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Russia’s goals in Syria - to weaken Islamists and overcome deadlock in Ukraine: opinion

Boris Rozhin. Photo: novorosinform.org

The military operation in Syria, which Russia launched on September 30, has naturally raised questions about Russia’s goals in that conflict.  Although Russia’s military assistance to Bashar al-Assad’s government and the so-called “Syrian express” (a Russian naval supply route from the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol) were not a secret, many were surprised when Russia openly entered the war in Syria. 

Although we by inertia call the “Islamic State” a terrorist organization, it is no longer a terrorist group in the usual sense of the word. It is a recently formed unrecognized state that wages an extremely aggressive policy backed by terror attacks.  Simply, terror attacks committed by the marginal group called ISIL is now the main state policy of the Caliphate.

In this light, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war on the side of Assad has involved Russia in a war against the Caliphate that had previously claimed the Caucasus and is recruiting people also in the territory of Russia.

This engagement was inevitable. Russia could choose the place and date of the first open engagement. It chose Syria. However, it was not the only reason of Russia’s military buildup in Syria. Caliphate at the current stage of its development constitutes no direct military threat to Russia.  What it can do now are sporadic terrorist acts in the territory of Russia. So far, for Russia the Caliphate is rather a mid-term military threat that is not so much dangerous because of its military presence near the Russian borders (so far this is possible ideologically) as because of its informal ideological and religious influence in the territory of the post-Soviet countries that gains minds not territories.

Resonating with the needy Muslims having no clear aim in their life, the Caliphate preachers give simple answers to complicate questions, and what is more important, they give those people the aim of their life i.e. to war and die for true Islam and go to Heaven.  This scheme is extremely plain, but it works. Of course, some are recruited for money – the Caliphate tries to fill the state and the propaganda machine with professionals. However, the main part of the neofits join IS voluntarily to serve to the Prophet and the Caliph. Suffice it to say that the Caliphate’s universal religious and ideological doctrines easily catch both radicals from Russia and the post-Soviet countries and bored ladies from Europe that leave for Syria for sex-Jihad. The Caliphate does not care where you are from, if you are a Muslim ready to serve for establishment of the Great Islamic State based on “true Islam.”

That religious and ideological idea has enabled the Caliphate to create units in the countries far from Syria. Once scattered groups of the Islamists now have a global political and military goal. They have recognized the supremacy of the Caliph and his minions and started implementing the global plan to establish the Great Caliphate. This is what makes the Caliphate fundamentally different from Al-Qaeda and Taliban. They failed to reach the complexity threshold, while the Caliphate did it and has become a factor of the global policy. 

Therefore, along with the military aims to prevent further expansion of the Caliphate (the current staff of Russia’s troops in Syria and the state of the Syrian and Iraqi armies will hardly allow destroying the Caliphate fully), it is extremely important to weaken the main body of the Jihadist system to slow down its ideological expansion. Liquidation of the Caliph and other leaders of the Caliphate may seriously impede that process. Defeat of the big cities controlled by the Caliphate may seriously damage its image among the Islamic groups.  A series of defeats of the Caliphate that destroyed the Syrian and Iraqi armies and seized cities can change the attitude of the groups under control of the ISIL to that organization, prompting internal discrepancies and slowing down the ideological expansion.

Actually, the Caliphate is Russia’s enemy in both long-term and short-term outlook. It is desirable to destroy or restrict that enemy using others. After all,  involving in the land warfare in Syria with brigades and corps would mean an evident venture with dramatic casualties.

However, the Caliphate is not the only reason of Russia’s military interference. The extremely dire situation of Assad’s war-stricken government that has suffered huge human, equipment and territorial losses, has posed a threat of destruction to the remaining territory of Syria and its submersion into the chaos where Russia would lose its positions in the Middle East, and military base in Tartus, first.

The Syrian army experiences the main problems in the east of the country where it yielded Palmira and a number of air bases, as well as in the northwest where the pro-American rebels actually mopped up the Idlib province and have occurred near Latakia.

The assistance Syria received from Russia and Iran (military advisers, arms, data of the technical and spatial intelligence, ammunition) proved insufficient, as Assad’s military victory was improbable unlike the possibility of losing more territories.

So, it is not surprising that Russia and Iran have intensified their policy in Syria and started arming al-Assad and providing direct military assistance.  It is noteworthy that along with Russia, the specialists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the militants of Hezbollah that depend on Iran are waring on Assad’s side. The Russian military buildup expands the format of that conditional coalition and gives reasons to think that Assad’s military affairs will be improved, though if this assistance were provided several years ago, it could be much more efficient.

Yet, it is not the main reason of Russia’s interference with the conflict either. Amid the ongoing opposition with the United States in Ukraine, where the sides have faced a diplomatic stalemate, Russia took advantage of Barack Obama’s failed strategy in the Middle East and tried to change the current format of its relations with U.S. with drastic measures and came out at the UN with its own vision of the future of the Syrian war. For U.S. that demarche and deployment of troops were unexpected, so the response to Russia’s actions proved rather subdued.

Settling the current diplomatic tasks i.e. trying to avoid international isolation and save Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia has achieved diplomatic success at the interim stage (this becomes evident from the comments in the American press, where Obama is slammed for failing his Middle East policy and conniving with Russia).

Yet, it has not led to any substantial changes in the goals of U.S. and Russia in that war in view of more global problems in their relationships. U.S. still strives to deprive Russia of its foreign policy “personality” and make it leave Crimea and Donbass. Here U.S. got a punch of the nose.  However, it was just an episode in the general confrontation, as U.S. has reconsidered its strategy on Syria and will sure go out of way to reduce the effect of Russia’s military buildup in Syria and, if possible, remove Russia from the Syrian theater of military operations or at least involve it into light engagements in the desert areas of Syria and Iraq.

Nevertheless, it is very important for Russia to show that it can leave U.S. behind and wage subjective foreign policy without reckoning with Washington, and bargain with U.S. on equal terms, not on the terms favorable to Obama and the military and political establishment of that country.  Syria proved a very good opportunity for Russia to overcome the military and political deadlock in Ukraine and hit a blot.  This affected Obama’s reputation, first. His domestic policy rivals took the chance and actually started playing into the hands of Russia. It is paradoxical, but the political circles in U.S. that seek more serious fight with Russia prove at one with it when it comes to Obama’s failed policy in Syria.

Russia’s interference has put an end to the Arab Spring and its goals. Instead of the West-declared wave of ‘democratic revolutions’ against the local autocrats, the war in Syria and Iraq is gradually turning to the conflict of super powers that settle their tasks in the rapidly changing region without reckoning with Washington’s policy. Many plans to change the borders and establish Greater Kurdistan have failed either.

It is not difficult to understand why Vladimir Putin’s elementary proposal to set up a single coalition against the Caliphate elicited such response from the world community. Everything is relative and there is no need to try much to stand out against Obama’s failed policy.  Russia could not but use the chance to “hurt” U.S. That fact should be neither underestimated nor overestimated. Now Washington has to reconsider its strategy in Syria on the go and draft plans to restrict Russia’s presence in the region.  Obama’s strategy failed long ago. Simply, it was made public only now. Considering that Russian troops may collide with the pro-American groups in Syria, this conflict may escalate - though not so much to grow into military actions between Russia and U.S.- and extremely impede the operations against the Caliphate and deteriorate Assad’s state, especially if U.S. decides to supply arms to Syrian rebels on condition that they use it against Russia. Generally speaking, Russia has made its step, not it is Washington’s turn.

Boris Rozhin, military analyst,  Sevastopol, for EADaily

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