Federico Scoppa/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Reports of a Russian military presence in Latakia, as well as lingering suspicion of both wider logistical and intelligence support to the Bashar Al Assad regime, add a new dimension to Vladimir Putin’s motives in the Syrian conflict. There have also been claims that Russian military technical personnel have taken over the running of key airports including Damascus international airport. The ongoing Syrian tragedy has demonstrated more than anything else that Putin is the consummate opportunist. While his endgame is still open to question, he has been masterful and ruthless in taking advantage of President Obama’s jelly-kneed foreign policy and European divisions to expand Russian influence in the world to levels reminiscent of the Cold War era.
According to reports, Moscow and Damascus have revived the terms of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in 1980 by the Soviet Union and Syria; these terms have allowed Russian forces to establish airbases in the predominately Alawite western coastal portion of the country. There has been no official confirmation of this agreement, and while Washington has expressed concern about growing Russian military involvement in Syria it is not yet clear if the Cold War treaty or any elements of it have indeed been reactivated.
What is evident is that Russian military involvement appears to be increasingly focused on propping up the Assad regime and, more tellingly, defending its Alawite heartland. These actions have been widely interpreted as contributing to what is thought to be Moscow’s endgame: a partitioned Syria in which Russia establishes a firm foothold and obedient ally on the eastern Mediterranean.
That Putin would relish the opportunity to achieve what the Soviet Union at the height of its power never managed is beyond doubt. The more interesting question is whether the Syrian regime will go along with his plans. Recent trends in world affairs and the Middle East suggest that Bashar Assad and his close cohort of advisers have been pushed into Putin’s arms.
That Putin would relish the opportunity to achieve what the Soviet Union at the height of its power never managed is beyond doubt.
Despite the mainstream view that the US-Iranian thaw in relations following the nuclear agreement would strengthen Assad’s position, there is the risk of the opposite consequence. While the Iranians have staunchly supported the Syrian government, mainly through the military support provided by the proxy group Hezbollah, Damascus has to consider the possibility that growing cooperation between Tehran and Washington could come at its expense. Moreover, the growing power of the Iranian-backed military forces in Syria has paralleled the steady erosion of the effectiveness of the Syrian army, which has seen a decline in terms of its numbers and fighting capability.
Iran’s growing military influence on the ground has, according to various reports, led to divisions among Syria’s ruling elite, including the Alawite community. Sunni supporters of the regime, including the former intelligence chief Rustom Ghazali, have openly refused to heed Iranian orders. Secular-minded Alawites and Syrian nationalists similarly rejected a military takeover by the radical Shia Iranian forces, and have sought to curtail their influence.
The reality is that the size and role of Russian forces so far have been limited. It thus seems logical that the Syrian regime would invite Russian forces into Syria—particularly into the Alawite regions—as a counterbalance to the Iranians rather than specifically to fight on the frontline on its behalf, which Moscow would not accept anyway.
On the international stage, Moscow has proven to be a far more effective friend to the Assad regime than the Iranians. Aside from blocking international efforts to stop the war in Syria, which included several UN Security Council resolutions, Moscow has recently played a role in re-establishing contacts between Damascus and major countries in the region. Ali Mamluk, the current leading security adviser for Assad, was recently dispatched to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of renewed diplomatic efforts instigated by Moscow.
Ostensibly, Russia has been calling for an international and Arab coalition to fight Da’esh and other Islamic extremists in Syria, and Ali Mamluk’s visits were explained in that context. The more realistic analysis, based on leaked reports, suggests that the message from Damascus and Moscow to the Saudis was simple: support the Assad regime in order to roll back Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Syria.
The question for the west now is whether to confront or to mollify Putin. His cynicism and the obvious pleasure he takes in his role as spoiler has become widely accepted. Besides partitioning Ukraine and undermining US credibility, Moscow has helped create a refugee crisis for Europe, which it can monitor with glee. More importantly, it has established itself as a genuine powerbroker in the Middle East and reinvented itself as a major arms supplier. That it can now even consider the prospect of making a geo-strategically vital segment of territory south of Turkey and east of the Mediterranean as de facto Russian land must be a mouth-watering prospect for Putin, despite the horrific humanitarian cost.