By boosting its military presence in Syria, Russia has created irreversible facts on the ground and demonstrated that it reserves the right to be involved in resolving any conflict or crisis, wherever in the world it may occur. The Kremlin sees this indispensability – together with its sphere of influence, which is at the root of the Ukraine crisis – as a key ingredient that defines Russia as a global power.
The forces that Putin has deployed to Syria are impressive and indicate that the Kremlin’s true intent in Syria has little to do with the stated aim of fighting terrorism and is really about propping up Russia ’s longtime client in Damascus.
In spite of the current propaganda, Russia seems to coordinate its military efforts in Syria with Israel and the U.S. According to military intelligence sources, there is an informal agreement with the Israelis and Americans not to target regions near the Golan Heights and the Druze communities, which will be subject of later negotiations. The same sources mention that the Russian operations are in agreement with the American Presidency, although there is no consensus in Washington on the Syrian question.
Some Russian officials also acknowledge privately that Assad’s days as ruler of anything resembling a united Syria are likely numbered. But Putin wants to avoid the sort of uncontrolled chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. Instead, he wants to ensure that a post-Assad government respects Russian equities, notably, maintenance of the Russian naval base at Tartus, which is critical to Moscow’s efforts to project power into the Mediterranean as the United States pulls back from the region.
A more consistent presence in the MENA region would compensate for Moscow the economic difficulties generated by the West’s sanctions following the Ukraine crisis, but more than that, it would help to compensate the Russian failure to bring the conflict to the planned solution – the “finlandization” of Ukraine into a federation that would follow the Kremlin orders in the national security matters.
The Syrian conflict and Russia’s involvement may help Moscow not only to distract the West’s attention from Ukraine, but also to use Syria as a “bargaining chip” to negotiate a solution in Ukraine. Thus, Russia might accept to retreat from the Donbas region in exchange for constitutional changes in Ukraine and oblige the US to acknowledge the Russian security interests in Europe.
It is also significant to remember that Putin’s main inspiration on Middle East affairs comes from the late Yevgeny Primakov, former Russian prime minister and a long-time pillar of KGB policies in the region. Primakov, who died earlier this year, played an important role in securing tight links between the Russian and Syrian intelligence services.
In his book Russia and the Arabs, he theorized about how Russia’s role in the region might reflect its global status and its capacity to counter America’s influence. Primakov also set the Russian tone of denouncing the 2011 Arab spring as a western plot aimed at regime change that must be opposed.
Russia’s recent escalation of its military intervention in the Middle East by firing long-range SS-N-30A Kalibr cruise missiles against targets in Syria from surface ships in the Caspian Sea is only the Kremlin’s most recent “message” about its real geopolitical intentions.
Analysts at the Royal United Services Institute point out that, while cruise missiles are not suitable for strikes against the mobile or fleeting targets that are to be found in Syria, they are, however, excellent demonstration weapons to show that Russia can deliver significant firepower over very long ranges.
Cruise missiles capable of striking in Syria from the Caspian Sea could also potentially strike most targets in the Middle East, including many of the bases used by the US-led coalition to conduct operations over Iraq and Syria. By being able to pose a credible threat to coalition air assets over large parts of Syria, Russia forces the US and its allies to consult with it on mission planning and deconfliction efforts.
All of this is aimed at forcing the US and its allies to accept Russia as a central geopolitical actor in the Middle East, which must be consulted and included in any efforts to alter the current situation by new means.
Another significant aspect is that the SS-N-30A used in the strikes is thought to be the basis for the new SSC-X-8 cruise missile, which is part of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces and is considered by the U.S. as violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1987.
Given the tense state of NATO-Russian relations over Syria, Crimea and Ukraine, a large-scale, live-fire demonstration of the SS-N-30A – that ranges within the scope of the INF treaty – could be seen as a covert Russian confirmation that their SSC-X-8 can also fly well beyond 500 km, and thus, a reminder that Putin continues to disregard the greatest arms control success of the Cold War.
Gradually, Kremlin’s offensive prompted a “softening” of the West’s attitude. Russia’s military build-up in the region has triggered moves by all the major players. Leaders and representatives of Iran, the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, Israel and Turkey went to Moscow to discuss the future of a region on the verge of a meltdown.
State Secretary Kerry, while maintaining the U.S. position that Assad has no place in Syria’s future, indicated that keeping him around for a period of time was negotiable. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was more generous towards Assad saying “we have to speak with many actors, this includes Assad…”
Following a meeting with Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also appeared to have fallen into Putin’s circle of thought, saying Assad could take part in the transition process. Erdoğan also referred to a “triple initiative” among the United States, Turkey and Russia plus Syria, which could also include Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The fact that Turkey is well aware of Russia’s geopolitical superiority and its own economic interest in the bilateral relationship was revealed by Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu’s statement – following the violations of Turkish airspace by Russian fighter jets – that “Russia is our neighbor and friend, and our interests do not conflict.”
The same idea was later to be mentioned after a meeting between Vladimir Putin and French President François Hollande, when it was suggested that Russia also cooperate with “the so-called Free Syrian Army”. During a subsequent meeting with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Putin said that “without their participation, without the participation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, US, Iraq, Iran and neighboring countries, it will be hard to organize such work in a proper way.”
A most significant move for the manner in which Russia imposes its new role in the Syrian conflict is the setting up by the Russian, Syrian and Iranian military of a Russian-Syria-Iranian “military coordination cell” in Baghdad that, according to Western intelligence sources, includes participation of low-level Russian generals and Iraqi government representatives. The “cell” is designed as a counterpart of the US-led “war room” established north of Amman for joint US-Saudi-Qatari-Israeli-Jordanian and UAE operations against the Assad regime.
When US Defense Secretary Ash Carter instructed his staff to establish a communication channel with the Kremlin to ensure the safety of US and Russian military operations and “avoid conflict in the air”, the Russian defense ministry shot back with a provocative stipulation that coordination with the US must go through Baghdad, an attempt to force Washington to accept that the two war rooms would henceforth communicate on equal terms.
The developments show, as in the past, a changing diplomatic, strategic and military landscape of the Middle East, marked by the consequences of the vacuum left by an indecisive, often confused American and Western policy in the region.
So, now, we are witnessing a process in which this vacuum tends to be filled by new and old power actors, led by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.