What Russia Wants in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on October 4, 2015

US President Barack Obama (R) listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18, 2012 on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Obama and President Vladimir Putin met Monday, for the first time since the Russian leader's return to the presidency, for talks overshadowed by a row over Syria. The closely watched meeting opened half-an-hour late on the sidelines of the G20 summit of developed and developing nations, as the US leader sought to preserve his

In the last few days I’ve written about Russia’s initial military action in Syria, which is intended to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and explained (with my friend James Snell) how U.S. policy has enabled this, both by effectively outsourcing Middle East policy to Vladimir Putin over the chemical weapons “red line” debacle, and by the pro-Iran tilt that is implicit in President Obama’s nuclear deal-facilitated move toward détente with the Islamic Republic: Obama is effectively supporting Iran’s assets in Syria, and Putin is now using those same pieces to prosecute his own war in the Levant. With this in the background, this post will focus on what Putin wants in Syria.

Putin’s aims in Syria can be boiled down to two: (1) Ensure the Assad tyranny survives, which includes the building of a permanent military-colonial outpost on the Mediterranean coast and destroying all the moderate rebels so that Syria can be presented as a choice of Assad or the Islamic State (I.S.), legitimizing Russia’s support for Assad; and (2) humiliating the West on the way to constructing an alternate world order to American hegemony.

The humiliation of the West has been relatively easy, not least because the West has done most of the work. While Russia openly threatens to murder men trained at American taxpayer expense in Syria, President Obama responds that he is “not going to make Syria into a proxy war”. Obama is above such things and Putin will “get … stuck in a quagmire.” It’s very easy to take this condescending, history-will-condemn-you view when the price in blood is being paid by others. But the cruelty of this view—telling the Syrians that America does not care about them and they are alone in this fight—is matched by its political damage, which strengthens the hand of the extremists.

Russia’s intervention is incentivizing unity over moderation in the insurgency. Two Salafi-jihadist groups have already joined al-Qaeda since the Russian intervention began, and the entire Syrian opposition has joined together to reject the Western-supported United Nations “political process”. Rejecting the U.N. was quite reasonable and a long time in coming, but it underlined the dwindling influence of the West over the Syrian opposition, and the timing was undoubtedly related to the appearance of American non-opposition to the Russia’s position.

The abandonment of the international process is helpful to Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which has laced itself into the insurgency. Al-Qaeda rejects all cooperation with the present international order, the U.N. specifically, and this shift of the consensus on the U.N. brings the Syrian opposition into closer harmony with al-Qaeda’s views.

America appearing to support Russia, in combination with the perceived—and by no means wholly mistaken—pro-Assad/Iran tilt of American policy in Syria makes Syrians, especially the Sunnis who have been subject to Assad/Iran’s exterminationist efforts and who are I.S.’s recruitment pool, feel even more that they are being conspired against by a grand alliance of East and West, and that I.S. might just be the only way to protect themselves.

It is also notable that since I.S. and Nusra have been under bombardment from the U.S.-led Coalition for the last year, they have adapted to this situation, while the moderate rebels, who have been Russia’s primary target, are the most vulnerable to air attacks. Again, the incentive structure pushes against moderation and towards deeper collaboration with the extremists.

Unfortunately for Obama, Syria already is a proxy war, and not showing up for such a war will not stop America incurring the costs of losing one. If Putin’s intention was to pacify Syria, then yes he would be doomed. But Putin doesn’t want to pacify Syria: he wants to keep the Assad regime alive, re-establish a Russian presence in the Middle East, establish the principle that Russia can use force at will in the Middle East, and make himself the go-to player in Syria—which, as the central theatre of the contest for regional order, makes Moscow the throughway for all matters in the region. In doing this, Putin is not constrained by internal democratic checks, an open media, or battalions of lawyers enforcing strict rules of engagement.

The simple fact is American hegemony is well on the way to being effectively broken and replaced with a new order headed by Iran and Russia already; to say this will not be confronted is to say that America will collaborate in her own defeat. Russia is trying to help encourage U.S. collaboration in this strategic shift with a diplomatic and political lubricant: the Islamic State.

By holding up I.S. as the common enemy, Russia makes its actions more difficult to oppose, and gathers to itself a phalanx of Useful Idiots—quite a number of them Christian spokesman, who have been deceived or paid to say that Assad is the last line of defence for the minorities—who will present anybody opposing Russia as pro-I.S., wanting Christians to be killed, and the rest of it. Russia’s actual I.S. policy thus deserves some scrutiny.

One of the consistent themes of this blog has been that if you think the Assad regime and I.S. are mortal enemies, you aren’t paying attention. From Assad overseeing the networks that brought the Salafi-jihadist volunteers to I.S.’s predecessor in Iraq to releasing the violent Islamists when the uprising began while continuing to kill the secular activists, to avoiding bombing I.S.-held areas while blitzing civilian areas in liberated zones, and so much else besides—liberally supported by Iran, which also helps to keep al-Qaeda in Syria well-supplied, and Russia, which is even now sending I.S. volunteers from the Caucasus to Syria, all accompanied by a massive and coordinated media war—the Assad regime’s effort has been to strengthen I.S. within the insurgency. Once the opposition has been destroyed, and the choice is the dictator or I.S., Assad and his friends are confident that—as in Algeria—the West will pick the dictator, and offer assistance in putting down the insurgency. Russia’s primary goal in Syria is the completion of this project.

