The Syrian civil war irony: Russia, US reversal of roles?

October 23, 2016

One of the many facets of the civil war in Syria is what appears to be ironic role reversals between Russia and the United States.
Russia’s military participation in the Syrian conflict comes in the form of help for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It should not be overlooked that some analysts are trying to spin this off as Russia standing up for the defence of Christianity as it takes on the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The United States and its Euro­pean allies are trying to come up with a comprehensive strategy on how to fight the jihadist extrem­ists.
Politics and what motivates political trends in the region can be confusing in the best of times. Throw in the complexity of the Syrian civil war with its multitude of political alliances, the plethora of armed factions — foreign and domestic — and the general per­plexity that surrounds the Syrian conflagration and it is easy to understand the West’s reluctance to commit boots on the ground.
The United States has drawn red lines that were not to be crossed but then US officials failed to follow up on threats and lost credibility. Russia did not shy away from committing its forces to battle.
There are a number of reasons there is no such reluctance in Russia.
First is Russia’s geographic proximity to the conflict. The United States remains protected by a continent and an ocean that stands between the Levant and the US mainland. True, the ter­rorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, were proof that distances — whether they cross oceans or land — no longer offer full protec­tion from people committed to reach their targets. Still, distance and lack of local support networks make reaching the US mainland much harder.
Second, Russia is well aware that if ISIS establishes a perma­nent foothold in the Levant, it would be a matter of time before the jihadis begin gnawing away at the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia, placing the jihadists on Russia’s doorstep.
The former Soviet countries, with the exception of Azerbai­jan (mostly Shia), are predomi­nantly Sunni Muslim. Should ISIS continue to exist, in due course Russia will find itself surrounded by countries with large Sunni Muslim populations: Turkmeni­stan (89%), Tajikistan (85%), Kyr­gyzstan (75%), Kazakhstan (70%), Uzbekistan (88%) and Azerbaijan (96.9%).
All are governed by dictator­ships, some more benevolent than others, some trying to portray themselves as more democratic than others. A question that is surely driving Russian actions in Syria is what happens once these dictatorships are challenged, ei­ther by true democratic principles or by Islamists hiding under the guise of democrats?
Russia is worried about its internal Islamist problem in Chechnya. Droves of Chechens flocked to join ISIS. Having fought two wars in Chechnya, the last thing Russia wants is to see com­bat-experienced Chechen warriors return from the Levant to Russia.
Then there is the question of the Syrian Mediterranean port that the Russians need for their Mediterranean fleet.
So, while it would appear that Russia is intervening in Syria to support a long-time ally or to de­fend the last bastion of Christian­ity in the Middle East, in essence its motives are very much directed towards its own security.
Yet the presence of Russian and US military in Syria, each back­ing different sides in a brutal civil war, raises the risk of a possible Russian-American confronta­tion, expanding the conflict into another world war.
Ironically, in a reversal of roles in which post-Soviet-era Russia is traditionally “the bad guy” as an invader rather than a liberator (as in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia), in Syria, Russia plays the role of defender of the major force trying to stop the spread of ISIS.