Memories of the Cold War echoed across the Atlantic as US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter opened dialogue on the Syrian conflict with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, on 18 September. Over the past fortnight, Moscow has escalated its military presence in the war-torn country. Private satellite images show construction of a weapons depot and military compound north of Latakia, to which Moscow has recently delivered new fighter aircraft, troop-transport helicopters and gunships. Despite President Obama’s strongly worded caution that any Russian military involvement in the civil war would be “a big mistake”, Washington has recognised the need for some level of cooperation with President Putin to avoid accidental clashes on the ground. Today, at the 70th UN General Assembly in New York, Obama criticised Russia’s Ukraine intervention but, somewhat controversially, agreed to engage in bilateral talks vis-à-vis Syria. This is the first time the two powers will meet one-on-one in over two years.
The surge in Russian hardware and personnel comes as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime teeters ever closer to the edge. Moscow is focusing its presence on the coastal region of Latakia – the country’s Alawite heartland and original home of the Assad family – as the Syrian Army loses ground to Sunni rebels from the North. Assad’s forces, which once numbered around 250 000, now comprise less than 125 000. Fighting alongside them are local Shia militias and Iranian Hezbollah soldiers. The Islamic State (IS), which according to some sources controls more than 50% of Syrian territory, is fighting both the Sunni rebel front and the Syrian Army coalition.
Is Russia’s end game simply to prop up Assad’s regime, its long-time Middle Eastern client, in a bid to maintain its influence in the region? Partly, but the reality is more complex. Pavel K. Baev of the Brookings Institute argues that Moscow’s strategy in Syria is “speak loudly and carry a small stick”. Its recent actions signal an escalation, but are not enough to change the face of the civil war. Russia arguably lacks the capacity to field a full-scale invasion force, both due to transport issues and the fact that most of its personnel are otherwise engaged in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons why it is seeking greater involvement in the conflict. Keeping a finger in the Syrian pie protects Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base. It is also an attempt to constrain Iran, its other regional ally. This may seem counterintuitive, but as Tehran’s involvement in the conflict has grown, Russia’s hardware, diplomatic protection, and intelligence have become less relevant. Moscow wants a say in the post-war regime to keep its foothold in the region.
Equally important to Putin is ensuring the defeat of ISIS and the multitude of other Sunni Islamist groups. As Ed Husain notes, Russia’s ongoing skirmish with Islamic extremist and separatist groups in the Caucasus are constant cause for concern. An Islamic Caliphate spanning the Middle East could act as a training ground for jihadists with Russia in their sights.
Putin is also engaging in a less-than-subtle power play with the West. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, America and Europe are punishing Russia diplomatically and economically. Now, Putin is positioning himself as a valuable ally in the fight against IS and more fundamentally, an international diplomatic force. At the very least, he has forced the US to talk so that the two powers can avoid clashes on the ground. More significantly, however, he has cornered Obama, who is likely regretting his constant vacillation on the Syria question. The rebel opposition looks less and less palatable by the day, especially as the influence of Jabhat al-Nusra grows (this is in spite of ex-CIA director David Petraeus’ un-sellable pitch: an alliance with the al Qaida affiliate). Yet fighting alongside a staunch Assad defender like Russia would be a crippling blow to US legitimacy in the region. Western opinion is divided: Julianne Smith at the Centre for a New American Security argues that working with Putin might be the best of a range of “unsavoury options” for the US. In contrast, Hassan Hassan of Chatham House asserts that cooperating with Russia will only entrench the stalemate further while leaving the US regionally isolated.
The best outcome at this point would be a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in which the US and Russia join forces to demand Assad’s resignation and help build a stable transitional government. Whether Obama can pull this off is another matter entirely. Russia remains leery of US-led regime changes and the chaos that often follows – Iraq is a case in point. So far, however, it looks as though Washington is preparing to give this strategy a shot, with Secretary of State John Kerry affirming the need for Assad to step down “without being doctrinaire about the specific date or time”. To some extent, the future now rests on Putin’s shoulders.
Isabella Borshoff is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Freedom House - cropped, changed colour (Flickr: Creative Commons)