Middle East // Analysis

03 november 2015

Russia in Syria: Obscure Solutions to Obscure Challenges, and the Risks Surrounding them

Vasily Kuznetsov PhD in History, Director, Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert
Photo:
EPA/NABIL MOUNZER/Vostock Photo
Protest against Russia in Lebanon,
October 14, 2015

Pursuing an active policy in Syria up to direct involvement in the military conflict seems to be bringing Moscow both fresh opportunities and new risks, both internal and external, that range from the palpable to the obscure.

Risks

The most obvious risks are image-related. While the denigration of Russia in Western media has become routine in recent years, the perception of Russia in the Arab and Islamic information field has always been more nuanced. While some TV channels (Al-Arabia, Al-Jazeera and the Gulf media) have vilified the Kremlin for supporting Bashar Assad, others such as Shiite TV station Al-Manar, Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, etc., have been openly supportive about Russian anti-Americanism.

But now the situation has changed.

Under certain circumstances, the Syrian operation may help Russia in its relations with the West, but information-wise the status quo is likely to remain for a long time to come. As a result, some will see Russia as a country that defends dictators and bombs the moderate opposition and civilians, while others will see it as an enemy of the Sunnis. Details regarding the groups bombed, real targets for air attacks, or the fact that Russia has 20 million Sunnis residing in its territory will be virtually ignored.

The most obvious risks are image-related.

Russia is, as always, rather weak in information warfare, and apparent absurdities like the total defeat of ISIS in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army [1] voiced by official sources only serve to aggravate the situation. The Arab community, including Christians, rejects Russian commentators’ attempts to interpret the Syrian campaign in religious terms as a holy war, the Russian Orthodox Church’s religious mission, etc. Such statements not only revive the image of Western crusades in the Middle East but also echo with the offensive missionary rhetoric of George Bush Jr.

Russian domestic propaganda correlates poorly with foreign media outreach, and a comparison of the two information streams gives the impression that Moscow's policy is neither consistent nor transparent.

However, these image-related losses are far from being the biggest problem, as the looming political risks are much more ominous.

The three main domestic risks have been much talked about and boil down to possible popular discontent over the Kremlin's policies.

First there is the terrorist threat, which seems to have firm foundation. On the one hand, there are ISIS sympathizers resident in Russia who see the Syria operation as an assault on genuine Islam. The other involves thousands of battle-hardened and well-networked Jihadis who will be driven out of Syria first to Iraq and then to their homelands, which seems to be exactly the scenario Moscow is trying to prevent by interfering in the Syrian affairs.

The logic of ISIS’s evolution has prompted the inevitable gradual ouster of romantic jihadis out of their current territory and the future export of jihad. Southern Russia is definitely high in their priorities list. Hence, President Putin's approach "strike first if the fight is unavoidable" seems to perfectly match this logic.

First there is the terrorist threat.

Risk number two involves the unpredictable response of Russian society to any future battlefield losses. When ISIS captured a Jordanian pilot and burnt him in a metal cage, thousands of people in Amman went out onto the streets to protest both against ISIS and the participation of Jordanians in the war on the Islamists. There has been no similar trigger-event reported involving Russians, and any similar public response by Russians has yet to be seen, not least since Moscow's previous military campaigns in the southern Russia left a negative impression Russian public consciousness.

Risk number two involves the unpredictable response of Russian society to any future battlefield losses.

At the same time, it is no secret that weakening of traditional bonds combined with the underdevelopment of liberal values and civil society have atomized Russian society, undermining its ability to mobilize and increasing its tolerance regarding human victims.

Finally, the third domestic risk involves economic impact of the Syrian campaign. Irrespective of the burden on the Russian state budget (which is not thought to be enormous, in terms of purely military costs), given the broader economic downturn, the general public will find it hard to understand the need for yet another round of belt tightening, this time for the sake of murky geopolitical interests in a faraway and essentially unknown country.

The likelihood of this risk becoming a real concern will grow with time. If the operation lasts several months and produces striking political effect, the population is unlikely to launch serious protests.

All these obvious risks only prove that the Syrian operation must be swift and bring political resolution acceptable both for the Arab world and the West. Only in then would Russia's reputational losses be more or less compensated and its claims for leadership justified.

