The Syrian crisis came as a blessing for Russia, creating an opportune time to come back to the region because it could capitalize on several opportunities offered by this crisis.
A stalemate between the opposition and regime forces has prevailed in Syria for more than two years. The international community could not come up with an efficient plan of action to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). A program of the US-led coalition that aims to train and equip moderate opposition fighters failed badly when a large number of the trained and equipped fighters were captured by extremist opposition factions as soon as they entered Syrian territory. A new group of fighters who were trained later had to give one-quarter of their equipment and ammunition to an al-Qaeda linked opposition faction for safe passage from the region under their control. While the coalition was looking for new ways to be more effective in the field, Russia brought combat aircraft, ammunition and soldiers into Syria. It signed intelligence exchange agreements with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Russia approached the US about cooperating in the fight against ISIL. And, last week, Russia started to attack ISIL and non-ISIL Salafist targets alike. A group of the US-led coalition countries issued a strongly worded statement, pointing out that Russia was targeting non-ISIL opposition targets as well and asked them to stop these raids. However, Russia ignored such requests, pointing out that their original aim was not just to defeat ISIL but to fight all “terrorist” factions. Russia’s definition of “terrorist” is identical to that of the Syrian regime. With this move, Russia will be able to kill several birds with one stone.
It will extend much needed help to the Syrian regime at a time when the latter is faced with a severe threat to its survival, allowing Russia to establish a more solid presence in Syria. Unlike the US-led coalition, the regime forces supported by Russia have boots on the ground. Russia will share intelligence with parties like Syria, Iran and Iraq which have been able to reach more deeply into the local communities. When the time comes, Russia will be able to influence the choice of successor if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to step aside one way or another. In the longer term, this means closer relations between Russia and Syria and increased Syrian dependence on Russia, both militarily and economically.
Russia will be fighting its own terrorists, but in a foreign country and without causing collateral damage to its own infrastructure and people, because Chechens and other Russians from the North Caucasus are the most active fighters in ISIL. They are present in the other opposition factions as well. For Russia, fighting these terrorists is as important as giving the Syrian regime a helping hand to ensure its survival.
Since Russia’s move came at a time when no breakthrough was in sight to defeat ISIL, the reaction to this move will be limited, at least in the initial stage. Despite several misgivings expressed by US President Obama, the US has agreed to cooperate with Russia to avoid inadvertent confrontation. This cooperation may face several pitfalls, but will probably work.
This does not mean that Russia’s move is free of risk. The Syrian imbroglio is so complicated that Russia may be drawn into a swamp from which it may be difficult to re-emerge and Syria may become another Afghanistan as a result.
This move by Russia will have a profound impact on Turkey, more than other countries. First of all, the increased military presence very close to the Turkish border will affect the nation. Secondly, Russian attacks are also being directed at moderate opposition factions that are supported by Turkey.
Turkey and Russia decided to compartmentalize their relations and not let the problem in one area negatively affect cooperation in the other. However, due to this conflict of interest, political fallout and strained bilateral relations appear unavoidable.
Turkey was previously unwilling to discuss any possible solution to the crisis in Syria that might involve Assad. However, following a visit to Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan softened his position and Turkey agreed that Assad could be allowed to play a role during the transition, just not in the aftermath.
This position still differs from that of Russia, which advocates that the Syrian people should be allowed to elect whomever they want. Despite these two different perceptions, the present modus vivendi may constitute a good starting point.