Russia’s gambit

REACTIONS to the Russian intervention in Syria essentially fall into three categories: ambivalence, consternation and enthusiasm.

The first of these is the broad Western response. There was little question of deterring Moscow once it had made its mind up to step in, and given that its official agenda highlighted a determination to combat the self-styled Islamic State (also referred to as Daesh, ISIS and ISIL), the West found it difficult to reject a military role for Russia out of hand.

There was a sharp intake of breath when the first Russian air strikes struck targets apparently unconnected with IS, and the determination to prop up the Assad regime appears to have taken some commentators by surprise. That’s a disingenuous response, given that ‘stabilising’ the government in Damascus was Moscow’s clear-cut objective from the outset, and there was always the likelihood that it would be more indiscriminate in defining terrorism than the US and its allies.

Regarding Syria, there’s a belief that Putin knows what he’s doing.

The consternation comes mainly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, all of which are partners to some extent in the US-led military action against IS, but are at the same time convinced that Syria’s key problem is Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have claimed far more Syrian lives than IS and the plethora of other opposition groups.

Violations of Turkish airspace by Russian fighter jets elicited an astringent response from Ankara, with Nato’s hawkish secretary general Jens Stoltenberg chiming in with the opinion that what Moscow sought to excuse as a navigational error was in fact intentional. It is, of course, perfectly possible that Russia’s aim was to intimidate Turkey, even though it is hardly likely to go out of its way to invite a confrontation with Nato. But then, Vladimir Putin is well aware that however much the likes of Stoltenberg might fret and fume, Nato cannot act without Washington’s imprimatur. And the US is disinclined, at least for the moment, to decree Russia an adversary in the Syrian context.

Enthusiasm for the intervention, meanwhile, springs largely from wishful thinking. There are several dimensions to it, but arguably the primary one is the assumption that robust use of military force will somehow help to conclude a conflict that has claimed a quarter of a million lives, apart from precipitating human displacement on a scale not witnessed for at least 70 years.

There is a belief that Putin, unlike his vacillating American counterpart, knows what he is doing, and stands a far better chance of succeeding than the West, whose half-hearted military action against IS has been compromised by its simultaneous determination to see off Assad. Besides, the recent record of US-led interventions in the region speaks for itself: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Some commentators have even noted that while Russia was attacking terrorists in Homs and Hama, the US was busy bombing a Médecins sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz.

There is no excuse for the latter atrocity. Let’s not forget, though, that Afghanistan was also the victim of the last major Russian intervention outside its immediate zone of influence. That, too, was formally predicated on an intervention from a beleaguered ally — even though in the case of Afghanistan, the first measure the invading troops took was to assassinate the incumbent leader. The consequences, for both Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, proved to be extremely dire.

The prospect of a repetition is unlikely to be giving Assad sleepless nights, at least for the time being. It is widely held that Putin pounced when he did precisely because the zone controlled by the government in Damascus was rapidly receding. If the idea behind Moscow’s actions is to preserve Syria in the shape in which it endured for nearly a century following the post-First World War colonial division of the spoils (to which Russia would have been a party but for the Bolshevik revolution), it will likely prove to be an impossible task.

A bifurcated or trifurcated Syria is easier to imagine, albeit unpleasant to contemplate. Even such an outcome, however, will ultimately require a bout of difficult diplomacy rather than a strictly military solution. In either case, indications from Russia that it contemplates its air strikes lasting for just three months or so would appear to be a gross underestimate.

Perhaps that’s intended largely for domestic consumption. The air force-led intervention isn’t unpopular, but only a small proportion of Russians favour the deployment of ground forces — which helps to explain why Moscow has been speaking about deploying ‘volunteers’ rather than regular forces. There is, of course, an echo of Ukraine in that term, and there can be little question that Putin has been motivated in part by the desire to reassert himself as a global player after being effectively ostracised by the powers that be following the Crimean annexation and related developments.

It would be a mistake, though, to rate too highly his chances of pulling off a bloody miracle in Syria.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2015

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