Middle East // Analysis

19 november 2015

The Syrian Conflict: Russian and GCC Perspectives

Boris Dolgov Senior research fellow at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Omar Mahmood Research Analyst at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (Derasat)
Photo:
EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI
Damascus, October 16, 2015

The Syrian conflict continues to deteriorate, with estimates suggesting a death toll in excess of 300,000, in addition to millions of refugees. The conflict has been extremely internationalized, not just in terms of the diplomatic attention that it has attracted, but also in terms of the staggering variety of foreign troops officially and unofficially operating on Syrian territory. This comes at a time when the long-term regional role of key players such as the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, remains up in the air. This report aims to remedy this communication lacuna by furnishing readers with Russian and GCC perspectives on the issue, delivered by researchers specializing in Gulf strategic issues.

Introduction

The Syrian conflict continues to deteriorate, with estimates suggesting a death toll in excess of 300,000, in addition to millions of refugees. The conflict has been extremely internationalized, not just in terms of the diplomatic attention that it has attracted, but also in terms of the staggering variety of foreign troops officially and unofficially operating on Syrian territory.

The conflict has metamorphosed on several occasions during the almost 5 years that have passed since its initiation, with significant consequences for the strategic balance. The latest critical development has been formal intervention by the Russian Air Force. This comes at a time when the long-term regional role of key players such as the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, remains up in the air.

Russian and GCC commentators are well-acquainted with the Iranian and Western views regarding this crisis. However, Russian and GCC commentators are comparatively uninformed about each other’s perspectives regarding this key development due to the nascent nature of relations between the two. This report aims to remedy this communication lacuna by furnishing readers with Russian and GCC perspectives on the issue, delivered by researchers specializing in Gulf strategic issues.

The views expressed below represent the views of the authors, and they do not necessarily represent the views of the institutions to which they are affiliated, or of their respective governments.

Boris Dolgov, Russian Academy of Sciences

The armed confrontation in Syria between the Syrian regime and the radical opposition represents, together with the actions of the “Islamic State” (IS), the main military-political crisis in the Middle East today. It has also become one of the most acute global conflicts, involving all major world powers. The leading countries of NATO and the European Union (EU), Russia, China and key regional states – Turkey, Iran, Israel, the GCC members and the Arabic countries neighboring Syria - have all focused their attention on the Syrian conflict.

The crisis can be considered part of “the Arabic spring”, albeit in a very specific way. In countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the causes of social conflict, which gave rise to the Arabic spring, were of internal origin. They included, for instance, the aggravation of social and economic problems, corruption amongst the governing elites which had ruled for decades, as well as the absence of real democratic freedom.

Coming to Syria, however, while such internal problems have existed to some degree, the main drivers of continuing crisis have been external factors. More specifically, the majority of armed anti-government groups are foreign mercenaries supported by external players who try to use the internal conflict in Syria for the realization of their own strategic goals. As a result, more than one thousand armed anti-government groups are currently active in Syria, comprising more than 70 thousand individuals [1]. Tens of thousands of them are foreign mercenaries, with extremists from more than 80 countries, including Muslim states, the EU, the US, Russia and China (Muslim Uighurs) making up the majority. This situation has turned Syria into a hot-bed for radical Islamism, with its most extremist representative, the Islamic State, aiming to expand into the territories of neighboring countries and to create a “caliphate” there.

At the end of September 2015, the Russian Air Force started to bomb ISIS positions in Syria. These operations were authorized by the Russian President, who in turn received approval by the Federation Council in response to a demand for Russian military assistance from the Syrian President Bashar Assad. The IS’ continued military expansion in Syria and Iraq, as well as an offensive by Islamist groups, affiliated with IS and fighting in Afghanistan’s northern region near the Afghan-Tajik border, served as the main catalysts for Russia’s decision to begin airstrikes targeting IS. Increasing instability in Afghanistan has created a real threat of Islamist fighters penetrating Tajik territory and even Russia. Moreover, according to official Russian statistics confirmed by the authorities, the number of Islamist fighters of Russian origin, having joined the ranks of IS, has increased to around 2400 [2]. There is evidence that some of them have already illegally returned to Russia, where they pose a potential threat to public security.

