The Syria chess game is not without risks for Russia
While the Syrians are fighting a civil war, bombing their own cities and killing their own citizens, Russians and Americans are engaged in a serious game of chess on a board that stretches far beyond Syria and the Middle East.
For the moment the Russians appear to be winning. But are they really? Or yet, can they win? Can anyone win in this deadly game of chess?
Here is how the game has played out so far: The United States wants Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. Washington and its allies, including Turkey, a one-time supporter of Assad and Syria’s powerful northern neighbour, have been pushing along with Gulf Arabs, for Assad’s departure.
But if Assad can stay, regardless of the consequences, he will hang on as long as he can. Assad will fight to hold onto power not only to the last Syrian but to the last Iranian and the last Lebanese. Russia’s intervention buys Assad much-needed time.
Assad is supported by Moscow (more on that in a moment) and Iran, which has dispatched an unknown number of troops from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps along with high-ranking officers. From neighbouring Lebanon, the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah, has sent several thousand troops to prop up the Syrian president and his regime.
But the long war in Syria, which despite the terrible toll it has claimed in human lives — an estimated more than 240,000 killed, possibly twice as many wounded, more than 4 million forced out of their homes, many forced out of their country — was stagnating.
Now, suddenly the conflict has shifted into high gear with the Russians making unexpected moves and catching the Americans by surprise.
Moscow’s interest in keeping Assad in power is propelled by issues related to Russian national interest and its security. Russia lacks warm-water ports for its Mediterranean fleet and has enjoyed access to the dry-dock facilities in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. Those are imperative for the Russian Med fleet, which in winter is often unable to reach iced-in Russian ports. The second reason why Moscow believes it is in its interest to maintain the Assad regime in place is because it is fighting units of radical Islamists who have ties to similarly minded factions in Muslim-populated autonomous republics in southern Russia. The Russians believe it would be far more advantageous to fight radical Islamists in Syria than in Russia.
Executing an unexpected move to protect his “king”, Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed 28 military planes and a number of troops to Syria. The immediate result may well be prolonging the ailing Assad regime, allowing it to live a little longer.
The longer-term outcome of this new Russian adventure will be, as Paul Salem, vice-president for Policy and Research at the Middle East Institute in Washington, points out: “The intervention is likely to lead to further escalation of the conflict with no resolution to the political or security stalemates.”
Moscow’s intervention in Syria does not come without risk. The danger, of course, is that Russia may turn Syria into another Afghanistan. Washington’s natural reaction to seeing a Russian build-up in the Middle East may be to arm one or more of the Islamist groups and encourage resistance to the presence of Russian soldiers in Syria.
Already the Russian Embassy in Damascus has been shelled by militants. Even though the September 20th attack was said to cause no damage, there is concern. The rest as they say, is history… repeating itself.