Russia’s Intervention in Syrian War
By Asif Haroon Raja
Global war on terror was launched by the US under George Bush and its western allies to make the world peaceful but made a mess of everything. Today the world has become a dangerous place to live since no corner of the world is safe from terrorism. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Middle East (ME) as a whole and parts of North Africa have suffered the most and are still in the vortex of chaos. Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are submerged in turmoil. The US finds itself helpless how to end the war since sub-national forces have mushroomed and are out of control. However, the chaos is exactly in line with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Joe Biden plan to change the ME boundaries and capture oil.
Looking back, after occupying Iraq in 2003 and forcibly deposing Qaddafi regime in 2011, the US-NATO assisted by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Gulf States, EU, and Turkey fomented trouble in Syria in the same year to oust Bashar al Asad regime which is supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Free Syrian Army (FSA) termed as moderates, Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda, and 27 other militant groups, and later on ISIS were armed to teeth and trained/equipped by American and British Special Forces. One of the motivating reasons behind this covert war was to weaken Iran by breaking the strategic alliance between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, seen as a threat to GCC, Israel and US interests. But for support of Iran and political support of Moscow, rebels might have succeeded. Situation reached a climax in summer of 2013 when US-NATO were all set to destroy Syria’s military installations using air power and cruise missiles. Russia obstructed UNSC from proceeding militarily against Syria and it clung to Bashar al-Asad, using the veto four times with its strategic ally China. The other countries of the BRICS group, namely India, Brazil, and South Africa, adopted the same policy.
Dramatic turn of events took place when Obama agreed to Putin’s proposal and suspended military action in return for dismantling of Syria’s chemical stockpiles. It changed the global scenario which was heading towards a bigger conflict. The US released pressure on Iran and diverted all its energies to clinch the nuclear deal but made no effort to defuse crisis in ME. Covert operations continued in Syria where a bigger threat in the form of ISIS – creation of CIA – emerged and it established its Caliphate in June 2014. It became difficult for the US and its allies to determine whether Asad regime or ISIS was a bigger monster and which one to deal first.
A stage came when the US and NATO had to extend air/intelligence support to Iraqi National Army (INA) and Kurds to fight the ISIS and later extend air war to Syria. Despite presence of so many foreign supported rebel groups, and ISIS controlling northwestern and eastern Syria, 230,000 deaths and mass destruction of cities, Syrian government has not fallen. Thousands of displaced persons and refugees are crossing the borders to European countries, which have been forced to receive them, while the US refuses to do the same, fearing terrorism. ISIS which is also in control of one-thirds Iraq is now threatening KSA and has spread its tentacles far and wide including Afghanistan. KSA heading a coalition of tens States is embroiled in Yemen war since March this year, which has further sharpened Iran-KSA ideological rivalry.
The US abandoned Iraq in 2011 after destroying its infrastructure, economy, military, killing over million Iraqis, torturing/raping Iraqis in Abu Ghraib Jail, dividing Iraq on ethno-religious lines and stealing oil. Iraq is still rived in sectarian war and terrorism. INA trained/equipped by the US is unfit to fight Daesh. Al-Qaeda maintains its strong presence in Arabian Peninsula. Misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have irreparably damaged the reputation of NATO and the US military touted as invincible. The US is now a descending power and its fate will be no different than the previous super powers which have faded away. The US is no more in a position to stabilize ME even if it intends to do so since its credibility has sunk to lowest ebb.
Changed realities have made America lose interest in Afghanistan and ME and to shift its gaze towards Asia-Pacific where it wants to establish its new pivots with the help of 12-nations Trans-Pacific Partnership including Japan. Latter is ready to change its post-war pacifist constitution and is rapidly arming itself to the teeth to help the US fulfill its dream of a ‘Pacific Century’. North Korea’s ICBMs, tense-ridden Korean Peninsula and China’s naval build up in South China are worrying factors for USA and Japan. Development of Gawadar seaport is another cause of anxiety since it will enable Chinese Navy in collaboration with Pak Navy to frustrate Indo-US design to dominate Indian Ocean. Economic recession in EU which is strategically linked to US, refugee inflow in Europe and white Jihadis joining ISIS are other disquieting events.
Russia on the other hand is getting more and more assertive and getting back on the world stage. It is standing firm on Ukraine and has resolved to counter NATO’s eastward expansion towards its backyard. Russia is keen to restore its influence in ME as well as in Central Asia. China which is an ascending power is gaining influence over the world through its policy of peace and friendship and development of its economy is seen as a potential super power. Events are shaping in favor of Russia and China since the developing world sees the duo as reliable allies and the US as unreliable.
Seeing that the US has been unable to roll back Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and is further aggravating the situation in Syria, Russia decided to join the Syrian war. It has expressed its resolve to not only deal with the threat of Daesh in Syria but also to play a role in defusing the ME crises and possibly restore its leading position in the entire ME. Russia wants resolution of Palestinian dispute which in its view is the root cause and has boosted radicalization. It feels occupation of Iraq triggered terrorism, while Qaddafi’s regime was wrongly deposed and restive Libya requires a national consensus govt. In Russia’s view, conflict in Syria created fertile ground for the “caliphate. Likewise, it thinks that serious deterioration of the situation in Yemen requires an urgent cease-fire and a political process under the UN auspices.
