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Another day, another conflict: Russia, Ukraine and the Syrian Civil War

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As the conflict in Ukraine takes its toll on Russia, Moscow looks to Syria for a chance to regain its footing.

 

Greg Forbes
21 September 2015

In the first week of September, the latest ceasefire agreement between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists was implemented. In stark contrast to the abortive Minsk Protocols, immediately marred by sporadic and often flagrant violations on both sides (and soon pronounced stillborn), this most recent effort seems to have initiated a lull in the fighting. President Putin welcomed the de-escalation in Ukraine, commending Kyiv for observing the ceasefire and preventing the nationalist volunteer battalions fighting for Poroshenko’s government from disrupting the truce.

Given that the preceding month of August saw a significant uptick in military activity with observed increases in troop movements, artillery exchanges and skirmishes, peace has broken out suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly.

Meanwhile, Moscow has played host to a series of high-ranking emissaries from several of the Middle East’s leading stakeholders with official visits from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Moscow’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, sat down with key members of the Syrian National Coalition to discuss the parameters of a potential political settlement, driven by the apparent need to build an anti-ISIS coalition within Syria.

Concurrent with Moscow’s aerobic doses of shuttle diplomacy, in recent days and weeks the Russian state has ramped up its efforts to shore up Assad’s regime.

Withering Lows

The conflict in Ukraine has proven costly for Russia. Western sanctions, credit restrictions and asset freezes, imposed at a time when falling oil prices had already hollowed out Russia’s finances (hydrocarbons and their distillates generating some two-thirds of Russia’s aggregated export revenues prior to the oil price crash), contributed toward an acute financial crisis provoking a collapse in the value of the rouble, a pronounced spike in levels of capital flight, falling rates of foreign and domestic investment and a stock market crash.

Alongside economic troubles, Russia’s standing in the world has appreciably diminished with a loss of active representation in global and regional forums like the G8 and the Council of Europe.

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Russia is seeking to position itself as the mediator-in-chief in the Syrian conflict. Photo CC: HaberstrThe accidental downing of a Malaysian airliner (very likely) by pro-Russian rebels marked a nadir in their patron's reputation.

Even the staunchest of Russia’s allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, reacted with dismay and alarm to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent sponsorship of the Donetsk and Lugansk separatists. It would appear Minsk and Astana both intuitively understand that Russia’s claimed guardianship of those ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minority populations scattered throughout the former Soviet Union presents a clear, present and possible future challenge to their sovereignty.

A Pivot in Motion?

The lull in the fighting in Ukraine has been accompanied by a rhetorical shift from the Kremlin, and President Putin’s recent commendations of the ceasefire could be signalling a changing of the gears.

Alongside an apparent surge in Moscow’s diplomatic energies concerning the Syrian conflict, it would appear that Moscow may be attempting to divert the international community’s gaze from Russia’s much maligned involvement in Ukraine and shift global attention to Moscow’s possible (and possibly decisive) role as mediator-in-chief in the Syrian conflict.

In recent days and weeks the Russians have drastically ramped up their efforts to militarily shore up Assad’s regime.

Russia, in seeking to position herself as a credible diplomatic broker, is returning to fertile ground. Two years ago, Moscow manufactured an unexpected triumph by inserting itself into an escalating standoff between the United States and Assad’s regime over the use of chemical weapons.

By fomenting multilateral talks among all the important stakeholders, with the Russians set to star as the indispensable interlocutors – the only party on speaking terms with all the rest – Moscow can claim the pivotal role in any grand effort at international mediation.

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One of many of photos taken by Russian soldiers inside Syria and posted to social media accounts. Photo: FacebookFrom Moscow’s perspective, the Syrian government is the skeleton key to the hallowed halls of regional relevance. As long as Assad’s regime can hold on, be it under him or a different figurehead, Russia’s involvement in the negotiations is a likely perquisite for there to be any plausible prospect of a political settlement.

Russia’s Intervention Begins

Since the conflict began, Damascus has been the recipient of significant material and technical support from Moscow. Discounted shipments of arms and spare parts form the bulk of the aid. Russia also furnishes the Syrian government with intelligence on the disposition of rebel forces (the Russians maintain a listening post in Latakia and monitor Syrian battlefields via satellite) and an array of technical experts and operators embedded alongside Syrian government forces.

Previously, Moscow has attempted to characterise this aid as essentially non-political – Damascus is a longstanding client which pays its own way. Moreover, Russo-Syrian agreements on arms and material procurement long predate Syria’s internal conflict and the preceding Arab Spring. With the regime no longer receiving oil receipts from those easternmost provinces lost to ISIS and the rapid depletion of hard currency reserves spent on prosecuting the war effort, Assad’s regime is presently cash-strapped.

