The 11th-hour Russian incursion
DUBAI - At the end of 2015, it was increasingly evident that the fight for the future of Syria is an extension of a much wider battle for the fate of the wider Middle East.
2015 was a pivotal year in the fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, although the struggle by the United States and its regional allies to contain the Islamic State (ISIS) and find the right balance in commitment of military hardware and troop deployment remains mired in lack of strategic coherence.
Russia permanently altered the regional order with its massive infusion of attack aircraft, military advisers, advanced intelligence and reconnaissance platforms and conventional forces into Syria.
The relationship between the architect of Iran’s strategy in Syria, General Qassem Soleimani, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin established a new power axis. Despite attempts by the United States to develop an understanding with the Kremlin based on perceived mutual interests, this axis is fundamentally anchored by opposition to the West and to the interests of Arab coalition forces.
2015 was punctuated by Moscow and Tehran cementing military and strategic bonds. Syria was the crucible in which Putin and Soleimani chose to forge a unique joint force, alongside Lebanese Hezbollah and auxiliary Shia militant fighters. The multiple fronts in Syria drove historically hostile states together.
Russia once feared the effects and spread of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution but now regularly flies its weaponry over Iranian airspace and coordinates with Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers in Syria.
2015 was also the year that the Iranian regime struck a deal on its nuclear programme that has offered it almost unfettered space to expand its unconventional warfare throughout the Levant and the Gulf.
In fairness, the White House stressed that it would work with allies in the region to counter Iran’s asymmetric destabilising activities. Though Washington is spending the bulk of its strategic bandwidth to ensure implementation of the nuclear deal rather than taking countermeasures that would risk Iranian cooperation on the nuclear front.
As a result, IRGC generals have been seen on the front lines in southern Aleppo, making a renewed push to capture the city with the new air cover provided by Putin’s expansive arsenal.
The 11th-hour intrusion of Russian forces seemed to provide a lifeline to the Assad regime’s ailing national defence and Alawite militias when they were fighting for the very gateway into their coastal heartland.
Putin’s image now joins Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in posters created by supporters. It may prove to be a Faustian bargain. Russian state media continue to define the steady expansion of its military role in Syria as necessary due to the “invitation” offered by the Assad regime to fight “terrorists”.
History has a dry sense of humour: Soviet state media once reassured its citizenry that Russian soldiers would merely be in Afghanistan for two months to help the “brotherly” government stabilise against “Western-backed” subversives. 2015 may prove to be an echo of 1979 as new seismic forces, with Syria as the epicentre, bring new forms of warfare to a war-weary world.
The Assad regime sought to utilise a familiar tool in its effort to gain international legitimacy. Officials in Damascus have had some success in convincing global audiences that its survival is the sole solution to combating extremism, which seems much closer to home for Western politicians who had once seen Syria as a tragic but distant affair.
To borrow a term from international spy craft, the Assad regime attempted a “dangle” to the West, offering its service in the fight against Islamic terrorism. A dangle is a Trojan horse that provides an enticing illusion that seems to be beyond reproach as a means to bind and infiltrate the unwitting target.
Assad wants international recognition as the legitimate sovereign over the remnants of the Syrian rump state. As he has done since 2004, by opening the Pandora’s box to allow Islamic militants access to eastern Syria while offering the United States and Europe intelligence cooperation, Assad believes the dangle might just work, that the fear of ISIS will be sufficient to return his regime to the fold of the international community.
Negotiations scheduled for 2016 in Vienna are not predicated on Assad leaving power and the narrative surrounding the talks is increasingly defined by the need to fight an illusively defined “terrorism”, despite the instance of a broad coalition of rebel armed and political opposition groups.
2015 was a year in which Assad’s dangle, Iran’s hegemony, and Putin’s gamble in Syria converged into a singular force that the Americans and the Arab allies will have to find innovative ways to reject or otherwise fold in acceptance of a new order in the Middle East.