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#4929, 2 November 2015

Spotlight West Asia

Potential Implications of Russia’s Military Involvement in Syria
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India

Russia’s massive military intervention in Syria that began on 30 September 2015 took the world by complete surprise. Moscow has inducted 12 Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, 12 Su-24 bombers, six Su-34 strike fighters, four Su-30 fighters, 21 helicopters – including 16 Mi-24 attack helicopters – as well as six tanks, and 15 artillery pieces etc. at their air base in Latakia, Syria, in addition to 500 military personnel. They conducted a cruise missile attack from across the Caspian Sea, demonstrating hardware and capabilities that were insofar not witnessed. They have been engaged in daily and increasing airstrikes primarily against the anti-regime Islamist groups including the al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as the Western-supported Syrian National Army and other ‘secular’ groups, with only a few directed against the Islamic State (IS). In contrast to about 7300 – less than 2500 in Syria – airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria since August 2014 (according to Secretary of State Kerry speaking in Vienna on 30 October 2015), the Russians have already carried out almost 1000 airstrikes in Syria in just one month.

Russia has clearly signaled that it has returned to West Asia in a big way and is determined to protect its interests.

The primary objective appears to be to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the immediate short term. Adding focused momentum to a far more aggressive approach towards fighting the IS is the secondary objective, but for the longer term. The US and its allies have been hypocritically criticising Russian intervention even though they themselves have been doing precisely the same for decades but particularly after the widespread unrest that swept across the Arab world since the winter of 2010-2011.

The Russian intervention is already proving to be a game-changer. It has been a godsend for Assad, greatly boosting the regime’s sagging morale and that of its armed forces. His army had been greatly weakened due to defections, mainly of the Sunni conscript element, and due to the non-stop fighting over the past four years; the regime has been steadily ceding territory to the IS as well as to the myriad of other Islamist groups funded and armed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Assad had been finding it increasingly difficult even to hold on to cities and territory in the strategically vital Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, Homs and Idlib Provinces. With robust air cover provided by Russian airstrikes, Assad’s forces can start liberating and holding territory particularly in the extremely strategically vital corridor connecting Damascus and Aleppo. Russian help provides Assad’s military the distinct possibilities to regain the upper hand in the conflict at least in Western Syria.

Russian intervention has paved the way for open and enhanced Iranian involvement in Syria. Last week, Brig Gen Hossein Salami, Deputy Commander, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Iran is increasing the quality and quantity of its presence in Syria with Iranian officers providing tactical help for Syrian commanders in direct battles, as well as weapons and ordnance, operational assistance and help with strategic planning. It is believed that they are between 1000 to 2000 Iranian troops in Syria.

Despite its unhappiness the US has perforce had to sign a MoU with Russia to ensure that there are no accidental run-ins between their two air forces operating in the Syrian airspace. It has also been forced to modify its tactics by the deputation of 50 Special Forces personnel in the war against the IS, with the possibility of increase in the numbers.

“Russia's entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in a televised interview broadcast on 03 October 2015. Iraq too has requested Russian airstrikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by high ranking senior military officers paid a visit to Russia two weeks ago. The US and Saudi Arabia had egregiously prevented Iran from participating in international conferences on Syria – this has suddenly changed and Iran was an active participant in the 19-nation conference held in Vienna earlier this week. Russia and Iran will ensure that Assad is not defeated in the battlefield. That being the case, the Saudi demand that he should step down before negotiations can commence to end the civil war is totally and absolutely unrealistic and will simply not happen. Only Russia and Iran can persuade Assad to make compromises and therefore these two countries are completely indispensable to reaching a solution which ends the civil war.

Those advocating regime change need to seriously ponder over the fact that today, the internal situations in both Iraq and Libya are far worse than they were when Saddam and Gaddafi were in power. Intrusive military interventions by foreign countries in Libya and Iraq are not examples to be emulated but instead shunned.

Russia’s intervention in Syria is going to prevent regime change through such means. The huge array of different and competing Islamist jihadi groups, including thousands of foreigners, cannot possibly come up with a cohesive and acceptable alternative government. It is beginning to appear that Assad is going to be around for some more time at least but the civil war is no nearer to ending yet.

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