Russia’s Syrian Conundrum
JNS.org – The recent downing of an Iranian drone over Israeli territory has brought Russia’s regional predicament into full view.
The question is — namely — can Russian President Vladimir Putin remain neutral should another Iranian provocation lead to an additional, perhaps stronger, Israeli response? And what are the long-term implications of Russia’s military intervention in Syria to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad?
On one hand, Russia has reached its main objective — setting up naval and air bases on the Mediterranean, and regaining its position as a major world power rivaling the US. On the other hand, the Kremlin is floundering in the quagmire of Syria’s civil war.
The conflicting regional interests between Russia and Israel — despite the otherwise positive relations between Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is only one aspect of the problem.
Syria has become the playing field of major Muslim and Arab countries, such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are all bent on furthering their long-term strategic plans through the conflict. Iran is making an all-out effort to establish itself in the country, threaten Israel and pursue its dream of a Shia crescent in the Middle East. Turkey is determined to prevent the creation of a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, which would encourage Turkey’s PKK party to renew its quest for autonomy. The war against ISIS, meanwhile, is far from over.
Although it was Russian firepower that turned the tide and saved President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from defeat in the civil war, recent political and military developments have shown that Russia can no longer guarantee the regime’s stability. Nevertheless, Putin knows that he must keep on bolstering Assad — a man responsible for the death of half a million of his own people, and guilty of heinous war crimes such as using chemical weapons.
In my view, it was President Barack Obama’s stated intent to disengage from the Middle East, and his refusal to arm and train opposition forces in the first stage of the Syrian civil war, that created the political vacuum which drew in other powers. Obama, bent on negotiating a nuclear deal with Tehran, also turned a blind eye to Iran’s encroachments in Syria, and even reneged on his pledge to intervene should Assad use chemical weapons.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had been largely absent from the Middle East, and Putin seized the opportunity to make a comeback. Though he had significant successes, such as setting up air and naval bases in Syria, he may live to regret his decision to get involved there.
Successive efforts to draft the map of a new Syria have failed dismally.
The Astana forum, convened with Turkey and Iran — and aimed at bringing together Assad and opposition forces, as well as acknowledging the hegemony of the convening powers — was a transparent effort to sideline the UN, which had initiated the so-called Geneva process based on Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015. Despite the opposition forces’ unhappiness with Turkish and Iranian involvement, an agreement was reached, and four de-escalation zones were established, where no military operations would be permitted and civilian populations could return.
But opposition forces soon complained that Russian and Syrian forces, as well as Turkish troops, were blatantly violating the agreement — and they withdrew from the deal. In December 2017, at a new Astana meeting, Russia concluded that the track was dead and convened a “Congress of the Syrian People” in Sochi. Held from January 29-30, it was another failure. There was no representation of Sunni opposition groups among the 1,600 participants allegedly representing all political forces; nor were there Kurds present, since Turkey had launched an attack on their stronghold of Afrin.
Russia made no move to help. The Sochi conference turned into a farce when opposition groups backed by Turkey — offended by huge posters glorifying Assad — refused to leave the airport, and instead returned to Syria. Only Assad’s supporters remained. Unwilling to admit that he found himself bereft of options, Putin then invited Turkey and Iran to a tripartite meeting on a still unspecified date to decide “on their next steps.”
Meanwhile, Putin will be hard-pressed to make good on the promise to bring back most of his troops. He made that promise last December on a visit to his Syrian Khmeimim air base. Not only is there no political deal in sight, but the military situation is degrading quickly. Rebel forces are still holding Idlib and Ghouta, though Russian and Syrian planes continue to ceaselessly bomb civilian areas — at times using chemical weapons such as chlorine gas.
Meanwhile, Syrian ground forces, backed by their Hezbollah allies and by Iranian militias, are not progressing. An attempt by Syrian troops to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces — comprised mainly of fighters from the YPG Kurdish militias — in the Deir ez-Zor area, was met with a strong response. Planes of the American-led coalition killed at least 100 Syrian soldiers.
Rebel opposition forces also show no sign of weakening. In the last few weeks, they have downed a Russian Sukhoi plane and have sent drones to bomb two Russian bases. The drones were shot down, but the battle is far from over. In northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by America, have defeated ISIS and now control some 30,000 square kilometers — from the Turkish to Iraqi borders. And US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated on January 17 that there was no plan to end the American presence there until a stable regime is formed.
With no clear political or military solution in sight, Russia has no choice but to continue backing Assad — and keep significant forces in Syria. It will neither drive Iran out of Syria, nor stop Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds. Russian planes helping Assad in his wholesale slaughter of fighters and civilians are also fostering a deep-seated hatred that may trigger guerrilla operations against Russian troops, leading to growing dissatisfaction in Russia.
And now, there is also the added threat of a full-blown confrontation between Israel and Iran through its Syrian proxy.
Zvi Mazel, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.