How Russia's entry in Syrian war is a win-win for Assad-Putin

Even though it is not certain what the Kremlin's endgame is, its role has certainly changed the dynamics of the crisis completely.

 |  4-minute read |   07-10-2015
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Russia is the latest country to enter the Syrian war theatre, a five-year-long civil conflict that has steadily gone from bad to worse. Even though calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ouster have been there since 2011, it was the rise of the Islamic State, also known as the ISIS, which has prompted the US, along with its regional allies, to take military action.

Moscow's entrance into Syria to provide support for Assad's regime is actually not new. In fact, there were nascent signs of Russian officials helping Assad and his armed forces and militias, mostly from the Alawits (the minority clan to which the Assads belong) who were on the brink of collapse under the huge pressures of fighting hundreds of various factions, including the ISIS that now controls large swathes of Syria. However, understanding Russia and President Vladimir Putin's larger interests in military intervention in Syria - with the blessings of Assad - is as complex as the ongoing sectarian war itself.

Till now analysts have pointed towards everything from Russia's historic ties with Syria, its need to protect military assets and keep a check on jihadists looking to infiltrate its own restive regions, to helping Damascus in order to manipulate global oil prices, as reasons for Moscow's intervention in Syria.

Popularity

Some also point out that this is Putin's way of maintaining his high popularity in Russia by taking on the "Western narrative" that till now has been adamant on Assad's removal. However others, including voices from Russia, are trying to remind the Kremlin of the erstwhile Soviet Union's disastrous intervention in Afghanistan to dissuade military action.

Putin, however, has not wasted much time in shifting significant amounts of military assets to ramp up what some reports suggested were only around 80,000 soldiers left in Assad's arsenal, and most of these were suffering from wounds and exhaustion. Russia sent its top of the line Sukhoi-30 and Sukhoi-34 fighter jets, along with the Sukhoi-25 and the Sukhoi-24, both of the latter with which Syrian pilots are already familiar. Some of these jets have been filmed at the airbase in Latakia, which is the main military site where Russian assets are stationed, without Russian air force markings.

Keeping the above points in mind, it perhaps can be concluded that Russian entry to the Syrian conflict was for two primary reasons. First, this sudden and quick move of combat aircraft to Latakia has ended any idea of a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Syrian air space. Second, both Putin and Assad hope this will somehow makes sure that Assad stays in power in Syria under some sort of agreement with the US and its heavyweight regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia.

Security

But if Assad's security as the president of Syria is indeed Russia's endgame, it may not be an easy task to accomplish. Russia's intervention is backed by its reasoning that it is helping Assad fight against the ISIS. However, many reports since have pointed out that Russian bombings have often missed ISIS-held regions, but targeted other militia groups backed by the United States (which has often lost whole consignments of sophisticated weapons to the likes of al-Qaeda in attempts to arm the "correct" groups).

The problems, as a result of Russian involvement, don't stop at just conducting air strikes.

According to Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the Russian parliament's defence committee, Moscow may look to bring in the "volunteers" that fought in Ukraine, which is still an ongoing crisis and for which Russia is under economic sanctions as blowback. "It's likely that within the ranks of Syrian army formations, Russian combat volunteers will appear," Admiral Komoyedov was quoted as saying by Russian agencies.

Another report suggests that Russia will pay $50 per day for these mercenaries to fight in Syria instead of getting in the Russian Ground Forces in full operations capacity. For Russia, this seems to be a new way of committing to an armed conflict, its own version of "austere operations" for its military policies.

Entrenchment

However for Putin, the question is that even if he succeeds in keeping Assad in power, which is looking more and more likely (at least for the immediate future) this success will not stop the hundreds of thousands of militias who have vowed to fight till there is a regime change in Syria. Putin's entrenchment in Syria may become a long-term affair, even as other Gulf countries in the region have threatened a military response to Russian operations.

Even though it is not certain what the Russian endgame is in Syria, Moscow's role has certainly changed the dynamics of the crisis completely. The entry of Russia has put Assad in a much more comfortable position against Washington's repeated demands for him to step down. And that is quite a turnaround in itself.

Also read: Syrian air strikes is a well-calculated risk for Russia

Writer

Kabir Taneja Kabir Taneja @kabirtaneja

The writer is an associate fellow with the Observer Research Foundation's Strategic Studies programme in New Delhi.

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