There's no kicking Putin out

Kanwal Sibal
Kanwal SibalDec 08, 2015 | 11:30

There's no kicking Putin out

Russia's intervention in Syria has many ramifications. For the first time, it has militarily intervened outside its borders, barring the unique circumstances under which it intervened in Georgia and Ukraine, two erstwhile constituent units of the Soviet Union, with all the entangled legacy of historical, geopolitical, ethnic, linguistic and economic factors that underlay these conflicts.

The Syrian intervention shows that Vladimir Putin does not feel that his margin of geopolitical manoeuvre has shrunk after the confrontation with the West over Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The US has tried to isolate Russia politically and impose economic costs on it through sanctions. Instead of being put on the defensive, Russia is defending its interests with confidence.


It has coordinated its intervention with Iran and Iraq, demonstrating that it is not isolated even in this highly-sensitive region hitherto largely dominated by the US and its allies. If the US calculation was that with the fall in oil prices, imposition of Western sanctions and sharp decline in its economic growth, Russia would be further marginalised in international affairs, Putin has proved such assumptions wrong.

Dismissive Obama

US President Barack Obama has been publicly dismissive of Russia as no more than a regional power. Western leaders and media have been demonising Putin personally, although prudence would have demanded that relations with Russia and its leadership at the state and personal levels should not have been allowed to deteriorate to a point that would make reconnecting with Russia to deal with the evolving global challenges more difficult than it needed to be.

More so, as the thrust of Obama's policies is to disengage the US militarily from existing conflicts and not embroil it in new ones. This, and the perception that the US is relatively declining as a power, would normally mean working cooperatively with as many powers as possible to maintain peace and stability, and certainly with Russia as a major power in a constructive manner, taking into account its sensitivities and limiting the temptation to exploit its vulnerabilities.


By intervening in Syria, Russia is asserting itself as more than a regional power. It has clearly wanted to prevent another regime change in the region, towards which it saw the US and Turkey moving with plans to declare a no-fly zone over northern Syria - a Turkish demand in exchange for allowing the US to use its Incirlik base. Putin has publicly asserted that it is for the Syrians to decide the fate of President Assad, not outside powers. This has changed the complexion of the political situation in Syria, as Russia will have a say in the ouster of the Syrian president through a transitional process and any eventual political solution in the country.

Image makeover

Putin has also displayed his country's military power as a warning signal to the West not to overreach itself in treating Russia. The advanced technologies exhibited, the accuracy of bombing, the launching of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, and the number of heavy bombers used at one go to flatten targets in Syria - these all have served the dual purpose of showcasing the effectiveness of military strikes against intended targets as well as a message to the West about Russian capacities.


As a bonus, the image of Russian military equipment being inferior will undergo a change internationally, with export gains.

Russia has not hidden its concern that Western agencies use extremist groups for geopolitical purposes, and one objective would be to hit it with the weapon of religious terrorism in the Caucasus. A few thousand Chechens are apparently fighting in the ranks of these extremist groups. Rather than wait for them to use areas occupied in West Asia as launching pads for terrorism in southern Russia, Putin declaredly wants to fight them in Syria itself. Russia has been targeting the so-called moderate groups in northern Syria supported by Turkey, US and others, inviting the accusation that it is more focused on protecting the Assad government than fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). It has been attacking the convoys of trucks carrying oil illegally to Turkey from areas controlled by the ISIS.

Syrian risk

Putin took a significant risk in intervening in Syria, given the state of his relations with the West and the latter's declared position, along with that of the Gulf countries, that Assad has to leave power. It could be expected that the West would try to make Russia pay a high cost for its move and work against its success.

However, the massive refugee influx into Europe and the terrible Paris terrorist attacks have altered the storyline, with calls, led by France, for a united coalition against the IS that would include Russia. It is this that would explain why Turkey took the rash decision to down the Russian bomber over northern Syria, as the developing scenario would have cut the ground from under Turkey's goals there, tainted with neo-Ottoman ambitions. Russia-Turkey relations have plummeted as a result, with costs on both sides. By moving his most advanced air defence system towards the Turkish border Russia has in fact imposed a reverse no-fly zone over Syria, effectively preventing any Turkish incursions into Syria against the Kurds or in support for anti-Assad groups.

The Russian intervention in Syria has changed the geopolitics of the region in its favour but, while it has stopped the situation from worsening, the way to a solution remains full of serious hurdles.

Last updated: December 08, 2015 | 11:30
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