Russian air strikes in Syria provoke regional powers
BEIRUT - The Russians have been pounding rebel forces in Syria since September 30th and the signs are that the air strikes in President Vladimir Putin’s self-declared war on the Islamic State (ISIS) are likely to go on for many weeks, widening a conflict that is already bewilderingly complicated by pushing uneasy regional powers into more direct involvement.
On October 2nd, Alexei Pushkov, a close Putin ally and leader of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, told France’s Europe 1 radio that the air strikes will intensify and could last “three to four months”.
Pushkov said he believed the Russian campaign could make “major progress” in contrast to attacks by a US-led coalition — largely carried out by American aircraft — that have targeted ISIS since August 2014 but haven’t delivered a knock-out blow.
The Americans and their European allies fear that the Russian air campaign will not achieve any better results against ISIS but will antagonise regional powers that support rebel groups being hit by Putin’s jets, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey, to step up support for their proxies and further escalate the conflict.
Putin’s high-profile intervention has incensed regional Sunni-led powers, which want to see Assad toppled and charged as a war criminal for his slaughter of his mainly Sunni opponents in Syria. These constitute most of the estimated 240,000 people who have been killed since the civil war erupted in March 2011.
Assad is a key ally of Shia Iran, which is locked in a deepening ideological power struggle with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers. There had been moves by these states towards supporting a political transition in Damascus but that dissipated when Putin sent his forces in Latakia to rescue Assad.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, embracing the kind of aggressive regional policy they have for decades eschewed in favour of more cautious, risk-averse pursuits, are already committed to a war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that could inhibit a military response in Syria.
But regional analysts suggest that the Saudis and their allies may be prepared to ignore Western prohibitions on transferring advanced weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles, to their proxies to blunt the Russian air campaign — a development that could sharply escalate the Syrian conflict.
“This is going to be a dangerous place,” warned Daniel Levy, Middle East programme director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The degree to which Tehran and Riyadh are now in confrontation mode across a number of regional hot spots is worrisome. Who can now act as the de-escalating mediator?”
Qatar, apparently with the agreement of Riyadh, is reportedly airlifting weapons to Turkish bases for delivery to rebels in north-west Syria to hold off an expected regime offensive backed by Russian air power.
Tensions heightened October 4th and 5th when NATO-member Turkey reported that Russian aircraft twice penetrated its airspace over Hatay province on Syria’s northern border. That incensed Turkey and drew sharp criticism from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. He was implicitly holding out the possibility of NATO action to defend a member state if Russian violations continue.
On October 2nd, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, along with key European and Gulf states that are members of the US-led coalition, urged Russia to halt its air strikes. They declared the raids “will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation” because they are targeting non-ISIS groups.
The Russian strikes triggered at least two attacks on Putin’s Latakia air base, although both appeared to be pinprick hit-and-run raids, causing little damage and no casualties.
Ahrar al-Islam, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, claimed it fired several truck-mounted Grad artillery rockets into the base on September 28th. In a video posted by the group, a commander named “Omar” said the Russian-built missiles had been captured from a regime base and were the first of many broadsides. “These are your goods,” he taunted the Russians. “They have been returned to you.”
Ahrar al-Sham unleashed a rocket attack on the base on October 2nd. Meantime, the Russian base, protected by 500 men of Russia’s Naval Infantry Brigade with a dozen top-of-the-line T-90 tanks and heavy artillery, is within range of more powerful missiles possessed by Jaysh al-Fatah, a loose alliance of Islamic groups that has been advancing towards Latakia from neighbouring Idlib province. The alliance is backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. If the Russians support regime assaults to push back Jaysh al- Fatah, it will almost certainly trigger escalatory action from the Gulf states, which support the coalition. That might lead to Putin sending in more forces.
That’s something that Putin probably does not want to do, although there are unconfirmed reports of Russian personnel being airlifted to Syria. In the end, it may come down to Russian reinforcement or a humiliating withdrawal, an embarrassing echo of the Soviet Red Amy’s retreat from Afghanistan in 1989.