Māris Cepurītis: Crisis as Opportunity or What Is Russia Doing in Syria?


30.10.2015. Laiks Pasaulei

There have been 230 000 casualties in Syrian conflict since its beginning in 2011; 7,6 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes and move to the other regions of Syria, and nearly four million more have left Syria to look for assylum outside its territory. Unfortunately, in Latvian public space, the issue of situation in Syria has lately become the vague background which is made urgent only during major tension periods. However, the Syria events and Russia’s involvement in the conflict may have serious far reaching consequences not only in the Middle East, but also in the regions closer to Latvia.

Although, considering Russia’s participation in Ukraine’s conflict and the state’s economic problems, increase in Russia’s military presence in Syria is quite unexpected move, it may be considered also as logical step following from the long-term Russia – Syria cooperation. The two countries’ rapprochement commenced back in 1956, during the Suez crisis, and, since then, Syria and former USSR (later – Russia), have cooperated in various spheres. It was the Suez crisis which provided the USSR with the possibility to raise the importance of its role in the Middle East, and Russia tends to use the current crisis in Syria as the possibility, too.

Since ever the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Russia has been a close ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This can be illustrated by both the Russian officials’ statements and Russia’s position in the UN Security Council. Simultaneously, Russia uses its exclusive status in the relations with Assad for achievement of diplomatic gains. The 2013 agreement on delivery of Syrian chemical weapons to international community for subsequent elimination was one of such successes. Previously chemical weapons had been one of the strongest Western countries’ arguments in their opposition to the Assad’s regime. Having resolved the situation, Russia consolidated the regime’s international posture.

According to military analysts, Assad’s Syrian Army presently maintains control of 20-25% of Syrian territory, besides, in the last months, Syrian Army has reportedly suffered serious losses in the fight against ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) troops. The damages have been so harmful for Syrian Army that it would not resist attacks on the part of ISIL and moderate opposition forces for a long time without external support.

In case the Assad’s regime was really close to collapse, then Russia’s direct or indirect involvement in the conflict was the only way how improve the situation of the regime facing the difficulties. It is quite possible that Russia would provide its support for Assad anyway in order to maintain its closest ally in the region and prevent formation of a democratic Syria supported by the Western countries, but the current Russia’s participation is oriented to achievement of Russia’s maximum gains not only on regional, but also on international level.

First of all, Russian troops were moved to Syria without any publicity, only information on presence in Syria of Russian military instructors whose task was to train Syrian soldiers in operating various arms systems was publicly available. Also the publication of satellite photographs on expanding the airfield in Latakia where not commented or explained by Russia.

Instead of explaining the supplementation of Syrian military units and equipment stock, Russian foreign policy makers and the other officials were trying to draw international community’s attention to the planned Vladimir Putin’s address to the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. According to the statements made by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and the other Russia representatives, Putin’s speech had to become a particular turning point in Russia’s relations with the Western countries. The “warming up” activities and the increasingly growing Russian military presence in Syria secured quite a broad audience for the address of Russian President.

 As it turned out, Putin’s address stuck to the previous Russian foreign policy traditions. Stress was put to sovereignty and countries’ rights to choose individual development model, and it was mentioned that export of “democratic revolutions” had been a historical mistake. History was mentioned also in the NATO context, indicating that the Western states still maintained the Cold War mentality, wishing to continue the expansion of NATO, disregarding the fact that the opposite military block – Warsaw Pact – ceased to exist long time ago. The Western countries were accused also of imposing of a false dilemma on the post-Soviet states which were forced to choose between the West and the East. It was underlined that the imposing of such choice had only caused geopolitical crisis. Ukraine was mentioned as the best example showing how a coup could be conducted under external guidance. The speech included also the typical for Russia dedication to the idea of multi-polar world which had been represented in Russian foreign policy documents for already a number of years. Of course, allusions were made also to the World War II and the importance of the USSR in the victory over Nazism and creation of new post-war world order.

It was the stress on history and the connection of the mentioned events with the nowadays’ situation that made Putin’s reading so exciting, for Russian President used the historical analogy to outline Russia’s vision of the desirable international system, first of all, by comparing the ISIL and the other terrorist groups with Nazi and calling to create a broad anti-terrorist coalition similar to that which defeated the Nazi during the World War II. Presently, international terrorism and ISIL pose major threats to the Western countries’ security, and Putin tries to play on these feelings. But, while mentioning the World War II and Nazi, Russian President tried to point out the precedent of uniting of ideological opponents in their fight against a more dangerous adversary. Besides, after the joint success, they created a system on which the post-war world order was based. To put a particular stress on that, Putin did not forget to mention also the Yalta Conference of 1945.

