Rus­sia’s airstrikes add to the chaotic mix of play­ers and in­ter­ests in Syria

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ERIC RAN­DOLPH

The start of Rus­sian airstrikes in Syria has added yet another di­men­sion to a war that al­ready fea­tured mul­ti­ple ac­tors pulling in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions and serv­ing their own in­ter­ests, say ex­perts.

“We’ve seen in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated, multi-faceted con­flicts in the past,” said Shashank Joshi, se­nior re­searcher at the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute (RUSI) in Lon­don, giv­ing the Bos­nian war of the 1990s as an ex­am­ple. “But this time the stakes are big­ger. “If Iran loses Syria, it loses by far its big­gest ally in the Mid­dle East. If Rus­sia loses Syria, it’s a big geopo­lit­i­cal blow at a time when it’s fac­ing iso­la­tion,” he told AFP.

While Rus­sia claims it is only in­ter­ested in tar­get­ing the Is­lamic State (IS) group, its first airstrikes on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day hit a range of rebels, sug­gest­ing the real pri­or­ity is prop­ping up its long­time ally, Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, against all his en­e­mies.

Rus­sia is just one in a crowded field of play­ers in­ter­ven­ing in Syria, each claim­ing to tar­get “ter­ror­ism” while pur­su­ing their own agen­das.

Tur­key has launched at­tacks against IS but most of it di­rected against the Kurds. Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar have treated the con­flict as a proxy war against their re­gional ri­val Iran.

“And then you have the U.S., which is anti-As­sad, but it’s in­creas­ingly clear is not will­ing to take on the same de­gree of risk,” said Joshi.

‘Will only re­in­force IS’

Mul­ti­ple, over­lap­ping in­sur­gent groups on the ground, backed by a range of pow­er­ful pa­trons, make it al­most im­pos­si­ble for the ex­ter­nal pow­ers to avoid tread­ing on each other’s toes.

“The Rus­sian strikes in­evitably end up be­ing provoca­tive, be­cause the dif­fer­ent rebel groups are so mixed to­gether,” said Columb Strack, se­nior Mid­dle East an­a­lyst for IHS Coun­try Risk.

“With U.S.-backed rebels work­ing along­side oth­ers, it’s hard to strike one with­out hit­ting the other,” he said.

Dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests also lead to dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the war.

“Rus­sia is fo­cused on the north­west, pro­tect­ing its Tar­tus naval base and the area around (Syr­ian gov­ern­ment strong­hold) Latakia, while Iran is ex­tremely fo­cused on pro­tect­ing Syria as a con­duit for Hezbol­lah (its Le­banon­based proxy mili­tia),” said Joshi.

The broader fear is that Rus­sia will end up bol­ster­ing the strength of IS — the ex­act op­po­site of its stated aim.

“This is a di­rect in­ter­ven­tion by the Rus­sian army on the side of the dic­ta­tor­ship in Damascus, which will only re­in­force IS and in­crease ji­hadist re­cruit­ment,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, au­thor of “From Deep State to Is­lamic State.”

‘Re­ally smart or re­ally dumb’

The jury is out on whether Rus­sia has the re­sources to save As­sad’s regime, says Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Cri­sis, a blog pub­lished by the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

“But it could help As­sad on cer­tain crit­i­cal fronts, and it re­as­sures sup­port­ers who have been aban­don­ing him due to mil­i­tary losses and the eco­nomic down­turn,” he said.

That could put any res­o­lu­tion to the con­flict even fur­ther out of reach, re­bal­anc­ing the strength of gov­ern­ment and rebel forces and shut­ting down any hope of a more force­ful in­ter­ven­tion by the West. The pres­ence of Rus­sian planes in Syr­ian airspace “has taken the op­tion of im­pos­ing a no-fly zone off the ta­ble, be­cause the risk of tan­gling with Rus­sia is now ex­cep­tion­ally high,” said RUSI’s Joshi. He points out that this is not new: fear of killing Rus­sian mil­i­tary ad­vi­sors work­ing along­side As­sad forces has con­strained the West’s op­tions for at least a cou­ple of years.

An­a­lysts over­whelm­ingly agree that Rus­sia’s chief long-term goal is to win a place at the ta­ble when it comes to ne­go­ti­a­tions on Syria’s fu­ture — a chance for Moscow to demon­strate its geopo­lit­i­cal im­por­tance at home, and make it­self an in­dis­pens­able part­ner to Europe, the U.S. and China.

In the process, how­ever, it risks be­ing drawn into a bru­tal war with no end in sight.

“At this stage, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell if the Rus­sians are be­ing re­ally smart or re­ally dumb — whether they are tar­get­ing spe­cific ar­eas for strate­gic rea­sons, try­ing to em­bar­rass the U.S. and pro­voke a re­ac­tion, or just blast­ing ran­domly away,” said Lund.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Taiwan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.