Russian troops in Syria: End of war or start of new one?

Does arrival of Russian troops in Syria signify initiation of global cooperation to solve crisis, or evolution of crisis from civil war to international war?

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Feb 24, 2016

Earlier this month, reports began to emerge speculating that Russia was sending military experts and supplies to Syria to provide support for the country’s embattled regime leader Bashar al Assad. The reports alarmed Western nations, particularly the US, which has aired its concerns saying that the presence of Russian ground troops in Syria could escalate the four-and-a-half-year-old conflict that has led to the deaths of an estimated 250,000 and displaced around half the country’s population. 

“The US considers that the support for Syrian President Bashar Assad is destabilising and counterproductive," White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned on Sept. 4.

Russia, however, has denied that it plans to send combat troops to Syria to fight opposition forces who seek to topple Assad. Instead, Russia insists it is only sending military advisers to help the regime defend itself from the threat posed by the ISIS militant group. Russia has also admitted sending arms to the Syrian regime along with cargo planes delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by the civil war, arguing that Moscow had been openly supplying weapons and sending military specialists to Syria for a long time.

Two Western officials speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity claimed weapons delivered to the Assad regime included advanced anti-aircraft missiles, even though neither ISIS nor Syrian opposition groups are in possession of fighter jets. With hundreds of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS ranks since the Al Qaeda offshoot became involved in Syria hailing from Russia’s oil-rich Caucasus region, Russia no doubt faces the threat of battle-hardened militants returning to carry on their fight in their homeland.

But according to reports, Russia has mainly been concentrating its activities in Syria along the country’s eastern Mediterranean coastal governorates of Tartus and Latakia - both strongholds of the regime and Assad’s minority Alawite sect. So far, the Assad regime has largely prevented opposition forces gaining a foothold in Syria’s coastal regions, apart from when the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab near the Turkish border briefly fell to opposition forces including the Nusra Front in early 2014.

While gaining access to the coast would provide a vital lifeline allowing the import of supplies for the Syrian opposition coalition group the Fatah Army, which in March 2015 cemented their control of the strategic Idlib governorate with the help of the Nusra Front, the rebel forces have struggled to advance south from Jisr al Shughour and across the Sahl al-Ghab plain, located in the Hama governorate between Idlib and Latakia’s al-Ansariyah mountain range.

Nonetheless, Russia is adamant on making sure opposition forces do not reach the Syrian coast, where the Assad regime is not only protecting its main power base, but is also safeguarding Russian interests in the eastern Mediterranean. According to US officials, 28 Russian fighter jets were spotted deployed at the Bassel al Assad airport in Latakia, while Russian media has confirmed that around 1,700 Russian military specialists have been deployed in Tartus, where Russia is expanding its only naval repair base in the Mediterranean, which is key to Russia's maintaining any kind of substantial naval presence in region.

Rival coalitions

Equally important to demonstrating their military prowess, Russia is determined to keep its influence over the Syrian coast, as having an ally in the region will give Moscow access to significant offshore gas reserves currently being explored and exploited in the eastern Mediterranean.

In the summer of 2013, the US sent its warships to the eastern Mediterranean in preparation for a campaign against Damascus after the Assad regime allegedly carried out a chemical attack on civilians in the rebel-held suburbs of Douma and Ghouta. War was only averted when Russia proposed the Assad regime surrender its chemical arms, to which the regime complied.

Had the US directly engaged the Assad regime in 2013, this would have certainly tilted the balance of the civil war in the favour of the opposition, but the withdrawal of US warships left the civil war in a stalemate, allowing ISIS to take advantage of the power vacuum in the country and establish the de facto capital of their self-proclaimed state in the city of Raqqa.

Especially after breaking through the Sykes-Picot border dividing Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, ISIS has been increasingly threatening both Russian and American interests in the region, launching attacks on both regime forces and Syrian opposition groups, as well as engaging Kurdish YPG militants in the north of the country.

Following the fall of Mosul on the Iraqi side of the border to ISIS in June 2014, the US began organising an international coalition to conduct airstrikes on ISIS targets in both Iraq and Syria. Although the year-old campaign has certainly slowed the ISIS advance, US-led efforts to destroy ISIS completely have proved to be futile.

The US has also struggled to identify more than a few dozen opposition forces matching its criteria who are willing to volunteer for the American train-and-equip programme based in Turkey. The first division of Syrian volunteers for the programme were kidnapped by the Nusra Front within hours of entering Idlib, only to be released days later. Despite this initial embarrassment, the US continues to train and equip allied Syrian fighters to combat ISIS. Therefore, the US is concerned that a Russian military build up in Syria could result in Russian troops directly clashing with US-backed rebels.

