Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war appeared to gain momentum every day over the past month, up until President Vladimir Putin’s address to the UN General Assembly on September 28th. The intention behind moving troops and equipment to Syria, while denying these deployments, was quite possibly to build momentum for Putin’s initiative. The content of this initiative has been clear since early August, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed building a broad international coalition against the so-called “Islamic State” (or ISIS). Yet, the proposal fell flat. It looked fairly agreeable until the point that this coalition should include forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
This was plainly unacceptable to most stakeholders in Syrian conflict management, ineffectual as it has been, so Putin’s furious networking never made much sense. He met with King Abdullah of Jordan and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, tried to charm Saudi princes and to appeal to an old friendship with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but found no takers to his suggestion that only the “legitimate” government could restore stability to devastated Syria. Yet, he persisted with pushing this hopeless initiative assuming that he would be able to make, if not a significant impact as with the September 2013 initiative on Syria’s chemical disarmament, then at least a strong impression.
What underpinned this Russian initiative was a deepening state of confusion resulting from Western as well as regional policies in managing the Syrian catastrophe. The US administration had to admit the embarrassing failure in training and equipping anything resembling even a battalion of moderate opposition forces. The EU was hit by a wave of refugees so great that its migration policy and the very principle of solidarity were badly shaken. Neither the US nor the EU could draft the beginnings of a feasible plan for addressing the crisis at its core. The latest French air strikes on ISIS are perhaps symbolically important but hardly any more effective than the US air campaign. Turkey seeks to combine limited strikes on ISIS targets with a more determined application of force against the Kurdish groupings and is yet again provoking a violent destabilisation of its own Eastern provinces.
Putin is keen to exploit this multi-dimensional confusion but there is more to his intrigue than just the psychological satisfaction from exposing the Western failures. He launched the Syrian gambit immediately upon return from the pompous military parade in Beijing, which prompted him to take urgent steps towards reaffirming Russia’s “great power” status. As the value of Russian oil exports to China goes down and the gas projects are postponed beyond this decade, Moscow faces a challenge of proving its value as a strategic partner to Beijing. Syria is the perfect place for demonstrating this value as China is very sensitive to the turmoil in the Middle East, given that the Middle East is the source of the bulk of its energy supplies.
Despite Putin’s high-intensity diplomatic activity, Russia’s positions in this region are actually eroding and one major driver in this retreat is the yet-to-be-sealed deal on the Iranian nuclear program. For years, Russia had been able to benefit from playing the role of Iran’s “best friend” while refraining from sabotaging the P5+1 talks. This profitable ambivalence was cancelled by the breakthrough deal in mid-July. Moscow didn’t dare to play spoiler, primarily because China wanted the deal to come through. Presently, Tehran is carefully stepping out of international isolation and enjoys the attention of international investors, including Chinese, while Moscow is reduced to spinning security intrigues andbuilding its own pro-Assad quasi-coalition.
The main problem with all this manoeuvring is that Russia possesses only limited military capabilities for meaningful operations in the Syrian theatre. Its battalions are tied up in the Donbass war zone, and the few squadrons of tactical aviation that could be deployed to the new airbase outside Latakia have a dismal record of crashes in exercises last summer.
Putin has played this weak hand to maximum effect so that a military intervention has become a real political instrument. But at the end of the day, when delivering his grand address at the UN, he had nothing to say. His assertion that only government forces of President Assad were fighting against ISIS departed far from the truth. The characterisation of the situation in the world as “intolerable” betrayed Putin’s deep worries about durability of his own grasp on power. The only emotion that rang true in the speech was the fear of revolutions but support for al-Assad could alleviate this fear only for some time.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.