It should be noted that anti-IS military action by the US-led coalition, which has lasted for more than one year, has not prevented that organization from creating state structures and taking new territory under its control. It is clear that the efforts of the US and their allies within the coalition, are not aimed at suppressing IS but at overthrowing the Syrian leader Bashar Assad via support for the Syrian armed opposition. The Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly commented on that subject during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2015, as well as during the international meeting of the “Valdai club” a month later, stating that the West and its allies tried to use “some extremist groups to overthrow inconvenient regimes” [3].

The operations carried out by the Russian Air Force, aimed at supporting the Syrian Armed Forces in their struggle against IS, have achieved noteworthy results thus far – commanding posts, training camps, weapons depots with ammunition and fuel, and canon plants have been destroyed, and hundreds of Islamist fighters have been killed. Supported by the Russian Air Force, the Syrian army has launched offensive operations and liberated populated areas near Homs, Hama, Latakia, Deyr az-Zor, Idlib, and Aleppo, from the Islamic State [4].

EPA / ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO
Igor Ivanov:
Putin’s Plan

However, Russian actions to counter the Islamic State are not an end in itself. The Russian leadership and Ministry of Foreign Affairs see the elimination of IS and other extremist groups as a pre-condition to push forward a political process in order to solve the Syrian crisis and stabilize the situation in the Middle East more broadly [5]. To that end, Russia, as well as Bashar Assad, are even willing to interact with that part of the Syrian armed opposition ready to cooperate in the struggle against IS: the Free Syrian Army [6]. It should also be noted that current Russian actions in Syria are met with understanding and support amongst Russian society. According to data provided by the “Russian Public Opinion Research Center” (VCIOM), the Russian President’s approval rating amongst Russian citizens has risen to 90% since the beginning of Russian airstrikes in Syria [7].

It is clear that radical extremist groups, above all IS, threaten the stability, national security and territorial integrity not only of Syria, but also other countries in the region, such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, the GCC states, Turkey and even Israel. The IS leadership has declared its aim to expand into the territories of these above-mentioned states, as well as Central Asia, and has threatened “to liberate” some regions of Russia (the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and the Volga region in southern Russia). Given these threats, it appears obvious that the eradication of radical Islamism and the prevention of terrorism spreading in the region - the main goals pursued by Russian airstrikes in Syria - are critical tasks to make possible a political solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. It is in the context of these objectives that one should interpret the recent meetings and negotiations between Russia’s President and Foreign Minister on the one hand, and the Saudi Defence Minister and Prime Minister of the United Arabic Emirates, on the other.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Russian actions in Syria have brought to light the underlying goals pursued by those states in the region that have been involved in the Syrian conflict, which led to the much-noticed polarization among them: those countries intent on reconstructing stability in the Middle East carrying out a real fight against terrorist groups and defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states in the region, have supported Russian actions. These include Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, the national patriotic forces of Lebanon and Jordan.

The leadership of those countries which, on the other hand, solely aim to advance their own political interests and try to use the Syrian conflict (and particularly instrumentalize radical Islamists) have harm their own national interests.

Russia in Syria.
RIAC Debates

Perhaps, this situation has arisen due to a lack of understanding of the political situation in the region, an underestimation of the threat posed by radical Islamism and the predominant concern with short-term profits. An increase in the number of radical Sunni groups, such as IS, which openly threaten “to enter Mecca and Medina”, can lead to the spread of terrorist activity within Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, as well as to their destabilization.

With Iran, on the other hand, it appears entirely possible to arrive at a consensus regarding how to deal with the Syrian crisis, especially since the Iranian leadership has spoken on such a prospect more than once. It appears that Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, equally entertains hopes that unofficial support for Sunni groups will help these to come to power in Syria, which would correspond to Turkish sectarian as well as political interests of enhancing Ankara’s influence in the region. Turkey’s strategy conforms to its doctrine of “Neo-Ottomanism”, supports its struggle for regional leadership with Iran, raises the possibility of Turkey’s annexation of a part of Syrian territory (the former Sanjak of Alexandretta) claimed by Turkey, and advances the fight against Kurdish “separatism” (in which Turkey is ready to instrumentalize radical Islamists).

Yet, similar to Saudi Arabia, Turkey appears to underestimate the threat posed by extremist groups, which have through their actions already seriously destabilized the situation in the Turkish regions bordering Syria. These regions currently host a large number of Syrian refugees, including amongst their ranks both jihadis as well as criminals. Moreover, protest movements in Turkey are gaining in strength, given the widespread dissatisfaction with Turkish official policy towards the Syrian crisis and the Kurdish problem, which can be solved via political negotiations.