Despite Syria’s paucity of financial reserves, the deliveries of war material continue with Assad’s Iranian backers fronting the needed cash. Nonetheless over time Russia’s role has morphed into one manifestly more patron than vendor.

Since the conflict began Damascus has been the recipient of significant material and technical support from Moscow.

This September has witnessed a steadily increasing Russian military presence ramp up within Syria.

The construction of a military air base, itself an outgrowth of the existing international airport at Latakia, suggests the deployment of Russian air assets (fighter jets and attack helicopters) is imminent.

Several Russian landing ships brought combat vehicles and other heavy equipment through the Bosporus and came ashore near the Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus while images of Russian troops apparently already deployed in Syria have surfaced on social media.

The build-up of Russian forces to date suggests Moscow’s military leadership largely concurs with the tactics and overarching strategy formulated by their Syrian counterparts. Presently, loyalist forces are attempting to maintain a corridor of control from the Alawite homeland in the coastal northwest (and the adjacent and predominantly Sunni city of Aleppo) down through Homs and the westernmost spine of the country, roughly parallel to the Lebanese border, through to the capital Damascus and its immediate environs.

Should Damascus fall or be cut off by rebel advances along the vulnerable north-south corridor then regime loyalists will attempt to fall back to the Alawite northwest to regroup and dig in.

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One of many of photos taken by Russian soldiers inside Syria and posted to social media accounts. Photo: FacebookSecuring Syria’s Mediterranean coastline and expanding Latakia’s airport allows Moscow to build a logistical tether over air and sea to the Assad regime’s Alawite core.

From there, the provision of air cover to Syrian government troops is the likely priority. The rugged geography and demographic homogeneity of the Alawite coastal homeland should make for a tenable stronghold in the event of the regime’s collapse and/or military defeat.

Towards an endgame

It is apparent from these deployments that Moscow has decided to escalate its involvement in the conflict, ostensibly to buttress Assad’s regime from further territorial losses and to stall recent rebel momentum.

At the very least, the Russians will hope to secure their Mediterranean base at Tartus and provide the means for an Alawite enclave to survive the slow collapse of a unitary Syrian state. Tellingly, this calculus is in effect a rear-guard action, not intended to recover lost ground but to consolidate Assad’s remnant holdings. All of this hinges on the likelihood that, at some point in the near future, there is likely to be a concerted move towards a political settlement.

Two crucial developments presage such a move: the violent emergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq on the one hand, and a mounting refugee crisis emanating outward from Syria and ISIS-held territories on the other.

The build-up of Russian forces suggests Moscow’s leadership largely concurs with the tactics and overarching strategy formulated by their Syrian counterparts.

The sudden prominence of the ferociously sectarian ISIS has exacerbated existing fault lines between Sunni and Shia and its depredations have fuelled the regional exodus.

Furthermore, ISIS’ millenarian pretensions and their potent recruitment and branding efforts have presented acute security concerns for a wide variety of state actors ranging from France to Saudi Arabia.

The refugee crisis (like ISIS, an outgrowth of the Syrian civil war) has placed serious and prolonged logistical strain on neighbouring states like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. More recently the refugee crisis has spread to Europe, testing the coherence and durability of the EU’s political institutions as the already strained bloc struggles to cope with the influx. One UN agency noted that ‘millions more refugees could be expected if the Syrian civil war continued to rage’.

By calling for talks now and by framing their support for Assad as part of a wider nebulous fight against terrorism, Moscow is striking a hot iron. All the principal regional stakeholders stand to make immediate gains from a negotiated peace. ISIS, a non-state actor and gruesome bogeyman, frozen out of any talks by default, stands to lose the most from a Westphalian state-to-state settling of accounts.

By facilitating a peace process and bringing the Iranians and the loyalists to the table, Russia would be leveraging its position to gain concessions elsewhere. Russia’s recent military mobilisation in Syria has cost it some $500m so far. Sanctions relief is worth far more to the Russian exchequer than $500m on an annual basis. Voiding the strategic consequences of the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, which have been almost uniformly negative for Russian interests, and procuring a grand bargain is the operative goal – the relief of western sanctions and a progressive normalisation of relations with the US and the European Union.

The military gambit is a means to an end. In Moscow’s calculus, creating an Alawite stronghold largely dependent on Russian financial and military largesse is a distant second place prize.

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