Russia finds itself better placed to take the challenge and seems determined to settle and prevent conflicts in the ME and North Africa. It claims to have a roadmap to contain terrorism in the region, but seeks international blessing and a mandate from the UNSC. Russia’s stance is that interference into domestic affairs of sovereign states, use of force without the authorization by the UNSC, transfers of arms to non-state actors adherent to radical ideology, aggravate the situation in the region and raise the level of terrorist risks.
Situation in Syria which was already very complex because of involvement of so many countries feeding the proxy war has become hazardous after start of air war on September 30 by Russian air force in Syria. 50 jets are supporting ground operations of Syrian Army against the rebels. What has displeased the opponents of Asad regime is that Russia has employed cruise missiles from its warships deployed in southern Caspian Sea and fighter jets to strike very few ISIS targets and more anti-Asad rebel groups. Air operations have been intensified from 7 October. As against 8 daily missions of US coalition, Russia is launching 20-25 sorties daily. Possibility of accidental clash of Russo-US jets is another cause of worry.US led coalition is urging Russia to immediately cease attacking all groups fighting Asad forces and to focus only on ISIS in Syria. Vladimir Putin maintains that its air support is meant to prevent Syria’s takeover by ISIS.
Toughest response has come from Turkey’s Erdogan who has taken airspace violation by Russian jets very seriously. He has threatened Moscow that future violations will be challenged, will cancel under construction $20 billion nuclear plant and stop receiving gas supply from Gazprom. However, Iraqi PM has stated that he will welcome Russian air strikes against ISIS in Iraq. Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani called for a global war against ISIS. Both Iraq and Iran have not objected to Russian missiles cruising over their territories, which imply Tehran also favors Russian intervention.
Presence of China’s J-15 aircraft carrier closer to the shores of Syria has given rise to fears that China may join the air war of Russia. Reportedly, Russo-Sino military advisers are monitoring the security situation from Latakia. Russia has moved in artillery and multi-barrel rockets in western Syria. Possibility of Iranian military and Hezbollah teaming up with Russo-Sino to take on ISIS and opponents of Asad regime cannot be ruled out. Reason which might impel Beijing to jump into the Syrian cauldron will be its oil interests. It holds major shares in two largest Syrian oil companies. It has also been reported that Damascus has given the keys of Syria’s largest oil/gas fields to Moscow to protect and operate them. This is because all oil/gas fields in northern/eastern Syria are under control of ISIS. Oil/gas from Syria and northern Iraq is being exported through Turkey to as far away to Texas Gulf of Mexico.
Intriguingly, the ones who deserted Syrian Army in 2011 and joined FSA are called moderates, pro-western and friends by the west. From within FSA ranks, Al-Nusra came into being whose fighters are mostly the defectors from FSA. Many joined ISIS. After their poor performance, so-called moderates were almost given up by the west and declared as a hopeless. However, the west has now once again become sympathetic towards the discarded lot after Russian jets started bombing them. Russian jets and missiles are hitting ISIS positions, Chechnyan’s, Jaish-al-Shams and other Jihadi groups.
Most intriguing thing is that Israel seems more inclined towards Moscow. Netanyahu, who has still not overcome his grief over Iran-US nuclear deal, undertook a visit to Moscow. Whichever side Israel tilts, its position has become vulnerable. Its agenda of creating Greater Israel will receive a setback once its chief patron exits from ME and hands over the charge to Russia. Its liberty of action to vandalize Palestinians would also get curtailed.
UK which has a finger in every troublesome region had committed the original sin in Syria way back in 2009. It is now egging on NATO to prepare for war with Russia and new alliances are in the making. War mongers are raising alarm bells that the situation is getting ripe for 3rd World War. They also predict that Russia will get badly caught up in Syrian quagmire, or Jihadists in Caucasian belt of Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushitya would get energized to target Russia. In their view, the next war will be for control of OIL. Since militarily robust China and Russia are strategic allies, it will become very difficult for waning super power and Europe sunk in economic depression to opt for an open war in Syria. Proxy war and shadow boxing will however continue because of which it will take time for the global war on terror to subside.
The US in its bid to restore its credibility and retain its status of sole super power is striving hard to establish its Asia-Pacific pivot, contain its chief rival China, checkmate Russia’s assertiveness and control Eurasian resources, but circumstances are not favorably poised for the fulfillment of these dreams. Conditions for Russia wanting to restore its lost status as a global power are however brightening up. In case Russia succeeds in defeating Daesh and other militant groups in Syria and make the country peaceful, its popularity would shoot up and all the affected countries as well as Palestinians would vie for its assistance. Even the Afghans/Central Asian States would like Russia to become a mediator/facilitator and bring peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan would also start leaning on Russia to help solve Kashmir issue. These are wishful thoughts but sometimes dreams come true.
The writer is a retired Brig/war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre, Director Board of Governors Thinkers Forum Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org