Russia's next step in Syria: a strategic plan is needed
Russia’s military operation in Syria has become a milestone on the way to the new international status of the country. By taking part in such an ambitious initiative, Russia’s leadership has committed itself to solve a new range of challenges which it did not face before. The only way to for Moscow to succeed is to revise the whole structure of Foreign policy and to construct a parallel system to the Greater Middle East project of United States.
The sore point
Assad’s Syria can be called the nerve knot of the Middle East. The current situation in the country illustrates the whole range of covert processes taking place in the region. This brief will analyze the key powers operating in the conflict, their aims and ways for Russia and its allies to solve the problem. The main objective for Moscow in this conflict is to save Assad’s government and reinstall control over Syria by winning the war against ISIS (Daesh). This would help Russia keep control of its zones of interests in the Mediterranean and eventually leave behind the imprint of a superpower that was lost in the Cold war. The main challenge in accomplishing this is the fact that, now, pro-Assad forces control only a lesser portion of the country while almost all of the eastern and central parts are under the control of different radical jihadists groups, which are controlled and supported by political enemies of Assad.
Zones of interest
The US is the main strategic opponent to Assad, Russia, and its allies. Washington’s project of a Greater Middle East implies the deconstruction of all Ba'athist-like secular regimes in the Middle East, in order to gain full control of this region which plays a key role in geopolitical controversy between Russia and the US.
In order to fulfill these plans, Washington uses its diplomatic, financial, military and intelligence capabilities as well as the resources of its allies to breed ISIS (Daesh) and make it stronger. Saudi Arabia and Qatar openly provide direct support to the jihadists, mainly with money, but also in recruiting combatants from all over the world and promoting the image of ISIS (Daesh) by using certain media instruments.
This kind of support goes through the infrastructure of Iraqi Sunni groups that consist of former Sunni officials of Saddam Hussein's regime. They were betrayed by the U.S. and marginalized by the current Shia-Kurdish government in Iraq. At the same time they have given up the Ba'athist ideology and now have embraced a radical Islamic agenda.
There is a Turkish zone of interest, controlled by Ankara, In the northern part of Syria. At the core of the anti-Assad movement there is the Turkoman population and a portion of pro-Turkey Syrian Kurds living there. At the same time, most of the Syrian Kurds are against Ankara, and are strongly linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party - the main enemy of the Turkish national state. Turkey along with Qatar supports such groups as Al-Nusra Front and other groups related to Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Also Turkey and Qatar finance such groups as Ahrar Ash-Sham and the so-called Army of Conquest. These groups are presented by Western media as 'moderate' when compared to ISIS (Daesh). It is important to mention that the U.S. did not include them in their 'Terrorist list'.
At the same time there is another important player – Israel. Being close to the battleground Tel-Aviv won’t stay away from the battle as it has an ambition of being a regional leader. Also it should be mentioned the fact that Israel is in a frozen conflict with Syria because of the occupation of the Golan Heights by Israeli forces – this territory is rich in oil and potable water
On the other side of the confrontation, there are Shia parties and governments like the Lebanon-based movement Hezbollah. It strongly supports Assad by all means, but there are some radical Sunni groups on the eastern border of Lebanon, so the country itself cannot be considered as a full-scale ally of Damascus.
Iran’s Shia government has been supporting Assad from the very beginning of the Civil War, including logistical, technical, financial support, also with strong assistance in military training and even the involvement of regular army units. Tehran sees the survival of the current Syrian regime as crucial to its regional interests and in sustaining its own position of regional power.
Russia’s position on the Syrian crisis has been evolving from informational, diplomatic and intelligence support for Damascus into a direct military involvement in second half of 2015. Syria is Moscow’s last ally in the region and in order to secure it, Russia has made steps unprecedented in its modern history, by involving itself in a conflict far away from its borders, which definitely shows some kind of changes in the Kremlin’s stance in foreign affairs. Now Russia’s military presence in Syria is represented by Khmeimim airbase with its capacity for several dozens military aircrafts, and the Tartus naval base to the south of the airbase.
In order to control the integrity of Syrian territory, Russia needs to directly cut the flow of money and military equipment into Syria, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, coming mainly from the South. Also, Moscow should cut Turkish support for terrorists from the North as well as stop the military involvement of the Turkish regular army in the conflict. It is also very important to eliminate the numerous methods of diplomatic, logistic and infrastructural support of the United States to the jihadists.
These objectives are very difficult to accomplish, because there is a deep division in Syrian society over Bashar Assad - he is supported only by part of it. Russia’s support to Bashar Assad is seen by a considerable part of the Syrian population as aggression. If Russia manages to help Assad locally without dealing with all of its regional problems, it could only delay his eventual fall or the fragmentation of Syria if there is no concrete plan in place.
In order to succeed, the Russian government should act very actively in strengthening its alliance with Shia forces and involve in other conflicts in the Middle East.
Moscow definitely should become more proactive in the Yemeni conflict. Houthi forces need help in fighting pro-Saudi forces. The conflict in this country dates back to the 20th century and has a religious basis: Shia Houthis previously received strong support from the Soviet Union in their fight against pro-Saudi and pro-American Sunni groups.
Also, Moscow should pay more attention to the conflict in Bahrain and consider helping Shia populations in the country in their fight against the pro-Saudi monarchy. Using Iran’s potential as a Shia country also should strengthen Russia’s efforts in this direction.
Moscow needs to also keep Iraq closely in its view. Part of the country is now controlled by jihadists of ISIS (Daesh), so without active attention there, the a victory cannot be achieved. Moreover, there is a strong Shia movement that has potential for broader cooperation with Russia.
The primary vector
Probably one of the most important issues in this campaign is resolution of the issue of Turkey. Russian authorities should take in consideration a very important fact: open military conflict with Ankara is much more difficult than helping inner forces overthrow the Erdogan regime. There are too many enemies of the current establishment inside the country. Among them are the US orientated supporters of Fethullah Gulen, also there are Kurds – definitely the most important factor. We should mention Kemalist opposition, the so called “Grey wolves” and even Republican pro-European secular forces. The list of anti-Erdogan forces also consists of military groups, who suffered after the purge of the Ergenekon case. All of these together present a realistic potential for regime change in the near future.
At the same time there is Afghanistan, which is considered as kind of space for a new attack against Russian interests in the region. International media reports a massive relocation of ISIS (Daesh) terrorists to the country. Instability in Afghanistan can also strongly affect Iran – the main partner of Russia in fighting jihadist groups in Syria.
Also there are internal problems such as radical Salafist groups inside Russia. They could facilitate terrorist attacks on Russian territory. Even though special services have demonstrated remarkable progress in fighting these kind of activities, the current situation cannot be called stable.
The only way out is forward
For Russia it is impossible to win in the Syrian conflict without being involved in other conflicts in the region, or even globally. The only way to resolve the Syrian problem is to advance in multiple directions simultaneously. To do this, Russia should have a kind of multifaceted plan. The first step is to revise its policy of non-involvement in the problems of the region which have dominated Russian foreign policy in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. Only a strong, balanced and consistent implementation of the mentioned objectives will be fruitful for both for Russia and its allies. Otherwise, involvement in the conflict will only harm the countries both economically and strategically. By entering in the war on Assad’s side Russia has taken on an unretractable task and now needs to complete it.