Russia upsets US game plan in Syria
by Sandhya Jain on 06 Oct 2015 10 Comments

The Russians have arrived in West Asia, with a bang, with airstrikes against the terrorist Islamic State (Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham, or Daesh, in Arabic), giving a new leash of life to the beleaguered Syrian President. Their arrival has strengthened Iran, the sole regional ally of the Damascus regime, given a fillip to the Shia Crescent from Iran to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, and boosted the morale of Shia minorities in the region.


This has jolted the US-led alliance, including Britain, France, and the region’s Sunni regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which feel vulnerable with the failure of their regional policies. Israel having intuited the shape of things to come, has in recent weeks reconciled itself to Basher al-Assad’s survival as the price of defeating Islamic State, though it remains uneasy at Iran’s growing regional influence. Tehran is closely allied with Moscow and Beijing on the issue of curbing Washington’s proclivity for regime change through sponsored violence, and New Delhi would do well to put its weight behind this alignment.


The development has forced Washington to reconsider regime change as the cornerstone of its foreign policy architecture. Having tasted success in the Balkans, but unwilling to accept the depressing outcome of this policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the US was unprepared for a checkmate in Syria.


President Vladimir Putin’s moves were the best of Russian poker. After containing and partially reversing Western manoeuvres in Georgia and Ukraine, suffering the human rights barrage through the Olympic Games and the battering of its economy by the manipulated collapse of oil prices, Moscow nimbly seized the initiative in a region where American policy is floundering and its allies are in deep trouble. In calibrated moves, the Syrian military was rearmed and the Russian military position in that country buttressed. But there was no hint that action would follow, not from Tartus (Russia’s naval base) but from Syria’s Latakia Air Force base, which was also suitably augmented.


The September 30 airstrikes against Islamic State shocked the Washington coalition, who quickly raised the bogey of civilian deaths and alleged that the attacks were strengthening Islamic State and hitting areas dominated by the West-sponsored regime-change jihadis. If true, this is an admission that the regional dynamics have changed drastically with Russia’s first military engagement outside the erstwhile Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Already US President Barack Obama has admitted that the performance of the CIA-trained and funded mercenaries has been below expectations.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been moving closer to the Kremlin with a famous gas pipeline deal, has openly expressed misgivings regarding Russian motives. Speaking to Al-Jazeera television, he said Ankara looks after two million Syrian refugees and has a 911-kilometre long border with that country, but Russia does not. While Moscow insists it has been bombing Islamic State jihadis, the Turkish Prime Minister alleged the targets were moderate Syrian rebels in Hama, Homs and Aleppo. It is true that Russia has hit Aleppo in north Syria, Idlib in the northwest and Hama in central Syria, but Islamic State has a presence here (recall the recent ruination of Aleppo heritage). It has also hit Daesh positions in Raqqa, de facto “capital” of the so-called caliphate, and wiped out its headquarters there.


Washington has difficulty admitting that its activities in Afghanistan and Iraq created Islamic State, which now poses a threat to its own regional allies. It has also armed these radicals, both directly and inadvertently. Moreover, the obsession with removing President al-Assad at all costs has contributed enormously to the current refugee crisis, which is a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions.


The United States was caught unawares by the September 30 unanimous vote by the Syrian parliament, accepting President Putin’s request to deploy his military abroad to fight terrorism. As Moscow and Damascus have a long military relationship and the latter hosts Russia’s sole naval base in the Mediterranean, the West could not object to the Russian action, which began the same day with surgical strikes on terrorist positions. Sergey Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, announced that the air operations were intended only to support the ground actions of the Syrian military, and that Russia would not join any ground operations.


However, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, is pleading for permission to depute his units to fight Islamic State in Syria, as they have sworn to fight terrorists till the end: “Being a Muslim, a Chechen and a Russian patriot I want to say that in 1999 when our republic was overrun with these devils we swore on the Koran that we would fight them wherever they are.” Chechen units have a high level of combat readiness; Kadyrov believes the Syrian terrorists have little experience of real fighting and will disappear once his men arrive. Possibly President al-Assad may seek his assistance in an ‘advisory’ role, much like Iran’s Quds Force chief, Qassim Soleimani, in Iraq.


Moscow has deployed four Su-34 Fullback bombers and twelve Su-24M2 Fencers in Syria. The latter have been upgraded and equipped with GLONASS satellite navigation systems, an upgraded glass cockpit, a modern head-up display and upgraded air-to-air self-defense capability with R-73 high off-boresight missiles. The planes are provisioned to carry a range of precision-guided munitions, with the capacity to hit targets 400 miles away, but such weapons have not been deployed so far, US Air Force officials have told Time magazine.


Whatever aces President Putin may have up his sleeve, he is moving carefully. When the West alleged civilian casualties due to the airstrikes, he informed the Russian human rights council that the allegations were made even before the first combat mission began, and were obviously “information attacks”. Sources claim that a group called “White Helmets” (previously Syria Civil Defense), funded by the US State Department, is behind this propaganda. On September 30, it claimed that 33 civilians, including three children, had been killed in the Russian air raids; it attached a photograph which was soon exposed to be from an incident five days previously!


President Putin counters that the US-led coalition has been bombing Syrian territory for over a year, with no invitation from Damascus, and no UN mandate, whereas Moscow has an invitation from the legitimate Syrian government to “fight against terrorist organisations,” and intends to fight them. Although he did not elaborate, these terrorists will encompass Islamic State and the West-sponsored, CIA-trained jihadis, and therein lies the rub.

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