Can Russia prevail in Syria and Iraq with ‘boots off the ground’?

Friday 09/10/2015
Desperate move to preserve vital regional interests

BEIRUT - “Boots off the ground” has been the US mili­tary strategy in vari­ous world conflicts with the aim of win­ning battles without committing ground forces.
The doctrine suggests that using superior air power and long-range missile attacks allow moderately equipped local forces to advance and defeat superior adversaries. Victory can be largely claimed as locally attained rather than exter­nally imposed. Libya presented a successful model in which a NATO air campaign against dictator Mua­mmar Qaddafi helped secure a quick victory for the local opposi­tion.
But that strategy against the Is­lamic State (ISIS) in Iraq has been anything but a success. Since Au­gust 2014, more than 22 countries, led by the United States, have joined the air campaign against ISIS. According to a New York Times report, the year-long cam­paign has involved the dropping of more than 5,600 bombs on ISIS positions with a running cost that exceeds $3.21 billion.
Realities on the ground, however, have hardly changed. ISIS contin­ues to advance on various fronts, capturing Ramadi in Iraq and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Strategic adjustments evident in the reinforcement and equipping of local ground forces — Syrian, Ira­qi and Kurdish — have failed to stop ISIS. On occasions, embarrassing strategic blunders have seen US-supplied weapons handed over to ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
In the midst of Western military setbacks and amid the near col­lapse of the Iraqi and Syrian states, accompanied by mounting fears of massive refugee exodus and sectar­ian pogroms, Russia has stepped in. This time, and in order to win the war, it has offered its own ver­sion of “boots off the ground”.
Russian President Vladimir Pu­tin seems confident of the success of his strategy. His bid appears to be vested in commanding ground forces that are much more com­mitted and eager for his leadership. Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian armies and their accompanying anti-Sunni militias find in Russia a trusted and uncompromising ally.
In addition, and contrary to the Americans and Europeans, Russian resolve is apparent in taking a clear side on the sectarian battlefield. It requires no diplomacy or approval of Sunni majority states such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In fact, Russia’s recent engage­ment appears to be a desperate move to preserve vital regional interests. Russia’s gas supplies to Europe have been challenged by a proposed natural gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, a joint venture that would significantly curtail Russian powers and undermine its economy. Russian enmity towards Saudi Arabia has become more evident following sliding oil prices largely blamed on the kingdom.
There are, of course, other re­ligious aspects of this “off the ground” campaign. The Russian Orthodox Church has given its blessing to Russian soldiers joining the battlefield in what has come to resemble a call for a “holy war” to counter that which was ordered by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The restoration of a “lost” Chris­tian state in Iraq and Syria is sure to charge the morals of the Russian fighters.
To win the battle, Putin’s first mission appears to be centred on removing immediate threats to the Syrian government by protecting the Alawite regime’s eastern coast where Russian airbases and Medi­terranean fleet are stationed. His second priority is to provide effec­tive air support to the advancing Syrian and Iranian ground troops and Shia militias confronting Sunni militants.
For that purpose, Russia is wast­ing no time in establishing an infor­mation centre to coordinate air and ground operations among Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi militaries.
For Russia’s “boots off the ground” campaign to achieve a decisive victory, several prereq­uisites are required. First, the in­ternational opposition to Russian intervention should not material­ise in the form of asymmetric war­fare though proxies. Second, the international anti-Assad alliance should gradually be weakened and removed. Third, the international and regional stakes in stability should overcome priorities for re­gime change.
Russia is optimistic about achiev­ing these requirements. It finds lit­tle urgency among the anti-Assad alliance to arm radical Syrian Is­lamist groups. Europeans, Ameri­cans and Russians are equally fear­ful of the “Talibanisation” of Syria.
This is contributing to growing divisions among the anti-Assad coalition. Egypt, for instance, has expressed greater convergence with and support for the Russian position in the region to curb Sunni fundamentalism. Europe, on the other hand, has grown increas­ingly aware of the rising influx of refugees flooding Western bor­ders, largely perceived as a loom­ing threat against European unity and domestic security. European enthusiasm for regime change is losing steam in favour of stabil­ity, even if achieved in partnership with Syria’s President Bashar As­sad.
Looking at the battle from the air, Putin may appear to be winning the ground. More territories may soon be captured by the Syrian Army supported by Iranian and Shia ground troops. Syrian opposition groups along with ISIS forces may retreat from various areas. Entire Sunni populated towns may fall into the hands of the Syrian regime and Shia allies. Maps may soon be redrawn to reveal new fault lines.
On the ground, however, observ­ers will note that following Russian intervention the battle is no longer solely about winning or losing Syr­ian territories. The Russian war­planes may have only introduced new factors that would infuriate sectarian grievances and implicate Sunni Islam everywhere.
Such a situation is sure to con­firm suspicions of a new crusade and bring the confrontation closer to what political scientist Samuel Huntington described as the “Clash of Civilisations”. In such a struggle, Russians’ boots will be destined to touch much wider and unanticipat­ed grounds.