To sum up, it can be stated, that Russian actions over Syria, accompanied by Moscow’s concrete political proposals aimed at initially creating a united front in the struggle against terrorism in the Middle Eastern region, and then at enabling a gradual political solution to its conflicts, seek to stabilize the situation in the region and are ultimately in the interest of all its countries, including the GCC states.

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

A GCC Perspective

Omar Mahmood, Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies

Recently there has been a flurry of phone calls and flights between Moscow and other key players in the Syrian conflict. Russian President Putin has called King Salman of Saudi Arabia twice in the last ten days, not to forget the various meetings that have occurred since the start of the Russian intervention in Syria and before. The Russian intervention in Syria as has been noted by most watchers of the region has completely changed and complicated the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. The Syrian conflict had already proven quite difficult to solve with Assad’s Iranian allies doubling down, Western (notably US) inaction and the Gulf States support of the moderate rebels.

Many of the GCC States have attempted to improve ties with Russia over the last decade. These improved relations have also been sought in light of the perception of the US decreasing its role in the region in recent times and the GCC States looking to widen their strategic partnerships with other key international players. Saudi Arabia itself signed off on a 10 billion dollar investment deal with Russia in addition to cooperating with Russia to develop its nuclear energy infrastructure [8].

Relations between the GCC States and Russia have been no doubt on an upward trajectory. In fact improving relations between the two blocs was also seen as a positive by many of the citizens in the Gulf and was even cheered for being seen as a move away from the US. Saudi Arabia has also recently shown an interest in acquiring the Russian made Iskander-E tactical ballistic missile system [9] , Tigr frigate, air defense systems and various other military hardware and equipment. Bahrain as well is reportedly interested in purchasing the Pantsir-S1 short range air defense system [10]. Many observers have linked some of this interest in Russian military hardware and business deals as sweeteners which would hopefully influence Russia to reconsider some of their alliances.

Though from a GCC perspective the main sticking point that has hampered these ties from reaching its potential has been Russian/Iranian relations. This has been the case especially more so in the Syrian context. With Russia entering the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar and Iran, a recent poll in Saudi Arabia showed that Russia has become extremely unpopular [11].

The GCC States have been involved in trying to settle the conflict in one way or another since the start of the protests in Syria. Each GCC State has played a different role with different levels of direct and indirect interaction. The two states which have invested the highest political and economic capital have been Saudi Arabia and Qatar [12]; providing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and helping fund the various moderate rebel forces in their fight against the Syrian government.

The other four GCC states have so far played more of a mediating and charitable role in helping the Syrians who have felt the brunt of this brutal conflict. Kuwait for example is currently the world’s third largest donor after the EU and US [13], with a pledge to give over 500 million dollars to the Syrian people displaced within and refugees outside. Oman on the other hand, has continued its policy of mediating and not getting directly involved in any of the conflicts the region faces today. Oman too, it should be noted, is the only GCC State which has maintained diplomatic and political ties with Syria. Initially at the start of the conflict, the GCC view was to get the Syrian government to reconcile with its people and take part in an inclusive political process which could have possibly seen the end of hostilities and a path to peace. Though, as the civilian death toll continued to increase at the hands of the Syrian government and the disintegration of the country began, this call to a political settlement was no longer seen as viable and practical.

Syria has become a complicating factor in this relationship between Russia and some of the GCC States. What Russia has going for it, especially in Syria, is that it is not Iran and hence is seen as perhaps more flexible in regards to any potential solution to the conflict. There is no mistaking that the GCC view in regards to Bashar is the opposite of Russia’s; the Gulf States at the end of the day would be more keen to deal with Russia than to be involved with Iran in any talks.

EPA/SERGEI CHIRIKOV
Vladislav Senkovich:
A Thaw in Russia-Saudi Relations?

While ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia have so far been impacted negatively by recent Russian actions, this could significantly worsen further if both sides choose to entrench. Increased support for the moderate rebels is already being witnessed with a very noticeable impact on the ground. Despite incessant Russian bombing and targeting of the moderate rebels in addition to the renewed push by Bashar’s and Iran’s forces on the ground, the rebels for the most part have managed to hold their ground at a great cost to the Syrian government forces [14].

