Can Russia roll back the caliphate in Iraq and Syria?


Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September, 2015, is a new gambit by its president, Vladimir Putin. It could change the course of history, and even geography, in that region or bog down Russia in a West Asian quagmire. According to uncorroborated media reports, Russian military intervention has achieved a more significant measure of success against the so-called caliphate or the Islamic State than the bombing campaign by the United States of America-led coalition, comprising Nato, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey. Russian fighter aircraft are conducting more sorties per day in both Iraq and Syria than the Americans have been doing in a month for the last one year. The Russian air strikes seem to have achieved more in a far shorter period to combat the IS than the year-long American bombing campaign.

The latter has shown little result on the ground. The IS has not been deterred and gained more territory. The US objective has been to topple Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and its air strikes have primarily hit Syrian government forces and infrastructure, in order to protect Western-supported anti-Assad rebels. Assets of the caliphate or the IS, have also been targeted, but not enough to decimate them. The IS, as the most fanatic and capable among several rebel Sunni groups opposing Assad, has been viewed as a necessary evil to apply pressure on Assad and ensure his downfall. The Russian intervention changes this script substantially. With this intervention, Russia has ensured that it has become the principal actor in Syria. The net effect of Russian intervention has resulted in bolstering the Assad regime. The US is now aligned with the Sunni forces and Russia with the Shia bloc, marking the sectarian divide in West Asia, though a majority Sunni country, like Egypt, has been helping the Assad government.

The reaction of the US, and its Nato, Arab and Turkish allies, indicates that Russia’s intervention has caught them in an awkward and embarrassing situation. The initial response was to blame Russia for targeting pro-Western and anti-Assad rebels. US and Nato concerns extend to the Russian ability to jam radars and electronics equipment in order to control Syrian airspace. Prior intimation was necessary to avoid any accidental clashes with the air forces of the US and Nato countries operating in Syrian airspace. This is borne out by Moscow reaching an agreement with Washington for the removal of Nato’s Patriot missile batteries from Turkey. The US has also withdrawn the aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, stationed in the Persian Gulf, ostensibly for maintenance. The withdrawal came soon after Russia fired a barrage of long-range cruise missiles from its warships in the Caspian Sea against IS targets in Syria.

It is also clear that the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were kept in the loop by Russia. Iraq, too, was consulted and came on board with an intelligence-cum-coordination centre in Baghdad in August this year. The US could not prevent Iraq joining hands with Russia and Iran. Iraq, Iran and Syria permitted Russia to use its airspace for bolstering military assets at Russia’s Tartus naval base and Latakia air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The Latakia air base is the staging point for air strikes against the IS and anti-Assad rebel groups. Latakia is the stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which is at the core of the governing elite in Syria.

Russia seems to have successfully built a counter coalition to the US-led coalition, with Iraq also agreeing to Russian air strikes against the IS in northern Iraq. The Russian military intervention began with air strikes, first on rebel positions and thereafter on IS positions. The Iraqi government has authorized Russia to bomb IS convoys and targets in Iraq. Ever since the IS overran the northern city of Mosul in Iraq in June 2014 and declared a self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, Iraq has suffered a huge security vacuum. It seems pretty clear that consultations between Iran and Russia led to the assessment that the Assad regime was in a desperate situation and losing territory to the rebels and the IS on a daily basis, and the danger of the Syrian capital, Damascus, being cut off from Latakia was imminent. Both Iran and Russia decided to intervene to save their ally, Assad, with Iran’s Lebanese ally, the Shia Hezbollah militia, providing ground forces alongside Iran’s ground forces. The primary Russian goal is to keep its ally, Assad, in power for the time being, degrade the IS, enable Syrian government forces to take control of key corridors and ensure that Russia’s interests are protected in future political arrangements in Syria

The US-led coalition’s grand strategy to oust the Assad regime was premised on exploiting the internal revolt in Syria to push for regime change, accusing the Assad government of brutal suppression of the Syrian people. Since the United Nations failed to give any legal cover to the regime change plan, under the garb of “Responsibility to Protect”, as China and Russia vetoed the resolution in the UN Security Council, the US-led coalition against the Assad regime took recourse to covert action. Thus began the support to Syrian rebels, al Qaida affiliates, jihadists from abroad, funneling arms, mostly via Turkey, and helping them organize an all out assault on the Assad regime. In pursuit of these objectives, the CIA trained Syrian ‘rebels’ not to fight the IS but to fight the Syrian government. A collateral policy was to go easy on the IS, which was also seen as playing a role in ousting Assad, thereby serving American geopolitical interests. The result of this policy has been untold misery for the Syrian people, supposedly the main beneficiary of regime change. Half the Syrian population of around 11 million has been internally displaced and more than four million refugees have fled abroad.