The third domestic risk involves economic impact of the Syrian campaign.

This prompts us to look at the issues that Russia needs to resolve in Syria.

Obvious and not so Obvious Issues

All these obvious risks only prove that the Syrian operation must be swift and bring political.

What Moscow requires is the establishment of a relatively friendly Syrian regime to guarantee continued Russian military presence there. This scenario may indicate Russia’s real return to the region and its ability to effectively resolve large-scale problems beyond its near abroad, as well as its claim to the role of Europe's shield, which could radically alter the entire relationship with the EU on Russian terms.

The need to solve this triple conundrum, i.e. a swift operation, a settlement recognized globally and regionally, and the establishment of a stable regime, brings to the fore the problem of political resolution according to a scenario that should determine the military operation.

What Moscow requires is the establishment of a relatively friendly Syrian regime to guarantee continued Russian military presence.

The official aims proclaim counterterrorism and support of statehood, which allow for very broad interpretation, as terrorism may apply both to ISIS and the armed opposition, and statehood support – to strengthening the incumbent president or the preservation of Syria on the world map.

In fact, looking at these political issues opens the way to analyze the aims in greater detail.

Russia will not be pleased either with an excessively broad or excessively narrow interpretation of the term terrorism, because the former would boil down to a mere strengthening of the ruling Syrian regime (unacceptable to the international community and Middle East), and the latter would deprive Damascus of any motivation to participate in the resolution, effectively taking us back to the situation that existed two years ago. Hence, the problem is in drawing a red line dividing the opposition into moderate and radical segments, and further engaging the moderates in the settlement process.

EPA / ALEXEY NIKOLSKY
Julien Nocetti:
Why a Russian-Saudi Deal on Syria is Highly
Unlikely?

In most cases, it is hardly plausible to rate the opposition's radicalism by religion or commitment to violence or by political agenda. In the final count, the religious discourse is employed by too many sides of the conflict, this civil war has already claimed over 200,000 lives, the level of violence is already excessive, and political agendas of many parties involves have nothing to do with reality.

Methodologically, it would seem more sensible to single out ambitious structures orientated at nation-building, comprising Syrians and trusted by some elements in the Syrian population. Such groups may be quite small but still emerge as constructive actors in the peace process despite ideology and other factors.

As far as statehood is concerned, the formation of a relatively stable political system implies the need for this military operation to be accompanied by other activities aimed at strengthening institutions and the country’s reintegration.

Elites in Russia and other countries plus the expert community have been criticizing the U.S. intervention in Iraq for 12 years. The invasion should clearly have been avoided, with all the attendant gross errors, the ensuing protracted crisis and terrible violence that has taken almost 200,000 lives. However, the United States attempted to provide Iraq with a new political system and preserved statehood, suffering enormous financial, image-related and human losses.

Russia will not be pleased either with an excessively broad or excessively narrow interpretation of the term terrorism, because the former would boil down to a mere strengthening of the ruling Syrian regime and the latter would deprive Damascus of any motivation to participate in the resolution.

For five years, the West has been censured for its Libyan operation that differed from Iraq in its limited dimensions and was limited to air support of anti-Qaddafi forces. Given the Iraq experience, neither Europe nor the United States were ready to take responsibility again. But the Libyan state fell apart.

Neither scenario would suit Russia.

The rapid completion of the operation and restored statehood would offer a small or very small Syria, with the government bolstered by Russia within a limited territory, e.g. in Latakia and Damascus. At the same time, President Putin's remark at the Valdai Forum that forgetting the country’s previous borders would entail the emergence of several permanently warring states is also quite true. The only way out seems to lie in some kind of decentralization of Syria and the division of responsibility for its territory among other powers, primarily regional countries that could help Syria strengthen institutions in its interior areas.

The rapid completion of the operation and restored statehood would offer a small or very small Syria.

Finally, the restoration of statehood would require massive assistance to overcome the economic consequences of the war, which primarily involves financial aid (USD 150-200 billion over a period of 10 years by ESCWA estimates), as well as establishment of bodies for the distribution of funds and control over spending.

