By Afro-Middle East Centre
Russia’s military involvement in Syria, from the beginning of its aerial bombing on 30 September until the launch of cruise missiles its ships in the Caspian Sea on 7 October, has raised numerous questions about its intentions. Is Russia’s aim in Syria totargetpthe Islamic State group (IS) and pre-emptively eliminate IS Chechen fighters before they return to their homes, as it claims? Or has Russia entered Syria simply toprotect and bolster the Damascus government? And, if Russia continues its military activities in Syria at this level, could its intervention turn into another quagmire like Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union.
The question of whether Russia’s primary objective is to target IS or bolster the Syrian government is based on a false binary from the Syrian and Russia perspectives. Russia has repeatedly ridiculed the idea that there are ‘moderate’ rebels, and has labelled all insurgents as ‘terrorists’, as has been the Syrian government position since the uprising began in 2011. Russia even asked USA to share intelligence on rebels that might be battling IS, ostensibly to avoid targeting them.
Perhaps more important than determining Russian intentions is pondering how otherprotagonists in the Syrian conflict will respond to the latest Russian move. Russia’s bravado is on display; what is unclear is how countries that make up the broad coalition against the Syrian regime – the USA, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, UAE and Jordan) – will respond to Russia’s intervention. Will these states support the Syrian rebels in a manner that will allow them to resist the renewed spirit in the Syrian Arab Army (and various other pro-regime militias), reinvigorated as they are by Russian support?
US responseIf Ukraine is any precedent, and considering the general tendency of the US Obama administration in this second presidential term, the USA will not respond to Russian aggression by significantly increasing its support for the rebels. In fact, with all its talk about ‘deconfliction’, the USA is more interested in keeping out of Russia’s way in Syria, while attempting to develop an alternate strategy to confront IS, after having spectacularly failed previously.
Turkey’s responseFollowing the Russian entry into the Syrian battlefield, Turkey will have to rethink its role and re-evaluate whether it can support the Syrian insurgency in a manner that the latter might be able to confront the Russians. Despite Turkey having been at odds with Russia for a large part of their history, the ruling party, the AKP is in a precarioussituation with a new parliamentary election in less than a month, and an electorate that has to be won over. Further, it is dealing with a renewed Kurdish insurgency led by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has the potential to destabilise parts of Turkey. Also influencing Turkey’s deliberations will be economic and energy ties with Russia that strengthened recently. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted that he is willing to reconsider the agreement with Russia on its building the first Turkish nuclear power plant, and also hurting it economically by refusing to buy natural gas from Russia. However, though a change on either of these issues will hurt both Russia and Turkey, the latter will be affected much more than the former. But most importantly, even if Turkey does scale back its economic relations with Russia, it is not clear that this will translate into a greater military commitment towards the Syrian rebels.
Saudi Arabia’s responseSaudi Arabia is in a different situation to Turkey. Since it does not share a border with Syria, its support for Syrian rebels depends on its coordination with Turkey and Jordan over what these countries are prepared to allow along their borders with Syria. Any stronger Saudi rhetoric about supporting Syrian rebels needs, therefore, to be checked against this reality. Second, Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, is tackling numerous problems domestically – such as an increased IS threat within its borders, and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen which, even if pacified in Yemen’s south, will continue to pose a threat along the Yemeni-Saudi border. These factors will likely undermine the Saudi appetite for further fuelling the Syrian insurgency.
But herein lies another dilemma for Saudi Arabia. If it does not increase support for the insurgency, Saudi IS and al-Qa'ida sympathisers will likely be swayed by the argument that their government is an ‘apostate’ regime, and that they are obligated to fight ‘jihad’ against the Russians (also, Syrians and Iranians), thus creating a greater security threat within Saudi Arabia. There are already opinions being voiced in this direction. On the other hand, if Saudi Arabia increases its support for Syrian rebels, such support must be effective enough to force the Russians to withdraw, and to topple the Asad regime. Anything less than that will effectively be a victory for the Syrian regime. With Russians now backing the Syrian government, a rebel victory requires Saudi Arabia to either involve its own military in Syria or sufficiently equip the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons that can be effective against Russian aircraft. Neither of these is realistic, and, therefore, it will not be a surprise if Saudi Arabia accepts the Russian campaign as an invitation to de-escalate its support for the Syrian insurgency.
ConclusionThis, obviously, does not mean that the Syrian rebels will put down their weapons, even if their foreign backers, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and USA cease their support. What it means is that the Russian initiative to form a Syrian contact group – which would include USA, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – might lead to some political reconciliation in which the militarily exhausted rebel groups will be included in a transitional process to give the impression that the Syrian conflict is winding down.
This, however, presupposes that the rebels’ foreign supporters, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are looking to reduce the bloodshed in Syria. That has not, thus far, been the predominant tendency with any of the protagonists in the Syrian conflict; most parties have been bent on bleeding their adversary into submission. It therefore remains to be seen whether the Russian intervention in Syria will force a change in this calculus or entrench the current sensibilities even further.