A War for Status
Pro Russian demonstration in Damascus,
October 13, 2015
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Correspondent, Expert magazine, Research fellow of the RAS U.S. and Canadian Studies Institute
According to official statements, Russia deployed its Aerospace Defence Forces to support Bashar al-Assad in order to combat the ISIS terrorist group. Western leaders have subtly hinted that Moscow’s goal is to save al-Assad and protect its interests in Syria. The Ukrainian elite and its supporters in the US and Europe are convinced that Putin has started a war in Syria to distract international attention from his “aggression” in Ukraine. In fact, the Russian operation is not only part of efforts to fight terrorism and come to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue, but represents an evolution of Russia’s foreign policy to the next level.
According to official statements, Russia deployed its Aerospace Defence Forces to support Bashar al-Assad in order to combat the ISIS terrorist group. Western leaders have subtly hinted that Moscow’s goal is to save al-Assad and protect its interests in Syria. The Ukrainian elite and its supporters in the US and Europe are convinced that Putin has started a war in Syria to distract international attention from his “aggression” in Ukraine . In fact, the Russian operation is not only part of efforts to fight terrorism and come to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue, but represents an evolution of Russia’s foreign policy to the next level.
The two components
The Russian operation in Syria has only just begun, but it already has been covered in myths and speculation. One of these is that Putin has become involved in the Syrian crisis “all guns blazing,” that is without having a clear plan of entry, operation or exit . At best, Moscow’s operation is expected to result in a diplomatic fiasco and new terrorist attacks within Russia, and at worst – it will end as another Afghanistan. Perhaps such comments arise due to the fact that the West cannot directly oppose this Russian anti-terrorist operation. Therefore, the only way to subject it to criticism is to do so indirectly by broaching the issue of bombing the wrong forces or of the hit-or-miss nature of the operation.
Vladimir Putin appeared before the world as the deliverer of the region from the planetary evil that the Americans did not want to or could not defeat, rather than an oppressor of the Syrian freedom fighters.
Of course, there is a grain of truth in this set of criticisms (especially, with regard to possible terrorist attacks), but Moscow clearly understands why it has arrived Syria at this particular time. Putin made it quite clear  that the country’s line of defense against international terrorism lies not along the borders of Russia, and not even along the Tajik-Afghan border, but instead is centered in Syria, where “according to various estimates, from five to seven thousand people from Russia and other CIS countries are already fighting on the side of ISIS.”  And it is this understanding of goals that explains the success of the Russian intervention in contrast to that of the US: according to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Vladimir Putin “is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well because he knows exactly what he wants to do.” 
Putin’s Plan (In Russian)
Timing is another reason for success. Russia has long been able to send aircraft to help Syria, not now “at the stage of neglect” as Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova put it , but much earlier, when the army of Bashar al-Assad was stronger and more combat-ready than it is now. However, to start the operation Moscow needed ISIS – a group whose videos have made it synonymous with absolute evil. Accordingly, having begun the operation in late September 2015, Vladimir Putin appeared before the world as the deliverer of the region from the planetary evil that the Americans did not want to or could not defeat, rather than an oppressor of the Syrian freedom fighters.
The successful missile and bombing raids by the Russian Airborne Forces over the past three weeks have proven more effective than the actions of the American coalition. According to the BBC, by mid-September 2015, the Americans and their allies launched more than 6,000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq , but failed to stop ISIS: the terrorists continued to capture new territory and advance into Syria. But the Russian Air Force in less than a month (since the end of September 2015) has carried out more than 700 air strikes, destroyed numerous infrastructure facilities held by militants and, at the very least, brought their offensive against Bashar al-Assad’s positions to a halt  (some air raids, however, were launched against terrorist groups other than ISIS).
Moscow has managed to achieve a framework compromise with the Americans and Europeans on two major issues: the fate of Bashar al-Assad and of the conventional secular opposition.
As for the operation itself, according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Russia’s actions in Syria include two components: the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and “those who use terrorist methods,” on the one hand, and the uniting of efforts of all those who are involved in the settlement of the crisis in the country, on the other .
As for the first component, Bashar al-Assad’s troops are conducting a major operation in the northern province of Aleppo. The attack is facing difficulties, but the government forces enjoy a strategic advantage: the militants, who are also actively fighting amongst themselves, have nothing to oppose either Russian aircraft or Iranian reserves.
As for the second component, Moscow is making every effort to urge the opposition to sit down at the negotiating table. And it is urging using both words (for example, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition Ahmed Jarboe ) and deeds. As Condoleezza Rice and Robert M. Gates have put it, “Moscow understands that diplomacy follows the facts on the ground, not the other way around.”  Putin has already emphasized this in his interview with TV channel “Russia-1” journalist Vladimir Solovyov, saying that while the terrorists have besieged Damascus, no one from the opposition will negotiate with Bashar al-Assad .
A compromise is possible
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It is not impossible that some sponsors of the opposition will make the latter change its mind. Before the operation began, Moscow worked actively on the diplomatic front. Casting aside semi-official media and certain prejudiced public statements, we can see that Russia has managed to come to an understanding on Syria with key stakeholders.
Oddly enough, the greatest success has been achieved in negotiations with the countries of the collective West, with whom our relations have dramatically deteriorated due to the crisis in Ukraine. Yes, the Americans are criticizing Russia  for its operations in Syria, but this criticism has more to do with the domestic political atmosphere (differences between the White House and the Congress) and with issues of image. According to some researchers, the American silence regarding the Russian operation in Syria, which Obama calls “strategic patience,” can be interpreted as a sign of Washington’s weakness , as well as its readiness to withdraw from the region and to leave it to the mercy of Russian, Iranian, Chinese and other forces. In fact, Moscow has managed to achieve a framework compromise with the Americans and Europeans on two major issues: the fate of Bashar al-Assad and of the conventional secular opposition.