On the face of it, and from a GCC point of view, it is clear that Russia has actively chosen sides in this violent civil war. Currently Russia has over 30 aircraft and attack helicopters constantly running sorties against the rebels [15]. It also has an estimated 2,000 personnel stationed in its bases in Tartus and Latakia, in non-combat roles, so far.

The GCC states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made their opposition to Bashar being a part of any resolution well known. In fact both Saudi Arabia and the United States have vowed to up their support to the moderate rebels, as reflected in the increase of TOWs (anti-tank missile) being used against government tanks and men [16]. The rapid increase in the quantity and distribution of TOWs have negated the momentum and cover that Russian air strikes have provided to Bashar and his allies on the ground.

IHS Conflict Monitor
Russian and US Coalition Airstrikes in Syria from
1 September to 26 October 2015

Furthermore, contrary to the on-going Russian media campaign and stated intentions of their direct intervention in Syria, events on the ground tell a different tale. Russia’s airstrikes up to now have hit mostly other rebel groups other than ISIS. The map above created by the IHS Conflict Monitor clearly shows where the majority of Russian airstrikes have occurred: not in IS territory. In fact it has been well documented that 85% of these strikes have hit other groups. This has resulted in a few profound effects in terms of the ebb and flow of the conflict. Russian actions in support of Bashar and his allies have helped unified the various rebel groups to an extent not witnessed before. Furthermore, IS, the group mainly behind Russia’s intervention, has in fact used the ensuing chaos as an opportunity to attack various rebel groups and gain even more territory.

Another impact of these air strikes has been felt by the civilians trapped in these zones. According to Doctors without borders, Russia has intentionally or unintentionally targeted at least 12 medical facilities and hospitals since the beginning of its offensive [17], removing vital and much needed medical services for the civilian population. This offensive has also resulted in a surge of internally displaced people and a huge increase in the refugee crisis. According to some sources at least 70,000 have been forced on the move from Aleppo [18].

The current Russian offensive and the real possibility of the rebels not being able to hold out in the long term puts some real pressure on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. These three states mainly have been active from the start of the conflict and have donated an increasing volume of political and economic capital towards the rebels. Should the GCC states not up the ante in terms of their support for the moderate rebels against Bashar in light of possible significant losses, the potential for domestic blowback in allowing Iran to achieve its aims would be a serious issue. There has been plenty of talk and rumors of the moderate rebels possibly receiving MANPADs (man portable air defense systems) [19]; were this to occur, the outlook of the conflict would once again completely change and would pose some very real threats; not only to Russian forces in Syria but to its own domestic audience which has felt the real brunt of economic sanctions and low oil prices.

To many of the key states involved in the conflict in the region, directly and indirectly, this, like many other issues in the region, has become a zero-sum game. To the GCC states, Bashar is an extension of Iran, and will aggressively challenge any resolution which involves him playing a role. The Syrian conflict is also part of a regional great game currently taking place and one that is increasingly turning in to an extremely sectarian one as well, in which, Russia has decided to intervene directly. To add fuel to the fire the embrace of this Russian move by the Russian Orthodox Church as a “holy war” has revived memories of the failed Russian campaign in Afghanistan [20]. This has resulted in not only re-energizing many of the Islamist leaning rebel groups in Syria, but by calls around the region to confront this perceived Russian aggression.

Russia so far has successfully achieved a few tactical short-term gains, which it would risk losing should they not be able to achieve their aims soon. By intervening in the conflict in such a direct manner, it has made sure it will be an integral part of any discussions related to Syria and Bashar. Furthermore it has once again highlighted US inactivity, and seized upon it to expand its own influence in the region. The latest talks in Vienna have demonstrated that Russia has given itself immense leverage, much to the chagrin of the other actors and at a relatively low cost, so far. In addition, the view in the region, especially by the key Gulf states, is that by only attacking the rebels, Russia is seeking to change the equation to equaling a choice of either Bashar or IS. This is in itself a very risky move for Russia, since the Gulf States and Turkey would counter any such attempt, which could lead to a further deterioration of the conflict. The heavy use of the Russian air force has as well for now shut down any talks of a safe zone being created. While Russia has temporarily placed itself as a decisive force in this drawn out conflict, the potential costs it faces are high.

