It is Advantage Russia in Big Power Games in Syria and Iraq

Russia has won round one through its offensive in Syria, but its challenges will multiply, writes Syed Ata Hasnain.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
In this photo taken on Saturday, October 10, 2015, Syrian soldiers  fire a cannon in Lattakia province,  in Syria. Backed by Russian air strikes, the Syrian army has launched an offensive in central and northwestern regions of the country. (Photo: AP)

In June 2015, I traveled to Moscow to interact with some Russian intellectuals. There appeared a fair degree of clarity about threats to Russia and the international community in general; principal among these were from the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh which appeared to dominate most strategic discussions. Central Asia and in particular the energy/gas-rich states were considered extremely vulnerable.

The academics were well versed with national and international security issues and they too echoed the perception of the hardcore security specialists. With information flowing in about the Daesh’s entry into Afghanistan there appeared a degree of certainty that the threat would travel northwards because Central Asia offered suitable hunting ground for the spread of radical ideology.

The Russians suspected that the Dagestan and Chechnya militancy would provide the core model and Afghanistan’s clandestine and illegal drug culture would be the financer of this mission. This was the reason why Daesh was so deeply interested in moving into the Afghanistan region.

In this file photo made from the footage taken from Russian defence ministry official website on Friday, October 9, 2015, a bomb is released from Russian Su-34 strike fighter in Syria. (Photo: AP)
In this file photo made from the footage taken from Russian defence ministry official website on Friday, October 9, 2015, a bomb is released from Russian Su-34 strike fighter in Syria. (Photo: AP)

The Russians in Lattakia

Three months later, it did not come out as breaking news but crept through online portals just around the time that Vladimir Putin reached New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. The Russians were in North Syria, deployed around the port city of Lattakia where they had harbour facilities. There were multi-role aircraft, drones, tanks and other combat vehicles.

The Russians in their first truly overseas deployment seem to have come well prepared. Their 10-year-old war in Afghanistan was fought in their front yard. They lost and withdrew due to the proxy war fought by the US through the Mujahideen. This time they seem to be justifying it due to the failure of the US to adequately respond to the threat of Daesh in West Asia, and the inability of the local powers to get their act together. Is that the only cause for this move?

Bashar Assad and his Allawites, to whose rescue the Russians have come, have been the recipients of Russian support for long. Even in the UN Security Council Russia used its veto many times in support of Syria. From a geo-strategic angle Syria is close to the Russian ‘near abroad’ and its access to the Mediterranean through Lattakia offers Russia a toehold in West Asia, after it lost its hold over Egypt during Anwar Sadat’s leadership.

Snapshot

Russia Tries to Prove a Point

  • Russia aids the Syrian army in launching an offensive against the rebels in the city of Lattakia
  • Putin and Bashar Assad’s ties go a long way back when Russia stood by Syria at the UN on several occasions
  • Supporting the Shia combine in Syria will enable Russia wield influence in the Persian Gulf region
  • Inability of the United States to launch a military offensive against the Islamic State explains Russia’s aggression
  • Russia may have succeeded in garnering attention from the West, its challenges will however, multiply in days to come

Putin’s Gambit

Now that Putin is muscling Russia’s way into big power games, especially after Ukraine/Crimea, it is imperative to maintain that toehold in the restive region where the dynamics do not appear to ever settle down. The Russians once had a hold over Iraq but that terminated with the Gulf wars. The Persian Gulf is an important area for Russia, not from the energy angle but rather from the point of future ideological movement in the region.

In this photo taken on Saturday, October 10, 2015, backed by Russian air strikes, Syrian soldiers  operate a cannon in Lattakia province in Syria. (Photo: AP)
In this photo taken on Saturday, October 10, 2015, backed by Russian air strikes, Syrian soldiers operate a cannon in Lattakia province in Syria. (Photo: AP)

Balancing the Gulf’s Salafi orientation (Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular) with a strong relationship with Iran is in Russia’s interest and what better way than by supporting the Shia combine in Syria. This may not send the most positive messages to Russia’s own largely Sunni Islamic population but that can still be overcome through subtle internal diplomacy; the advantage of retaining influence in the Persian Gulf and in Syria outweighs everything else.

Thus while it is important to proactively target the Daesh in its own land and prevent its proliferation into Asia or anywhere close to Russia, the need for Moscow to get back to power games is possibly being considered an equally important imperative.

American Dithering

Russia was led into this by the dithering and waywardness of US strategic policy in West Asia, its reluctance to lend muscle to the military campaign against Daesh and the very awkward stand of supporting the Al Qaeda surrogates such as Al Nusra against the Assad regime and Daesh fighters. On the other hand, this surprised most observers and possibly the US intelligence and strategic community too because such a move on the part of Russia could have been expected if its economy was on a roll and diplomatically it was many notches higher.

Iran’s involvement too, in cooperating with Russia at a time when the nuclear deal is not fully cemented, may be considered a surprise by some. In this regard Iran would have analysed its own strengths and perceived that without its support the end of Daesh would remain inconceivable. Its cooperation with the US and its allies remained at best tentative more because of US reluctance. The first chance it got to engage in a partnership to see the end of Daesh was grabbed.

At the moment it is advantage Russia in the big power game which is  unpredictable and the Daesh is a very tricky opponent. (Photo: AP)
At the moment it is advantage Russia in the big power game which is unpredictable and the Daesh is a very tricky opponent. (Photo: AP)

So the compulsions for Russia to surprise the world with its decisiveness appear rational. At the moment it is advantage Russia in the big power game but such games are unpredictable and the Daesh is a very tricky opponent. Besides, the presence of players on the sidelines in the form of Saudi Arabia and Israel will keep Russia’s options limited. Much will now depend on the weight of military operations and potential success, the subject for the follow up article to this.

(The writer is a former General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and now associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group)

This is the first of a two-part series. To be concluded.

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