Certainly, neither Russia nor any other country would be able to do this on its own.

As a result, all these goals, i.e. turning the moderate opposition into the government's partner, reintegration of the Syria territory, and economic revival, necessitate a reformatting of the approach to external participation in the Syria settlement on Russian terms, and the identification of partners able to operate within the boundaries set out by Moscow.

Partners

REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin
Nikolay Surkov:
Bashar al-Assad doesn’t need a Russian shelter.
Yet.

With due respect to the Western role in the Syrian settlement and the significance of Russia-West relations, the key partners should come from the region.

First, the West is the potential target audience of Russia's efforts in the Middle East and has to show it has received the message about Russia's return to the regional theater. Russia is working to alter the format of its relations with the West and to display its readiness to be a global power.

Second, although Russia's relations with certain Middle Eastern states are hardly healthy, they are free of the kind of burdens seen in Russia-West dialogue. Cooperation on Syria with the West will always remain a sort of projection of the entire bilateral relationship.

Third, it is the countries in the region that are most interested in Syrian normalization and the restoration of order to this territory swamped in chaos.

As for the search for regional partners, until recently Russia's Middle East strategy was described by Western analysts as "the art of being everybody's friend." But things are different now. By supporting the Syrian government and establishing an information center in Baghdad, Russia has effectively built a Shiite coalition in a Sunni-dominated region dominated.

All these necessitate a reformatting of the approach to external participation in the Syria settlement on Russian terms, and the identification of partners able to operate within the boundaries set out by Moscow.

The Russia-Iran rapprochement hardly seems a guarantee for a long-term alliance. With the military operation completed and the settlement process launched, the two powers would naturally become rivals competing for influence in Syria, while Iran, exhausted by its pariah state status, is likely to choose the pro-Western track.

Tehran is too close to Damascus and is short of resources, which would seriously limit its ability to influence the solution of these three problems.

To this end, Russia should be especially interested in engaging the Sunni states, i.e. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, countries that have become estranged from Russia because of its Syrian operation.

Relationship normalization requires a degree of accommodation of their interests. Turkey needs to see the Kurdish threat minimized, and Saudi Arabia would like to check the rise of the Shiite belt. Theoretically, and both problems could be handled (to a lesser extent that involving the Kurds) within the process of Syria's political transformation and its territorial reintegration.

With due respect to the Western role in the Syrian settlement and the significance of Russia-West relations, the key partners should come from the region.

Besides, Moscow could offer Riyadh diplomatic assistance in the Yemen settlement, as the military operation there appears undeniably flawed.

Concurrently, Russia could also exploit the grave differences that exist between the Sunni states.

Although Egypt is dependent on Saudi Arabia, it views their relationship as rather burdensome and would be glad to see Russia as an alternative partner. The creation of a counterbalance to the Shiite alliance in the Moscow-Cairo-Algiers axis for stabilizing North Africa would help Egypt gain regional clout, while Russia would demonstrate its refusal to take part in the region's confessional confrontations.

Besides, minor Gulf states will not always support the Saudis' anti-Iran policy, whereas Turkey views Russia as a key economic partner.

By supporting the Syrian government and establishing an information center in Baghdad, Russia has effectively built a Shiite coalition in a Sunni-dominated region dominated.

Finally, Moscow could boost its efforts in the Palestine settlement by lending momentum to the intra-Palestinian political process and taking practical steps to strengthen state institutions of the Palestine Authority, thus demonstrating its constructive role in the region.

In theory, all these measures coupled with the Russia-Iran partnership and effective cooperation with Israel could spawn conditions amenable not only to a Syrian settlement but also to building a new stable system of regional relations in the Middle East. However, the requirements for a healthy outcome are so numerous that an optimistic future appears essentially indistinct.

1. See: http://syria.mil.ru/news/more.htm?id=12060220@egNews and http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2015/10/06/en-syrie-la-russie-frappe-plus-l-opposition-que-l-etat-islamique_4783454_4355770.html

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Vasily Kuznetsov, “Russia in Syria: Obscure Solutions to Obscure Challenges, and the Risks Surrounding them,” Russian International Affairs Council, 03 November 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6789

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