international analysis and commentary

Peacemaker or peace-breaker: Russia’s emerging role in Syria


A wave of nightmarish terrorism starting with the downing of a chartered Russian plane in Sinai followed by the devastating bombings in Beirut and most recently the shocking attacks in Paris have the commonality of the war in Syria. These incidents, with a combined tally of fatalities nearing 500 people, came in tandem with the start of a new effort to kick start a peace process in Vienna to end the war in Syria, where a quarter of a million lives have been lost and millions of people have been left homeless. This murderous cycle appears to have no end in sight.

Moscow’s supporters have argued all along that Russian policy towards Syria has been realistic and balanced. Critics have been unrelenting in blaming Russia and its President Vladimir Putin of not only mendacity in dealing with foreign powers over Syria but also of a concerted effort to manipulate and stoke the fires of the conflict for cynical political gains.

A glance at the developments surrounding the Syrian conflict reveals an interesting evolution of Moscow’s stance. Initially, when the Syrian uprising was largely peaceful and international sympathy with the opposition was strong, Russia claimed that its only concern was to prevent Western military intervention and that it sought to support the moderate opposition as part of a peaceful transition. Putin denied that they were arming the Syrian government and that their supply of advanced rockets and refurbished helicopters was only a fulfilment of a previously signed contract. Moscow attempted to convince major Sunni countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that it was not supporting the Syrian president but was concerned about protecting Syrian sovereignty by preventing the West from military action similar to the situation that had taken place in Libya, leading to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddaffi – and to chaos in the aftermath.

As the brutality of the Syrian government intensified, which included several massacres in cities such as Jisr al-Shoughour and chemical attacks against civilian areas, Moscow then worked with the United States to dismantled Syria’s chemical program, which was achieved with relative success. By doing so Russia was able to display a positive role in international affairs courtesy of its special relationship with Assad.

With the rise of ISIS Moscow’s rhetoric shifted once more, emphasizing that the goal was no longer defending Syrian sovereignty or containing the actions of the Syrian regime but primarily to fight against Islamic terrorism. Thus by late 2015 Putin justified not only intervention in Syria, but taking pre-emptive action against potential terrorist activity in Syria. This resulted in the start of a major Russian military campaign utilizing the air force, intelligence and long-range missiles.

What became evident was that Russia’s military campaign was directly targeting all the Syrian opposition including moderate and secular forces fighting the Assad regime. This coincided with a more brazen rhetoric by Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that Moscow was indeed supporting the Syrian leader, who was invited to Moscow in November to meet Putin in a highly publicized visit.

This increasingly apparent alignment by Putin and Russia with the Syrian regime, as well as Iran and Hezbollah, has a strong impact both in terms of the regional equation and the perception of Moscow’s role. For the Syrian opposition, the Saudis, Qataris, Turks and to a large extent Britain and France, Putin’s actions reeked of deceitfulness. The unabashed shift towards a pro-Assad stance and direct military intervention to keep him in power merely confirmed the worst fears among the Syrian opposition and in the Arab world: that Russia had been buying time all the while and that it continues to play the game of bleeding the opposition, thus increasing the legitimacy of Assad.

Russia’s stance has created a new challenge in that clear alignments have taken shape, with Russia supporting Shiite Muslim forces represented by Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, in turn propping up Alawite Syria against Sunni powers led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and much of the Arab and Sunni world. To further complicate matters, Russia continued to provide the Syrian regime with advanced weapons as well as intelligence support that were specifically intended to give it a military advantage on the ground. Most crucial was the timing of the Russian intervention, which has apparently saved a true military collapse of the pro-Assad forces.

Since the start of the conflict in 2011 Putin ignored repeated pleas by the United States, Britain, France as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia for an international settlement and vetoed any Resolutions at the United Nations Security Council which prioritized the removal of Assad. Even with the Vienna negotiating process, Russia has emphasized international consensus on fighting terrorism rather than a genuine political transition in Syria and underscored the commitment to the Assad regime by associating the opposition with terrorism.

Overall there has been an impression that Putin has achieved major tactical successes in the handling of the Syrian conflict. Only recently Forbes magazine named President Vladimir Putin the most powerful man for 2015. Yet despite the short-term boost for Putin’s prestige there are strong arguments to suggest that such actions could backfire. The Russian airline disaster over Sinai in early November highlighted the risks involved in a military involvement in the Middle East – which has antagonized important components of the Arab and Muslim world. This could be translated into economic retaliation by important countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia and more dangerously internal dissent in Russia by its 20 million or so Muslim citizens.

Among the main contradictions of Russia’s military operation in Syria has been the focus against Syrian opposition groups that might end up giving ISIS the upper hand in relation to more moderate (or less extreme) militias or movements. The Syrian reality on the ground does not feature just two choices: the existing regime or ISIS. There is a whole array of armed groups, with shifting allegiances by their members. This is the complicated context in which Russia has now forcefully inserted itself.

In any case, as Islamic terror strikes around the world on an unprecedented scale, there is a genuine risk that such a tactic could backfire against Russia itself and one day threaten the country’s internal security and national cohesion.

In the meantime, by making the conflict in the Middle East even more complicated than it is already, the possibility of a multilateral diplomatic success in which Moscow seems to have a genuine stake has become more remote. Russia’s own military commitment in Syria becomes more long-term and the intervention could quickly become a quagmire in the same way the United States found itself trapped in Iraq or the Soviet Union had suffered in Afghanistan. The downing of a Russian fighter jet on the Turkish-Syrian border on November 24 threatened to obliterate almost two decades worth of goodwill and confidence building between the two countries and added to the sense that military plans to cooperate have hit a brick wall.

As 2015 comes to a close and we approach five years of horrific conflict in Syria the prevailing sense is that Russia’s role has been anything but helpful, and indeed Putin may yet be judged by history as a spoiler and one of the architects of the still unfolding Syrian tragedy.