The US has viewed Syria as one of the last outposts of Russian and Iranian influence, and US policy-makers have resorted to supporting rebel groups regardless of their ideological leanings. Hence, terrorists became allies. The US had created the al Qaida to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, helped in the dismemberment of Serbia, a friend of Russia, and the creation of Kosovo. Later, the same fate befell Libya where the Nato bombing campaign helped topple the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and left the country embroiled in civil war that still rages on, with two competing governments and numerous militias. Even the IS has established a foothold in Libya. In the Egyptian Sinai, the government is battling jihadists inspired by the IS. An IS offshoot has claimed that it downed the Russian airliner in the Egyptian Sinai recently, though Russia has dismissed this claim.

The US-led regime change plan was viewed by Russia and Iran as threatening their interests. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has made it clear that Russia’s military intervention was to prevent “another Libyan scenario”. Russian concerns about the IS and American policy also extended to fighting terrorism in Russia. Chechen terrorists are a major component of the IS and the Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaida offshoot in Syria. The IS has threatened to organize terrorist attacks in Moscow in response to the Russian intervention. Putin has acknowledged in the media that it was better to fight terrorists in Syria than when they return to Russia.

The ambivalence of US policy towards terrorist groups that serve its geopolitical interests has a long history. In South Asia too, US-Pakistan relations seem to reflect an understanding, if not tolerance, of Pakistan using terrorists against India, in pursuit of its national goals. In the world of realpolitik, where there are no scruples against using terrorist groups to promote geopolitical interests, the US and Pakistan seem to be on the same page. This explains American ambivalence on Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a tool of State policy against India. Indian complaints against Pakistani terrorism are seen as whining by hard-boiled American interlocutors. Narendra Modi’s government would do well to eschew this mode of engagement with the Americans and deal with Pakistani terrorism bilaterally and globally.

It is ironic that al Qaida, once the primary enemy of the US, has now become a tool for regime change in Syria in its new Syrian avatars, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Shams. A former American national security adviser has blamed Russia for targeting these groups in its bombing campaign. It seems that the Russian bombing campaign against the IS and ‘rebel groups’ has been effective. Russia is expected to launch bombing sorties against the IS in Iraq. Clearly, confidence is running low in the US’s fight against the IS. The Iraqi Parliament has approved Russia’s entry into Iraq to launch air strikes against the IS. The US, which has deployed units of its Special Forces in Iraq, has upped its actions and recently launched an operation to rescue Iraqi military personnel held by the IS. In this operation, an American officer lost his life. The Barack Obama administration is now mulling the idea of putting ground support to combat the IS. This cannot be done without collaboration with the Syrians, Russians and Iranians.

In the GCC, Saudi Arabia has reacted with anger at the Russian intervention. Saudi Mullahs have called for a strong response to the Russian move, no doubt encouraged by the Saudi regime. Qatar is the other GCC country that has bankrolled jihadi groups in Syria and has made threatening noises about military involvement in Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not have the capability, human resources or stamina for military involvement in Syria. They can write cheques to fund the jihadis, but will not be able to intervene militarily in Syria.

The Arab world stands divided. Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates seem optimistic about the Russian intervention, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have signaled their displeasure. Saudi Arabia is already ensnared in an unwinnable war in Yemen. Yet, the Saudis have shown a degree of pragmatism since their deputy crown prince and defence minister, the son of the Saudi king, dashed to Moscow for consultations. The Saudis will try to protect their assets in Syria and urge the Russians to dump Assad. The latter has visited Moscow too. Among the string of high-level visitors was the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel is deeply concerned about Syria and would like to keep the pot boiling in Syria and buy security. Russia has also made overtures to Turkey. All these countries have hedged their bets and not ‘condemned’ the Russian move, although they have been sharply critical.

