intervention seems more of a threat to Syria’s international opponents rather than an immediate reality.
By flexing his muscles, Putin clearly wants to ensure that Assad remains in power – even if that power is largely limited to Western Syria. In the meantime, Russia portrays the Assad regime as the sole viable ally in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). It should be stressed that Russia does consider IS a threat. It does not, however, take precedence over its support for Assad. It is a public secret that the official international coalition against IS does not take kindly to the Assad regime. In response, Russia threatens to unilaterally strike IS from Syria if no agreement can be found. Taken together, this attempt at indirect consolidation of Russian influence in the Middle East has not gone unnoticed.
Russia’s recent activities have prompted U.S. Secretary of State Kerry to call for talks with Russia about Syria. He said that a diplomatic settlement for Syria and cooperation against IS were needed. For the first time in over a year, Putin and Obama will meet later today to discuss the possibilities. This “search for common ground” is rather worrying. The fight against IS proves arduous and the U.S. track record in Syria has been characterised by poor policy decisions and a questionable agreement on chemical weapons achieved through the UN Security Council. Apart from this resolution, Russia has effectively frozen the Council by vetoing all other sanctions against Assad. Obama is thus facing setbacks in many regards. At this point, the U.S. might very well think that a settlement with Russia is the only viable solution left. This could mean that an agreement is more likely to be in Putin’s favour.
If a U.S.-Russian brokered deal means Assad would remain in power, the international community should think twice before agreeing. His regime has not only murdered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, it is also alleged to have (tacitly) worked with IS in destroying the anti-government opposition. It would be quite awkward to accept his claim of being the sole viable ally against the terrorist group. Additionally, regional opponents would never accept such a Syrian solution. Iranian power would consolidate as a consequence, which the powerful Gulf States could never tolerate. Finally, settling Syria on Russia’s terms would serve as the ideal public demonstration of Russian regional influence. In this regard, keeping Assad in power could very well become Russia’s Middle East equivalent of annexing Crimea.
Settling Syria on Russia’s terms would serve as the ideal public demonstration of Russian regional influence. In this regard, keeping Assad in power could very well become Russia’s Middle East equivalent of annexing Crimea.
Keeping a mass murderer in power would further reduce international and western credibility in the Middle East, ensure more regional mayhem and grant Putin a regional victory. It remains to be seen whether stakeholders such as the U.S. and European countries fully realise this. Despite their qualms with Assad, these latter are feverishly looking for ways to stem the massive flow of Syrian refugees and to combat the terrorist threat of IS. It is naïve to believe that cooperating with Russia could change things for the better. That is unless Putin finds a way to completely remove Assad from the equation and thereby limit Iranian influence. Until then, the international community should hold its ground. This weekend, France stressed the need for Assad’s removal. Will others do the same or succumb to the illusion of a quick, short term solution?
NOTE: a correction was made on September 29th, 2015, to clarify the importance of Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council.