The historical analogies, together with the statement “we cannot stand the present situation in the world anymore”, indicate that the fight against ISIL and the other Islamic extremists is used by Russia in its attempts to regain its place at the “superpowers’ table” and join the group of countries which make decisions regarding the new order in Syria, Middle East and, possibly, also in the world.

With the help of its activities in Syria, Russia has already achieved breakout of its representatives from international isolation and holding of meetings of the state’s higher officials – State President, Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs – with their US colleagues. Although the US is still quite sceptic about Russia’s involvement in Syria and the following decisions, nevertheless several European countries’ representatives have already admitted the existence of some eventual benefits from Russia’s participation in the fight against ISIL.

It is still premature to draw any conclusions about the degree of Russia’s potential involvement in attacks on the ISIL positions. Russian officials insist that only air attacks are planned, and no ground troops’ actions are considered. At the same time, military units that have participated in the warfare in Eastern Ukraine, have been reportedly placed in Russian military bases in Syria. Such information raises the question whether Russia, within the anti-ISIL campaign, is going to follow the principles of “new generation warfare”, outlined by its General Staff head, General Valery Gerasimov, and already implemented in Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern regions. A set of the warfare’s elements include asymmetric activities, for which the experienced in combat “volunteer fighters” or elite units’ members would be quite suitable. One should not disregard also technological solutions which can be used for paralysing the adversary’s communication channels or spreading the misleading information thereby lowering opponent’s fighting capacity.

Considering the aforementioned, the Russia’s non-involvement in ground operations against ISIL may be as true as the not belonging of “little green men” to Russian Army or the absence of Russian troops in Donetsk and Lukhansk.

It cannot be excluded that Russia’s participation in fight against ISIL will really contribute to defeating this organization thereby considerably promoting stability in the Near East. Simultaneously, one should be aware that Russia acts according to its national interests, and someone will have to “pay” for its participation in the conflict. It is possible that maintaining of Assad’s regime will be the price of the help. Since the beginning of Russia’s involvement, the Western countries have already softened their position toward Assad, for example, UK representatives have announced their readiness to allow retaining Assad’s authority over the transition period. Assad’s regime is important for Russia as an ally, and the regime is more important for it than Assad’s personality, so, on the issue of Assad, Russia may comply with the position of the Western countries in order to reach his replacement with some other friendly leader.

Existence of the possibility that Assad is “sacrificed” in the favour of maintaining the friendly for Russia regime is supported also by the changes in Putin’s statements. For instance, in his interview of October 11 to Russian state-owned television channel Rossiya 1, Putin stressed that “stabilization of Syrian legitimate government”, not Bashar al-Assad as the impersonation of the legitimacy, was one of Russia’s objectives. Russia may have recently commenced the separation of the current Assad’s regime from Assad himself in order to facilitate the following process of talks on the future supervision over Syria administration.

The friendly regime would secure for Russia maintaining of its base in Latakia and the naval base in Tartus. The adopted in 2015 Russia’s new maritime doctrine stresses the significance of the Mediterranean Sea and Russia’s presence in the region aimed at ensuring counterbalance to NATO. The Tartus base as the single Russian Navy support point in the Mediterranean Sea is of vital importance for implementation of the mentioned doctrine.

Through its involvement in the fight against ISIL, Russia may try to gain not only practical benefits in Syria and Middle East, but also a much broader improvement of its status in the international system. The status has been significantly damaged by the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s venturing in Eastern Ukraine. Similar to the World War II, when Russia turned from aggressor state (after its attacks on Finland and Poland) into an ally and one of the victors in the War, also Syrian crisis and fight against ISIL may be used by Russian diplomats to make their country the winner. Such status would provide Russia with the possibility to improve its chance in talks on softening or even lifting the sanctions imposed on it after the annexation of Crimea and activities in Ukraine. The US, EU and other allies’ sanctions applied to Russian officials and strategic economic sectors have had serious negative impact on the state’s economic development. So far Russia has been insufficiently active also in implementation of internal reforms, thereby considerable softening or complete lifting of sanctions is the only way how to prevent further deterioration of economic situation in Russia.

German Social-Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel has already called to make such step. He has probably forgotten that the majority of sanctions are related solely to Russia’s activities in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, not to Russia’s involvement in the fight against ISIL.

They are the barter deals with Russia of such kind that should be first of all avoided by the Western countries. It is important for Latvia as the small state and Russia neighbouring country that violation of international norms is prevented, and that the assistance in combating terrorism or evil of some other forms is not used as the pretext for release from liability for violation of the norms. Latvia may also benefit from Russia’s help in the fight against ISIL and not against all the Assad’s opponents, but the situation should be prevented that all sins are absolved for the assistance in the fight.

Māris Cepurītis, Centre for East European Policy Studies