While Russia has engaged Turkey, the other major regional player, despite serious disagreements over Syria, Crimea and Ukraine, they have attempted to insulate their burgeoning economic relations from their disagreements. Turkey has made noises about cutting back on gas purchases from Russia and cancelling a multi-billion dollar contract for a nuclear power station at Akkuyu awarded to a Russian contractor. Russia has already signalled its displeasure by withholding permits for Turkish truckers ferrying goods to the Central Asian states via Russian territory. Turkey was the largest beneficiary of Western economic sanctions against Russia as it gained from preferential market access in Russia and Turkish contractors secured several lucrative contracts for civil works. Turkey’s exports to West Asia have suffered a lot because of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and it cannot afford to lose access into the Russian and Central Asian markets.

Russia has signalled that it can mount economic and political pressure on Turkey. Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party or the PYD, the most powerful of the armed groups fighting IS, also visited Moscow for consultations. The PYD is allied with the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, which has conducted an armed struggle for independence from Turkey for over 40 years. Increasingly closer relations between Russia and the Kurds brought Turkey and Russia once again into confrontation over their quest to control Kurdish oil and Turkey’s insistence on identifying the PYD as a terror organization because of its links with the PKK. Russia’s recognition of the PYD as an ally, which followed the US recognition of the PYD, has further complicated Turkey’s position.

Yet, the recent election results in Turkey shows that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP has emerged a clear winner in the snap polls called after the AKP’s loss of majority in parliament in the June election when the major Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP made strong gains and Turkey was wracked by violent bombing campaigns, allegedly conducted by PKK and the IS. Russian critics of Erdogan have blamed Turkey of sponsoring terrorists in Syria, and Turkey’s pique at the Russian intervention is alleged to have upset Erdogan’s plan of ousting Assad. Turkey has paid a price for its policy preferences on Syria. Over two million Iraqi and Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey. Some of them have now fled to Europe, allegedly encouraged by Turkey, which cannot bear the cost of hosting refugees indefinitely.

Erdogan duly visited Moscow to consult with the Russians and in a significant climb-down from “Assad must go”, has now agreed to a deal with Assad. Clearly, Turkey has sought to protect its economic interests which include the gargantuan South Stream gas pipeline project with Russia. Meanwhile, Turkey has renewed its bombing of PKK positions in Iraq, forsaking the earlier policy of rapprochement with the Kurds. With a renewed mandate in the election, Erdogan may feel emboldened to escalate the fight against the Kurds with bloody domestic consequences.

China’s role in the Syrian crisis has been quite revealing. China’s aircraft carrier and a sister ship reportedly docked at Tartus before the Russians started the air strikes, signaling China’s support for Iran and Russia to shore up the Assad regime. China is likely to beef up its military assets to help the Russian campaign. China’s interest also lies in countering its Muslim Uighur jihadists who have joined the IS. India has maintained that the Russian intervention is to fight the IS, but it does not believe that a military solution is possible and has consistently backed the Geneva peace process on Syria for a long-term political solution. India has been reluctant to criticize Russia because of a long-standing friendship and historical closeness even during the Crimean crisis, when India noted that Russia’s legitimate interests were involved. China’s official reaction was also similar when the official spokesperson said that China had noted that the “relevant military action, as the Russian side put it, is taken at the request of the Syrian government with the purpose of combating terrorist and extremist forces inside Syria”.

Russia’s military intervention has brought diplomacy back in play regarding a political solution in Syria. Talks have started in Vienna between the US and Russia, to which the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers were also invited. No deal could be reached on the fate of Assad, but the first step has been taken to start a peace process. Iran has been invited to join the talks this time. The arrogant decision to exclude Iran from the earlier peace talks in Geneva has not been repeated. There is no alternative to diplomacy and engagement. The US has to come to terms with a changed world where it is no longer the overwhelming hegemon willing and capable of imposing its will everywhere. It augurs well that the US has backed away from demanding Assad’s immediate removal.

The devil will lie in the details of negotiations to bring Syrian rebel groups and the Assad government together in an anti-IS coalition backed by the major and regional powers. Will the Syrian rebel groups agree to join hands with the Assad government to take on the IS? Can this coalition be created? Even if this happens and the anti-IS coalition succeeds in routing the IS, what happens then? Can Iran and Saudi Arabia reconcile to cooperating? There is a long and tortuous road ahead. Hard-line jihadi rebel groups are unlikely to give up their fight against Assad. It is highly possible that Syria will be virtually partitioned with different groups controlling its various parts. The wheel of history would then have turned a full circle since the Sykes-Picot agreement after World War I, which created the modern state of Syria.

(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs)

Courtesy:ORF- Can Russia roll back the caliphate in Iraq and Syria?

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