Syria’s peacekeeping force may include Kazakh, Kyrgyz contingents
Recent weeks have proved momentous for the long-suffering populations of Iraq and Syria. In the former, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul and proclaimed the city liberated from Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists. At the G20 summit in Hamburg, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire in southern Syria.
This follows US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telling UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres that the fate of Syrian leader Bashar Assad lies in Russia’s hands. What is Moscow planning? It is pondering a post-conflict peacekeeping force in Syria, which would include Russian forces possibly alongside contingents from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan has a temporary UN Security Council seat and a president who has strongly supported other peacemaking initiatives, including in Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan is the sole post- Soviet country to house a Russian military base. What would be the implications?
In a clear indication that Russia’s deployment plans are progressing, Russia’s chief negotiator at the Astana Syrian peace talks and the Russian president’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said the Russian military police may be deployed in buffer security zones in Syria after the relevant documents were signed with the Syrian government.
In the multifaceted Syrian war, it is significant that the only foreign forces invited by the Syrian government are Russian. While Russia has a significant Muslim minority, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are both Muslim countries that would provide a higher level of acceptance by Syrians than other foreign troops.
The deployment of peacekeepers from the post-Soviet space is bolstered by their government’s fears that their citizens will travel to the war zones and gather combat experience before eventually returning home to commit terrorist acts; accordingly, neutralising them in the Middle East is a wise prophylactic measure.
Putin has stated that 4,000- 5,000 Russian citizens were fighting with ISIS; Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency has estimated that there are around 300 Kazakh nationals fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while the Kyrgyz government estimates 200 to 500 of its citizens have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the battle.
All three countries, along with Armenia, Belarus and Tajikistan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a post-Soviet defence pact that places a high emphasis on combating terrorism.
Bolstering the appeal of the proposal to the Syrian government is the fact that no similar countermeasures have been put forth by various international organisations, from the United Nations to the European Union and NATO. Part of the reason for that inaction is that there is no common post-conflict vision of the Syrian government. Given that Trump is ensnared in numerous policy disputes, it is most unlikely that he would propose boots on the ground for Syria. Accordingly, it seems likely that Putin would move quickly to reinforce Moscow’s position there.
The impasse created by this lack of vision extends to individual countries involving themselves in combating the ISIS presence in Syria and Iraq, including the United States, which initially saw the outbreak of the Syrian civil war as an element in the “Arab spring” and sought to use the occasion to remove Assad from power while promoting regional democracy.
Russia saw the “Arab spring” and its antecedents quite differently. Beginning with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Saddam Hussein from power, and continuing through the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, the Kremlin has seen authoritarian governments overthrown, only to be succeeded by a power vacuum, chaos and civil war in which numerous factions, including terrorists, vie for power.
As these destabilised Middle Eastern countries descend into armed conflict, they draw terrorists from around the world eagerly seeking combat experience, which gives foreign countries a vested interest in quelling the unrest.
Syrian-trained Central Asian militants have been behind terrorist attacks far afield from Syria and their home countries. These include bombings in Istanbul of areas frequented by tourists as well as Istanbul Ataturk Airport, the St Petersburg metro, truck and car attacks in Paris and Stockholm and a foiled bomb plot in New York.
Above and beyond this altruistic component of Russian foreign policy stabilising Assad’s government while thwarting international terrorism are potential diplomatic and economic benefits of assisting the Assad government. Earlier this year, the Syrian government concluded a 49-year lease with the Russian government to use its Mediterranean Tartus naval base, providing the Russian Navy with its first continuous Mediterranean port since the Cold War.
The economic prize awaiting Syria’s allies is the rebuilding of the country’s battered oil industry. Syria’s oil sector produced 385,000 barrels per day (bpd) before the conflict began in March 2011. Since then Syrian crude oil production dropped to 8,000 bpd. Russia, one of the world’s leading oil producers, is the perfect partner to restore this vital industry.
With the imminent capture of ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital Raqqa, the Syrian civil war is nearing its end game. As the United States has effectively abandoned its regime change goals there, it seems obvious that Assad will remain in power. In the long struggle to foil his removal, Assad has had no more stalwart an ally than Russia. The only question remaining is how handsomely he will reward his loyal patron, as Washington has apparently green-lighted Moscow’s initiatives.