The Syrian operation can and should mark the transition of Russian politics to a totally new level: from regional and reactive diplomacy to one more global and proactive in nature.
For a long time, the issue of whether Bashar al-Assad could remain in power was one of the stumbling blocks between Moscow and Tehran, on the one hand, and Washington and Brussels, on the other. America and Europe demanded the immediate resignation of Bashar al-Assad. This resignation would have allowed the US and the EU to withdraw from the Syrian operation which had been hurting their images so much. The West needed a victory, since another military defeat in the Middle East could deal a serious blow to American and European leadership. Since the US and the EU have always declared Bashar al-Assad’s resignation to be their goal, the Syrian President’s removal from power could, accordingly, be passed off as a victory.
However, Moscow and Tehran have not allowed the West to achieve this victory: the continuation of B. al-Assad in power has guaranteed Russian and Iranian positions in Syria (for Moscow, Syria is a springboard for its Middle East policy, while for Iran – an access to the Levant and the Mediterranean). Neither Russia nor Iran wants to lose Syria. As a result, the parties have agreed on the formula “Assad will go, but sometime later.”
The Russian operation in Syria has become a sort of test of Russia’s compliance with a great-power status.
“If there is a sensible plan for transition that involves Assad remaining in some way involved in the process for a period of time we will look at that, we will discuss it. We are not saying he must go on day one," stated British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond . US Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar statement, adding that the immediate resignation of B. al-Assad would only aggravate instability . In response, Moscow  and Tehran  made it clear that B. Assad would not necessarily take part in the presidential election to be held after the end of the civil war.
As for the future of the secular opposition, a framework compromise was found as well (we can say so with certainty, if only because the agreement on the future of Syria is a package deal, and, and without an agreement on the opposition, they would not have agreed on B. al-Assad). The compromise boils down to the opposition signing a coalition agreement with the government. Of course, the conditions of this compromise agreement have yet to be worked out, since the opposition is neither a centralized power, nor a structure that yields fully to American dictates and abides by all the demands of the U.S. As such, we are witnessing a process of natural selection, and all the current actions concerning the opposition (Moscow carrying out air raids, the United States criticizing Russian bombings) are due to finding out which part of the opposition will sign this agreement and on what terms.
The new policy
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Of course, in theory, there was no need for Moscow to conduct multi-week and beyond a doubt extremely difficult negotiations with the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Russia could well enter the Syrian conflict without any coordination, and the West’s position would hardly have differed from its current “strategic patience.” First, because the goal in minds is to fight “absolute evil,” and, second, because Russia, generally speaking, is solving the Americans’ problems for them. The Syrian civil war has engendered serious problems, while initially it was intended to be an element for deterring Iran and involving it in a war at the periphery. This gave birth to ISIS, the virus that threatens the US allied Arab monarchies, and has caused refugee problems in Europe. Given the serious internal political constraints in the EU and the US, only Russia can solve this problem in the right way, that is, by destroying the military infrastructure of ISIS as well as its manpower and restoring order in Syria.
However, Moscow decided to coordinate for one simple reason: the Kremlin considers the Syrian operation not only as Russia’s protection against the threat of terrorism. The Syrian operation can and should mark the transition of Russian politics to a totally new level: from regional and reactive diplomacy to one more global and proactive in nature.
It's no secret that Russia at all forums and on all platforms has positioned itself as a great power worthy of the role of one of the power centers of the multipolar world. However, the policy pursued by the Kremlin has not matched its ambitions. Even during the rule of Vladimir Putin, a significant share of available forces and means of Russian foreign policy was directed at the post-Soviet space (which allowed the Americans to call Russia a regional rather than a global power ). Of course, there is nothing reprehensible in paying due attention to its periphery, but only if these funds are spent on covering the rear and help to strengthen the position of Moscow in addressing global challenges. Meanwhile, in reality, Russian policies in the CIS countries were aimed only at the passive protection of its interests against the aggressive policy of the collective West. The global policy as such was nonexistent: it was reduced to the rejection of American hegemony and to appeals to build a multi-polar world. It was reactive and did not propose the establishment its own coordinate system.
However, Russian foreign policy has gradually evolved. The protection of the post-Soviet space, unsuccessful at first, ripened after the second Maidan into a relatively successful tactical game with the West, in which Russia was able to win some victories. This was followed by the launch of several global ideas, such as “Pivot to the East.” The Syrian campaign appears to be the first genuine Russian initiative of a global nature (in contrast to the so-called “Pivot to the East”), offering a solution to a serious global problem. Moreover, this initiative is not at cross purposes with the United States and the Western world; it is launched in partnership with them (at least, with their tacit consent), is based on the developed rules of the game and, importantly, enjoys absolute legitimacy and is being conducted through the existing international system. That is the way a respected great power is supposed to behave, and not as the Americans have done over the last fifteen years.
As a result, the Russian operation in Syria has become a sort of test of Russia’s compliance with a great-power status. If Moscow passes it, it will rise in prestige so much that the Kremlin could become eligible to become one of the key poles of the multipolar world. The interests and spheres of influence of this pole will be respected and recognized, while the country itself will be able to participate constructively in addressing the key challenges of the future world order. The sheer fact that the coalition associated with Russia has dealt with the task, which proved to be beyond the power of America, gives Moscow enormous opportunities all the way from Asia to Latin America. Developing good relations with a number of developing countries, Moscow will gain the image of a country capable of solving the world's problems. The combination of these factors will make Russia an ideal mediator for settling regional conflicts. This role will allow Moscow to dramatically strengthen its position in many regions of the world.
13. http://lenta.ru/news/2015/10/09/obama_putin/; http://ria.ru/world/20151002/1295121290.html