What’s Russia up to in Syria?

Sunday 16/10/2016

Russia has used its veto right five times in the UN Security Council in the last five years to save Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime but it took it four-and-a-half years to decide to directly intervene on the ground in Syria.

It has been a little more than one year since Russian planes were sent to the aid of the Syrian Army but few gains have been realised against either the armed opposition groups or the political opposition. Russia, however, still has time left during the next few months. The United Nations and the United States are both lame ducks waiting for the end of their leaders’ terms. Betting on the positions of the next US president or of the next UN secretary-gen­eral is risky.

Having time, though, will not save Assad’s regime nor will it delay Russia’s definite defeat. Betting on Russia’s defeat springs from Russia’s colonial history. Neither St Petersburg nor Moscow scored a clear colonial victory except in the immediate vital space of tsarist Russia or that of the Soviet Union.

With 17,075 sq. km the Russian Federation is the largest country in the world. Russia’s population stands at 143 million. Neither Napoleon nor Hitler was success­ful in invading Russia for Russia defends its vital space very well. At the same time, neither the Soviet Union could score a definite victory in Korea or in Afghanistan.

If Russia’s experience in Afghanistan is any indication, its presence in Syria will not last more than eight years but there is no sign of its end. There are signs of escalation, however.

There is a debate in the Security Council between Russia and the United States with French backing and shy German support. Militar­ily, there is a fleet of six Russian warships and four supply ships stationed in the Mediterranean. Further out at sea a similar US fleet “backed up” by a French destroyer, two US submarines and one British submarine. A US aircraft carrier and four more warships are on their way towards the Red Sea.

On the Russian side, the Bosporus strait has witnessed unusual movements of Russian ships, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, en route to the eastern Mediterra­nean. In addition, there were persistent reports of US warplanes flying near the Russian base at Hmeimim in Syria as well as of Russian warplanes close to US ships in the Mediterranean.

One can say that US fleets are a common sight in the Mediterra­nean and their crossing of the Red Sea or Strait of Hormuz is a not unusual. However, the move­ments of the US Navy are tied to Russian manoeuvres judged provocative by NATO. Turkey is a NATO member and was definitely not reassured by the movements of the Russian Navy through the Bosporus.

After the ridiculous show at the Security Council, Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin’s sudden visit to Turkey adds to the confusion surrounding Russian-American- NATO relations. Turkey has always voiced its support of the Syrian revolution but it seems that Turkey has given up on the United States and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim chose to defend Ankara’s interests through the Russian channel.

It seems difficult to predict the outcome of the battle for Aleppo. France, Spain and their allies failed to pass a Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone over Aleppo. The British ambassador to the United Nations had harsh words for the Russian veto and we can bet that we are going to witness a flow of new weapons to the Free Syrian Army. The Russians understand the game and warned against targeting its forces in Syria and the forces of the Syrian Army.

All indicators point to a long war by proxies in Syria between the United States and Europe on one side and Russia on the other. A direct confrontation can only be nuclear. Russia is knee-deep in the Syrian quagmire and, as long as it steers clear of Israel, there will be no need for the United States and its allies to confront it head on, even at the cost of an additional 5 million Syrian victims.