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Moscow and Washington to revive communications between military commanders in order to avoid "unintended incidents" in Syria. Following this, the US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Sept. 18 that the US and Russia are preparing to open military-to-military dialogue in the hope of finding a solution to the worsening crisis. Later that evening, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu agreed to “further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria” in their first telephone conversation since August 2014.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov

However, US State Department spokesman John Kirby previously said the US was against new Russian-led efforts to combat ISIS, adding that the US-led coalition was already fulfilling that role. Moreover, the US refuses to support any anti-ISIS coalition or any solution to the Syrian civil war that includes Assad. Russian, on the other hand, insists that Assad must be included in the solution process.

New dynamics

Meanwhile, Russia’s intentions in Syria remain unclear, but suggestions have been made that Assad may be preparing to make some concessions in a political transition to end the war. Speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok earlier in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Assad will be willing to call a snap parliamentary election and share power with a “healthy opposition," without elaborating further.

A number of previous attempts by the Assad regime to undertake reforms on the road to democracy after the uprising started failed to convince the majority of Syrian people, as well as the international community, that such moves are genuine. In February 2012, a referendum was held on constitutional reforms which would limit the rule of a president to two seven-year terms while the regime continued to bomb opposition-held parts of the country.

Although Syrian officials said that nearly 90 percent backed the reforms with a 57 percent turnout, the referendum was dismissed as a sham by a number of Western officials and was boycotted by the country’s biggest opposition groups - the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria.

Russian plane in Latakia

Syria also held a presidential election in regime-controlled areas in June 2014, with Assad triumphing over two other candidates with 88 percent of the vote. According to the regime’s constitutional court, the turnout was 73 percent, but this figure has been highly doubted. US Secretary of State John Kerry at the time called the election, which saw 21 candidates barred from running before they were held, “meaningless.” The European Union, meanwhile, said that the elections were “illegitimate and undermine the political efforts to find a solution” to the conflict.

Assad, however, in an interview with Russian TV, recently said that he will not quit under foreign pressure while saying that the president "comes to power with the people's assent through elections, and if he leaves, he leaves if the people demand it." He also added that Iran was supporting his regime "politically, economically and militarily."

In July, Assad conceded that his forces were no longer able to defend the entire country. "Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto," he said, adding "We must define the important regions that the armed forces hold onto so it doesn't allow the collapse of the rest of the areas."

Therefore, whether Russia is intending to support Assad remaining the head of a united post-war Syria is questionable, considering that Assad himself admits that he does not have the manpower to administer the entire country. Another possibility is that the Russians may be intending to redraw Syria’s borders to create an Alawite state in along the country’s eastern Mediterranean coast in accordance with a French mandate from 1922.  

The extent and nature of Russian-American communications in Syria regarding their parallel and possibly overlapping operations against ISIS is also unclear. There has generally been an increasing air of cooperation to bring about a political solution to the Syria crisis since Assad’s main backer Iran agreed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, the UK, Russia, China and France) plus Germany to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions in July.

The need for a political solution was reaffirmed in a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in August, while US Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a political transition away from Assad that doesn't necessarily have to be immediate.

National unity

Following a visit to Moscow in August, Khaled Khoja, the head of the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, stated that "the Russian leadership isn't clinging to Bashar Assad" but rather is aiming to preserve Syria's territorial integrity. However, the meeting did not clarify whether Khoja’s statements signaled a shift in Russia’s Syrian policies, or merely showed an attempt by Moscow to rally Syrian opposition support as a new push to aid in bringing peace to the nation.

Furthermore, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Europe to cooperate with Russia to end the civil war in Syria after meeting Lavrov in Berlin, indicating that Iran may be using its leverage as a potential gas supplier to Europe to boost the Assad regime and cooperation with Russia.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

Israel also adds another dimension to the conflict, as they raise concerns over Russian military aid being given to the Assad regime winding up in the hands of the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime against Sunni opposition groups in the south of the country. Hezbollah activity particularly around the Golan Heights, which Israel illegally annexed from Syria in 1981, has prompted Israel to launch airstrikes in Syria targeting the group as well as commanders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards operation in the region.

During a visit to Moscow on Sept. 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to coordinate their airstrikes in Syria in order to avoid hitting each other. A month earlier, Assad told the Hezbollah-linked Al Manar television channel in an interview that fighting Israel was no longer a priority, and that instead his regime would focus on fighting opposition forces in the country.

Meanwhile, Turkey has made no secret of its desire to establish a buffer zone along its border with Syria, where it hopes to deploy the Free Syrian Army to keep out more hostile groups like ISIS and the PKK-affiliated Kurdish YPG forces. Turkey has long stood against the YPG taking control of northern Syria, which they call Rojava, or western Kurdistan, where the militants hope to establish their Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Turkey also insists that a solution to the Syria conflict cannot include Assad, and that Syria must maintain its national unity. On Sept. 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to fly to meet his Russian counterpart Putin in Moscow, where the two leaders are expected to tackle the Syria issue.

After four-and-a-half years of conflict, the big players are finally communicating on ending the Syrian war. However, although it is now possible to imagine a post-war Syria, the nature and future political makeup of Syria is still a topic of debate - that is if what is left over by the war can even be called Syria at all.

Author: Ertan Karpazli