Russia joins Syria war: What it means in the West Asian roulette

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 11, 2015 15:16 IST
Civil defence members remove rubble from a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in Kafranbel, near Idlib in Syria. (REUTERS)

In the Shia areas of Baghdad, Vladimir Putin is called “Hajji Putin” and Iraqi politicians hope Russian bombers will hit Sunni militants in the north of their country. Sunni states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have promised to punish the Russian military who have landed in Syria.

In the first major Russian military intervention in West Asia since the Soviet collapse, Moscow’s provision of airpower, weapons and 500 soldiers to the tottering Shia regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has suddenly breathed life into a conflict dubbed “the frozen war”.

Here’s a run-down on Russia’s Damascene conversion.

Has Russia’s intervention changed the game?

In the past few months, Syrian rebels had inflicted a series of defeats on the Syrian army. Assad’s last real stronghold, the coastal highlands between Turkey and Lebanon, was endangered.

“Assad’s main problem, throughout the civil war, has been the shortage of men willing to take a bullet for him,” Jonathan Spyer of the Middle East Forum has argued. His shrinking forces had been fleshed out by plentiful but poorly-armed Iranian and Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah suffered large casualties in its July Qalamoun offensive and had to negotiate a truce. Iran’s Al Quds commander, Qassem Soleimani, had met Putin warn him the Islamic State (IS) would end up at the Caucasus if Russia didn’t show up.

Can Russia bring the Syrian war to an end?

Moscow’s purpose is to ensure the Syrian regime’s survival. Assad’s Shia Alawi base is only 15% of the population. Winning back the four-fifths of the country held by rebels would mean a full-scale invasion. It would be a second Afghan war for Russia. Russian officials repeatedly say stress they will stick to aerial strikes.

The rebels, which includes IS and other jihadi groups, are being pushed back to where they were four months ago. Some speculate the marriage of Iranian boots and Russian arms could tip the balance decisively in Assad’s favour. But Iran, estimated to be spending $ 6-15 billion a year to prop up Assad, has lost thousands of fighters and is also stretched. More likely, the war will again “freeze”: neither side able to win, neither prepared to negotiate. Some countries, notably Israel, will see this as in their interest.

Jon Alterman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies says, “Russia drops in a couple of dozen aircraft and heads a coalition of four. Folks think this is a game-changer, because no one knows where it will go. Russia will need that flexibility, though, because it is hard to see how they intend to end their engagement.”

Read: 300 IS militants killed in Syria during intense raids: Russia

Who gains, who loses?

Putin has received a huge international boost. By taking a risk, says Dan Twining of the German Marshall Fund, he has “the strategic initiative”. Assad has won a new lease on life. The Sunni nations have received a nasty shock. They are likely to pour money into the rebels, perhaps rehabilitating IS. Expect more foreign fighters to be recruited as well.

The Barack Obama administration’s bottom line: no direct military involvement in any and all conflicts in West Asia. So it sought to use diplomacy, arms supplies and bombing to topple Assad and bring the civil war to a close. “Obama inclines towards a passive approach,” says Twining.

Russia is filling the geopolitical vacuum left by the US. After some whining, Obama’s response has been to withdraw. The US has cut all support to Syrian rebels and just said Russia gets caught in a “quagmire.” No one in the region is paying attention to the US. Worse, though, is that under an isolationist presidency, the US doesn’t care.

“Russian intervention is actively making the problem worse in terms of blowback on the West,” says Twining. Expect more refugees, less space for diplomacy, more support for IS and less safe havens for displaced Syrians.

A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's defence ministry shows what Russia says is smoke rising after airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force on a concealed base for military vehicles in Aleppo province, Syria. (REUTERS)

Is Russia back as a global power?

Putin has been able to use his multi-billion oil and gas-based National Welfare Fund to pay for personal policies. As energy prices plummet so does the fund. Moscow is also shelling out more on welfare (elections coming), pipelines (countering sanctions) and now has a war to pay for. Unsurprisingly Russia’s Economic Ministry has warned 63 of Russia’s 83 provincial governments are close to bankruptcy or default as funds run dry. Russia is a colossus with feet of economy clay.

Not that Russia’s opponents in West Asia are in great shape. A GMF survey showed 57% of Turks opposed military involvement to help Syrian rebels and 70% wanted Ankara to solve its domestic problems first. Saudi Arabia new king is besieged with bad tidings: a horrific accident in Mecca, a messy intervention in Yemen’s civil war and declining petro revenues.

Syrians may have started their civil war but it is now fueled by outside players. But it is a war of the weak - none of these outsiders is strong enough to ensure its Syrians will win, Russia included.

What it may affect India

1. Oil prices are up. Russia has brought back political risk premium for global oil. But as overproduction continues, led by Russia, the price impact is moderate.

2. IS-style terror rises. The US is now giving up on Syria, thanks to Russia and the end of secular Syrian resistance. Sunni governments will feel free to work with IS as US influence declines.

3. Shia vs Sunni tussle gets worse. The Syrian war is the fulcrum of a larger Arab-Persian, sectarian struggle. With Assad back in play, the violence will go on and sectarian hatred deepen.

4. A diplomatic tightrope ahead. With interests and friends on both sides of the Sunni and Shia divide, New Delhi will avoid being on any side other than an anti-ISIS one - something increasingly hard to define.

Read: Fierce battles in central Syria amid Russian airstrikes

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