Emma Graham-Harrison, Alec Luhn — Guardian.co.uk Sept 27, 2015
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s dramatic deployment of soldiers, weapons and aircraft to Syria is aimed at reshaping not just a civil war on the edge of the Mediterranean but Russia’s standing in the international community.
Moscow has been isolated for years by sanctions slapped on the country as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Doubling down on his support for the beleaguered Syrian regime, Putin sent a clear signal that there would be no solution to the bloody quagmire without Moscow.
“Putin and Kremlin had a clear goal to overcome international isolation because of Ukraine,” says Alexander Golts, military analyst and deputy editor of a news site that was censored hours after Crimea was annexed. “The idea of an anti-Isis coalition looked like some kind of excellent bridge to overcome isolation, and it appears to have worked.”
Last week’s military expansion around Russia’s Latakia airbase captured on satellite pictures is not purely posturing. Russia is keen to hold on to its only air and naval bases in the Mediterranean, averse to letting regime change sought by the west go ahead, and worried about the influence of radical Islamists in Muslim areas.
But by sending a few thousand troops to well-protected bases, where they are not currently expected to do more than train and support Syrians, Putin has broken out of diplomatic isolation, staked out Russia’s claim to a strategic presence in the Middle East, and made a case that no deal can be done in any international conflict without Russia.
A couple of months ago the Russian leader would have arrived at the UN for the general assembly meeting as a virtual pariah. Now he has a meeting set with Barack Obama, and the lingering European conflict will be politely ignored as leaders gathered in New York wait eagerly for his suggestions as to how they can edge back from the brink in Syria.
“The Russian goal is to reassert their pivotal role in handling any global crisis,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute thinktank. “Without Syria, a man known for aggression in Ukraine has to stand up and explain himself. Now everyone appears to have forgotten what happened in Ukraine and they [will be] hanging on every word. That’s quite a turnaround.”
The price of this transformation has been the deployment of up to 2,000 troops to an airbase in Syria, along with 24 warplanes, tanks, helicopters and anti-aircraft complexes. A Russian soldier told news site Gazeta.ru recently that 1,700 troops were already at the naval base in Tartus and were renovating the pier there.
Some in the west have expressed concerns about the military buildup, with British defence secretary Michael Fallon warning that it “will only complicate what’s already a very complicated and difficult situation”. His US counterpart Ashton Carter said that fighting without working towards a political situation would “pour gasoline” on the conflict.
But western policy over Syria is in such disarray that Russia’s brand of ruthless realpolitik has turned Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, into an unexpected trump card. Even in European capitals, politicians who once called for his ouster are grudgingly starting to argue that the dictator is his country’s only grim hope for some kind of stability.
US plans to train and arm moderate rebels who could fight Islamic State have crumbled with the disintegration of the units themselves. They are now down to just a few fighters and have handed equipment to al-Qaida.
The rebel militias offering the biggest challenge to Assad are also Islamists – some with links to al-Qaida, so would make uncomfortable allies for Washington. With little end to the conflict in sight, Russia is presenting Assad as the only hope for stability.
In reality, bolstering Assad will not necessarily resolve two of Europe’s top concerns – Isis and the flow of refugees from Syria. Assad has focused his attention largely on fighting other groups, leaving the battle against Isis inside Syria mostly in the hands of western air power, Kurdish militias and any rebels whose territorial ambitions put them into conflict with the Raqqa-based group.
Nor are all or even most Syrian refugees fleeing Isis. Exact numbers of civilian casualties are hard to pin down,because of the intensity of the conflict, but almost all observers agree that Assad’s forces have killed more Syrians than any other group. They have eschewed the publicity that Isis courts, but their barrel bombs have deliberately targeted civilian neighbourhoods, fuelling an exodus.
The wider resolution of the conflict that the west seeks may not be within Russia’s grasp. There is no evidence that Moscow has a clearer understanding than western policymakers of the complex web of warring factions that have made the war so complicated.
Nor does there seem any real appetite in Moscow, among military or ordinary citizens, for a large-scale intervention that would see Russians fighting alongside Syrians. The US-led wars of the past decade that have made the west so wary of putting boots back on the ground to tackle Isis or stop the bloodshed in Syria have a counterpoint in Russian memories of their disastrous intervention in Afghanistan. Even as costs and deaths spiralled, the mujahideen fought on in a war that some historians think contributed to the collapse of the superpower, and which has not been forgotten at home. The death toll rose so high that bodies were brought home and buried in secret.
Already a group of Russian soldiers has refused to be deployed to Syria, news site Gazeta.ru reported last week. Their lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, said the authorities were pressuring the soldiers with threats of criminal charges.
After Dmitry Gudkov, the only liberal opposition member of Russia’s Kremlin-loyal parliament, sent an official request to the defence ministry for information on its activities in Syria, the ministry replied that troops were there but were not directly participating in the conflict.
“I don’t know if this will become a second Afghanistan, I hope not,” Gudkov said. “For now, it looks like they’re strengthening their negotiating position.
There is concern in Russia about the influence of radical Islamists in Muslim areas and neighbouring nations. An estimated 2,400 Russians are fighting in the ranks of Isis, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“They are concerned about the Russian speakers who have joined the most radical groups,” said Nikolay Kozhanov, an analyst at Chatham House. “You can argue about whether they actually pose a threat, but for the Kremlin it’s simple. They do.”
The naval and airbases that Moscow is renovating and expanding are important listening posts in the area. Russia has been trying to expand its presence in the region, this year adopting a new naval doctrine that foresees a “sufficient permanent military-naval presence” there.
A bigger role in Middle Eastern politics could also benefit Russia commercially amid falling oil prices, boosting its other main exports: arms and nuclear technology. Iran is a major buyer of Russian weapons, and the leaders of other countries, including US ally Saudi Arabia, have recently come to Russia to discuss deals. “I think our government has understood that it needed to play its own role in the region rather than just being an intermediary,” said Leonid Isayev, a professor at Russia’s Higher School of Economics, arguing that the lifting of sanctions in Iran has reduced Russia’s usefulness as a go-between for Tehran and the west.
For now, Putin has made major gains for a relatively modest outlay, but he is playing politics with an unpredictable war. If Assad’s control slips further, Moscow may be faced with an uncomfortable choice between abandoning the Syrian dictator or making far more difficult sacrifices. “But in trying to reach this goal, he stepped onto a very dangerous track, which can move towards very difficult and maybe tragic things.”