Counting on Russia

Russia’s military aid and support to the Syrian government, coupled with the refugee influx into Europe, force the U.S. to drop its regime change agenda and look for a political solution.

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:30 IST

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

WITH THE WESTERN NATIONS PREFERRING to be virtually a bystander as the carnage in Syria goes on unabated and the refugee crisis intensifies, Russia has decided to step into the void to find a solution. Russian political support and military aid have been crucial for the government in Damascus in withstanding the military onslaught financed by the United States (U.S.) and its allies.

In the last two years, the situation on the ground has changed, with American-trained Syrian militias either surrendering or decamping with their weaponry to the Islamic State (I.S.) or the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Recently, an elite militia trained by the Americans refused to fight these two groups. In the third week of September, U.S. President Barack Obama had to finally admit the failure of the American plan to train so-called moderate Syrian forces to take on both the jehadi forces and the Syrian army.

The West is now preoccupied with the bombing of targets linked to the I.S. after having allowed the jehadi menace to fester and grow for more than four years. The military steps that the U.S. and its allies are taking have so far had a minimal impact on the I.S., which remains firmly ensconced in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

According to reports, money and arms from some Gulf monarchies are still reaching groups like al-Nusra. Turkey has been making the case that the al-Nusra front should be treated sympathetically and co-opted as an ally in the fight against the Syrian government. David Petraeus, the former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is among American strategists openly arguing for the incorporation of Al Qaeda affiliates to simultaneously fight the Syrian government and the I.S.

History of using Islamists

The U.S. has a history of using Islamists to pursue its agenda. It was blatant in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the Ronald Reagan administration armed and financed jehadi groups fighting against a secular regime. Al Qaeda itself was formed by a jehadi called Osama bin Laden, who was initially trained by the CIA. Robert Ford, who was the last American ambassador to Syria, has admitted that the U.S. had initially contributed to the arming and financing of the I.S. and the Ahrar al-Sham, another group fighting in Syria which has closes links with Al Qaeda.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly said that the U.S. is not really keen on defeating the I.S. The Obama administration’s main priority is to ensure that the Syrian government does not militarily gain the upper hand. The U.S., despite the dramatic rise of the I.S., remains committed to a regime change in Syria.

Russia has long insisted that the only way to defeat the I.S. in the region is by forming a regional coalition that would include Syria. In early September, Russia dispatched tanks and sophisticated weaponry along with Su-27 fighter planes and T-90 tanks to Syria. Obama had harshly criticised the Russian move initially, saying the strategy in Syria was “doomed to failure”. There were statements from top American officials that the Russian move in Syria constituted a dangerous escalation. Syria is the only West Asian country in which Russia has a military presence, and that too a very limited one in comparison with the American bases that pockmark the region.

For the last four years, Russia has been calling for a political solution to the crisis and for more decisive action against the I.S., which is now in control of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. Both the I.S. and al-Nusra have large numbers of Chechens and other Russian nationals in their ranks. The Islamists in Chechnya had launched a brutal secessionist movement in the Caucasus in the 1990s. Well-wishers of Syria do not want to take any chances, especially since the I.S. and al-Nusra have established a military presence in the provinces of Damascus and Aleppo. The way the major cities of Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq fell to the I.S. has been a warning. If major cities in Syria are captured by the I.S., it will be an excuse for the West to launch a full-scale invasion of Syria. The I.S. is also gaining ground in Afghanistan. If the I.S. contagion remains unchecked, the jehadi flames can seriously singe Russia.

Russia had even mooted the idea of a negotiated political transitional government in 2012, according to Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The U.S. rejected the proposal, confident that Bashar al-Assad would be overthrown in a few months, meeting the fate of Muammar Qaddafi. Top Russian diplomats have been warning the Obama administration about the perils of pursuing the regime change agenda in Syria. All the Russian initiatives and friendly advice were spurned by the West, which until very recently would only settle for outright regime change in Syria. In the last four years, the Syrian army has remained united and kept the Islamist hordes out of Damascus and most of the populated regions of Syria.

The support of Russia and Iran, along with the Hizbollah militia, has been invaluable for the government in Damascus. Turkey continues to be the main conduit through which money and militants still flow into Syria. The Obama administration has established a virtual no-fly zone along the Turkish border with Syria after the Americans were allowed to use the Incirlik air base for bombing raids over Syrian territory. The Turks, on their part, have been bombing Syrian Kurdish militias fighting the I.S., claiming that they are linked to the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to significantly bolster the beleaguered Syrian army was another strong indicator that Russia remains committed to the al-Assad government. Putin has said that the Russian decision was also motivated by the plight of two million Christians in the region who face an existential threat from the I.S. and other Salafist forces. The Russians have said that they may even consider requests for ground troops sympathetically. The Syrian government is insisting that its army still has the capability of defeating the opposition, provided it gets sufficient quantities of sophisticated weaponry. The I.S. is flush with American-supplied equipment, including tanks and Humvees, which it captured in Iraq. During the 2012-14 period the I.S. was trained and supplied by the West and its proxies in the region.

In the third week of September, the Obama administration did a volte-face and finally agreed to start high-level talks with the Russian government on the Syrian issue. This happened after the U.S. failed to stop the transport of Russian weaponry by trying to pressure many countries into closing their airspace to Russian transport planes bound for Syria. Only Bulgaria acceded to the American request. Obama ordered his Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, to initiate talks with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Americans are saying that the “military to military” talks are meant to avoid accidental conflicts between the two sides on Syrian territory. But, off the record, U.S. government officials have been suggesting to the media that the main goal of the talks will be to persuade Putin to be part of the game plan to replace the Bashar al-Assad government.

American Secretary of State John Kerry said the talks “will help to define some of the options that are available to us”. Russia has reiterated that it supports its Syrian ally to the hilt. Kerry recently stated that the U.S. was now not averse to the Syrian President staying in power for some more time. Until a month ago, “Bashar must go” was the chorus emanating from Western capitals. Kerry said that the U.S. was now trying to find “common ground” with Russia. He said the focus remained on destroying the I.S. and finding a political solution with respect to Syria.

Kerry also said that the U.S. was of the view that a political settlement in Syria “cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad”. The gargantuan refugee influx into Europe, triggered by the war in Syria, is another key factor that has motivated the U.S. to change its stance and start looking for a political solution. More than 250,000 Syrians have perished in the war and half of the country’s population has turned into refugees.

The Americans also have concluded that a forcible regime change is no longer an option, given the Russian military presence in Syria. In the first telephonic conversation between Shoigu and Carter, the two sides agreed to continue discussions “on mechanisms of deconfliction”. Russia wants the U.S. to join in the efforts to stabilise Syria. Russian officials believe that the only way to do so is by strengthening the al-Assad government.

Russia wants the Obama administration to prevail on its allies, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to stop helping the jehadi groups. It also wants the creation of a genuine anti-I.S. coalition that would coordinate attacks and tactics with the Syrian army on the ground. The West has to start talking with Bashar al-Assad if it seriously wants to end the humanitarian tragedy and bring the I.S. to heel.

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