Putin should realize that while the GCC States have been keen to improve ties, any worsening of the conflict could seriously damage relations. Many of the GCC states have taken on a much more assertive foreign policy as of late and will not allow Bashar or Iran to gain an advantageous position over them. In addition, the conflict and turmoil created by Bashar and Iran in Syria has effectively made IS what it is today: a terrorist group which has been behind attacks in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait so far, not to forget the carnage it has caused in Syria and Iraq. Russian actions, on top of the devastation caused by Bashar and his Iranian allies, further help the narrative of terrorist groups like IS, which increases their threat to all States in the region.

Islamic Republic News Agency
Elena Melkumyan, Andrei Derbenev,
Omar Mahmood:
Iran — a Stumbling Block for Russia and
the Gulf Countries?

Out of all the GCC States it is Saudi Arabia that today plays one of the most crucial roles in this conflict. Even after the recent talks in Vienna, the Saudi stance has not changed, which is that Bashar al-Assad must leave at all costs. This strong and uncompromising stance provides a few dilemmas for both Saudi Arabia and Russia. Since Saudi Arabia has been so vocal in purporting this view, any attempt to back track, would have very negative optics amongst its supporters and the Syrian people. Hence, this increases pressure on it to intensify its covert and overt support to the moderate rebels.

Russia has involved itself in a number of conflicts recently and should be cautious of over stretching itself. Russia should not expect to side so openly with Iran and Syria and still maintain cordial ties with the Gulf States. While it is ahead so far and remains in an advantageous position, Russia should be quick to find a solution which would satisfy all parties involved, a task which has proved impossible so far.

1. Interview of the Prime-Minister of the Syrian Arabic Republic M. Vail al-Halki to the correspondents of the Russian informative agencies RIA Novosti and Sputnik. RIA Novosti. 21.07.2015

2. Declaration of the chief of the FSS of RF M. A.Bortnikov. Russian TV Сhanel “Russia24”. 30.09.2015

3. President V. Putin’s speech in the 70-th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Russian TV Chanel “Russia24”. 1.10.2015 on the 70-th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Russian TV Chanel “Russia24”. 1.10.2015

4. Declaration of the spokesman of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation on the results of the actions of the Russian Air Forces in Syria. Russian TV Chanel “Vesti”. 18. 10.2015

5. Saying of the Minister of the Foreign Affaires of Russian Federation S.Lavrov to the Russian TV Chanel “Russia24”. 4.10.2015

6. President V.Putin’s speech in the International Discussion Club “Valdai”. Euronews. 22.10.2015

7. Information of VCIOM on the questioning results about the actions of the Russian Air Forces in Syria. Russian TV Chanel :Russia24”. 24.10.2015

8. http://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabia-to-invest-up-to-10-billion-in-russia-1436198674?alg=y

9. http://www.janes.com/article/53593/saudi-arabia-s-unlikely-russian-arms-deals

10. http://www.armyrecognition.com/october_2015_global_defense_security_news_uk/
bahrain_shows_interest_to_purchase_russian_pantsir-s1_short-range_air_defense_system_12810154.html

11. http://www.fikraforum.org/?p=7907#.Vi5fuoS2OHp

12. http://www.businesinsider.com/saudi-arabia-qatar-and-turkey-are-getting-serious-about-syria--and-that-should-worry-assad-2015-5

13. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/mar/31/us-eu-kuwait-pledge-more-than-2bn-aid-syrians-un

14. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0eb2e124-7974-11e5-933d-efcdc3c11c89.html#axzz3qSYebNZj

15. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34411477

16. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-lister/russias-intervention-in-s_b_8350266.html " target="_blank" rel="nofollow"> http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-lister/russias-intervention-in-s_b_8350266.html

17. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/hundreds-killed-russian-air-strikes-syria-151029130146883.html

18. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34570938

19. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/20/can-manpads-be-controlled-in-syria.html

20. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse-originals/2015/10/church-holy-war-russia-syria-lebanon.html " target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse-originals/2015/10/church-holy-war-russia-syria-lebanon.html

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Boris Dolgov, Omar Mahmood, “The Syrian Conflict: Russian and GCC Perspectives,” Russian International Affairs Council, 19 November 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6866

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Date: 04 december 2015

Author: John

As Russia is in Syria by invitation of Syria's president to protect his country.
Now is UK enemy of Russia if UK involve in War..?.


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