In the first wave of Russia’s airstrikes on September 30, one target, in Latamenah, Hama, was the headquarters of Tajamu al-A’aza, a Free Syrian Army-branded rebel group that has been vetted by the CIA and received TOW anti-tank missiles. Another target was the town of Talbiseh, in Homs Province. Talbiseh is—with Houla and Rastan—part of a small pocket of liberated territory held by moderate rebels; to target that area is a direct statement of intent: Russia wanted to destroy the remaining moderate opposition, which as mentioned is much more vulnerable to air attacks than the extremists.

To demonstrate that Russia is not primarily targeting I.S. is as simple as looking at a map:


Black is I.S.-held territory; green is insurgent-held areas (some include Nusra); and red is the regime (Original map by Thomas van Linge.)

Continuing on the same track, Russia’s airstrikes yesterday were more than fifty miles away from I.S. targets. Russia’s Ministry of Defence claimed to have hit an ammunition dump and some I.S. vehicles in Maarat an-Numan, a town that the rebellion ejected I.S. from in January 2014, but to which I.S. might return if the Russians keep weakening the moderates like this. Russia’s MoD also claimed to have struck an I.S. ammunition depot in Jisr a-Shughur, which is seventy-five miles from I.S.’s frontlines.

In Jisr a-Shughur, Russia hit Jaysh al-Fatah, and this is what was expected more than the attacks on the FSA-branded groups. Jaysh al-Fatah includes a range of groups from stern Salafists like Ahrar a-Sham all the way across to non-ideological groups like Jaysh al-Sunna, and is logistically supported by smaller FSA-branded groups that proved crucial in the taking of Idlib City, but it also includes Nusra. Al-Qaeda’s involvement makes it is very difficult politically in the West to defend Jaysh al-Fatah and it is easy to make polemical arguments equating all insurgents with al-Qaeda, and Russia knows this. That Russia’s actions are strengthening al-Qaeda in Syria is studiously ignored by those defending Moscow’s attacks on Jaysh al-Fatah.

Russia is, however, exploiting an ambiguity opened up by the West, which has launched airstrikes not only against transnationalist groups in Syria, but against Ahrar a-Sham and Jaysh al-Sunna. Whether these strikes were deliberate has never been clarified, but it doesn’t matter because Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can say that Moscow’s targets are I.S., Nusra, and “other terrorist groups,” and claim to be standing on the same ground as the Coalition.

Russia has struck into I.S.-held areas—Raqqa City, al-Bab, and Kuweris—but with (at most) five-percent of its airstrikes, and there is a pretty large asterisk by each of these strikes. After a year of leaving I.S. alone, Assad lobbed some missiles at Raqqa in the summer of 2014 after I.S. struck into Iraq, part of the regime’s effort to claim that it, too, was part of the anti-terrorism coalition. Russia’s strikes now can be put in the same category of tokenistic, me-too anti-terrorism propaganda. In al-Bab the casualties of Russia’s strikes were civilians. And strikes around Kuweris, the airbase in Aleppo, are in support of an Assadist offensive, not against I.S.—a narrow but deep distinction. When Hassan Hassan mordantly notes that Jaysh al-Islam’s execution of five I.S. jihadists is more than have been killed in sixty-plus Russian airstrikes, he doesn’t exaggerate by much.

Russia’s efforts to present the choice as a binary one of Assad or I.S.—at one point yesterday Russia claimed that the FSA had joined I.S.—suffered a setback when FSA-branded rebels helped overrun Tal Ahmar in Rif Quneitra. Indeed, the lack of focus on the “Southern Front,” the FSA-branded rebel conglomeration of as many as 30,000 men, backed by Jordanian and other intelligence services is something of a mystery. Those looking for a moderate opposition with an alternate vision—which has even worked out issues of civil-military governance—might start there.

In the meanwhile, Russia is moving toward extending its airstrikes into Iraq with the support of an Iraqi Prime Minister whose options are severely constrained by what Iran wants, and the Syrian Kurds have responded to Russia’s outreach to them, with the PYD/YPG requesting weapons and “general military coordination,” including Russian airstrikes against Nusra. Simultaneously, the U.S. is to begin “direct U.S. weapons shipments, overland from Iraq,” to the PYD/YPG. I have explained previously why the argument that the PYD/YPG is the only force that can oppose I.S. is disingenuous and why supporting the PYD/YPG alone in Syria is counter-productive, so I won’t go through that again. What’s important here is that the Iraqi government and the PYD/YPG are two of the major anti-I.S. assets the U.S. is officially supporting; Baghdad is already working with Russia and the PYD/YPG soon will be. This is the kind of legitimacy Russia seeks to use to embed itself, providing cover for its real objectives—namely saving Assad.

Russia is running two wars, in Syria and Ukraine. The argument for “de-linking” them—that the West can work with Russia against I.S. in the Levant while opposing Russian aggression in Europe—should be seen as obviously false, not least because Russia’s real targets in the Levant are our friends, not the takfiris. Russia wants to shore-up the dictatorship in Syria, not fight terrorism—interests directly in conflict with the West’s. Moreover, Russia, which undoubtedly does see the links—Assad is provided energy from Russia via the conquered Crimea, for example—will be manipulating the two conflicts, drawing attention to one to distract from the other and using one to extract concessions on the other. Russia is back in the Middle East, and in alliance with Iran and its tributaries a coalition has been put together to replace American hegemony—which President Obama had advertised a willingness to cede—with an order hostile to American influence and interests. Dictators the world over now know that Russia’s guarantee to them can be taken to the bank, and the impression has been reinforced yet again that being America’s ally is more dangerous than being her adversary.

12 thoughts on “What Russia Wants in Syria

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