Russia with its intervention in Syria in order to ‘defeat ISIS’ has no doubt upended the balance of power and comes at a time when the Assad regime needs such assistance the most following setbacks in Idlib, Homs and Aleppo, and as Iran begins to move away from Assad following the Nuclear Deal. However, Russia’s intervention should not be taken as support for Assad himself, but rather as a response to increasing isolation from any international solution on the future of Syria, as well as a fear of a repeat of the Libya scenario just across the border. By intervening militarily and seeking to give the regime greater strength by bombing opposition movements and ISIS, Russia is demonstrating that:
- Syria will not be allowed to fall under NATO’s influence;
- the state institutions will not be allowed to disintegrate so as to become a haven for terrorist groups;
- Russia will not be sidelined in any solution or negotiations concerning the future of Syria.
Though Russia protected the Syrian regime diplomatically, previously it was Iran that provided military support, sending army instructors, advisors and tacticians, with rumours of even Qassim Suleimani-the enigmatic leader of the Quds force-at one point leading the operation to drive the revolutionary forces back following initial successes. Sources suggest that it was Suleimani who effectively destroyed the Free Syria Army’s advance in 2013 and re-established the link between Damascus and Homs, when he instructed Hezbollah in Lebanon to cross the border and seize the town of Qusayr, essentially cutting off the army supply route and forcing the FSA to withdraw.
However, following the Iran Deal, there has been a notable shift in policy towards the Syrian government. Sources within Iran note that announcements of the deaths of martyrs in the Quds force are no longer broadcasted, leading to suggestions that the force is no longer fighting in Syria. Iran has also sought to discuss new proposals with Assad with rumours suggesting that part of these proposals includes focusing on the limited area that the government can still control rather than launching a campaign to restore lost territory. It is believed that the Assad regime vehemently rejected such proposals which Iran sees as crucial in protecting its route to Lebanon where it provides support for its proxy Hezbollah.
Whatever the reasoning behind the change in Iranian foreign policy, the reversal of Assad’s forces has caused much concern within Russia.
The Turkish-Saudi alliance which proved to be a decisive turning point in the fortunes of the rebel movement this year has achieved key victories in Idlib, Aleppo and Homs. Prior to Russian intervention, the Assad regime looked increasingly weaker and its fall was arguably within sight. However, the problem for Russia is that in the event the Syrian regime did fall, the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would have the greatest say in the next regime. Given US policy of seeking to isolate Russia, this is potentially a worst case scenario as it puts a US and NATO ally right on the border; a red line for Putin who has gone to great lengths in Georgia and Crimea to prevent such a scenario.
Libya, following the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, has fallen into chaos with two governments controlling limited territories with armed militia rampant across the entire country. No power currently exists to bring these militias under government authority and negotiations in Morocco remain ongoing with little hope of genuine success in bringing a rapprochement with the conflicting parties. As a result, Libya has become somewhat of a haven for armed militias outside of government control. This is what Russia fears will happen in Syria. Just as the instability in Libya has affected neighbouring countries including Egypt and Tunisia, so too is the instability in Syria likely to have the same effect on Russia.
These fears are not unfounded. The Syrian opposition remains disunited and more extreme groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra have come to the fore of the Syrian revolution, causing much anxiety amongst the international community. Exiled politicians that form the Syrian Opposition Council confess that they have little influence over these groups that are fighting on the ground and it is highly unlikely that any government that comes after Assad will be able to rein them in. Furthermore, ethnic tensions have grown as the war has progressed, with Kurds expressing fear of both the Assad regime and ISIS, and hence have been equipped with weapons by the US. The Alawites fear sectarian reprisals given their domination of the government during Assad’s regime, and pro-revolution media has gone to much lengths to ease fears amongst the Druze, reflective of the latter’s fear of the consequences of the rise of these groups.
Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, told the International Interest that ‘Putin is concerned about an implosion of Syria and a collapse of the state system in the region in general. He evidently wants to position himself as a guardian of stability (together with his partners).’ There is much truth in this statement. For Russia, although Assad himself is dispensable, the state institutions are not. Russia argues that as the situation stands, there is no way to ensure a smooth transition and the fall of the established institutions will be the tipping point that renders the country a ‘failed state’.
As a result of these three fears, it is likely that Syrian opposition claims that Russia has been bombing rebel strongholds instead of ISIS may well be true. Putin will after all seek to place Assad in a stronger position to force a negotiated settlement and that involves halting the revolution’s advance and reinforcing the Syrian army. Russia’s position towards the Syrian opposition is clear and reflected in Sergei Lavrov’s recent statement that the Free Syria Army is a ‘phantom group’.
Rightly or wrongly, the Syrian scene has become much more complex and viable solutions are limited. Whilst Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US insist that Assad cannot be expected to remain in power, Russian claims that the fall of the Syrian state is a disaster for all are not unfounded, and not without reason either.
Russia’s aim will be to prop up the Assad regime long enough to force the US and regional powers to acknowledge that Russia has a decisive say in Syria’s future. Furthermore, given the nature of Syria’s civil war and the likelihood of a prolonged conflict, Russia will seek to increase its influence on the regional powers, reflected in the recent intelligence and military cooperation agreements signed with Iraq, Iran and Syria. With US influence in the region at a low following Gulf dissatisfaction with the Iran deal, Iran’s iron grip on the sectarian militias that form the Popular Mobilisation Force fighting ISIS in Iraq, and Sisi’s frustration at a lack of international recognition and assistance, there is ample opportunity for Russia to become a more influential regional power. And announcing the completion of the construction of Europe’s largest mosque in Moscow is a clear sign of intent that Russia intends to become a new ‘friend’ in the region.