Syria provides a post-Soviet foothold

by Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The 50th edition of Strategic Survey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies includes a lively chapter on Russia’s entry into the Middle Eastern power scene, involving its relations with the United States over Syria.

The Survey recalls that a year ago, addressing the UN General Assembly, President Putin proposed a new alliance to counter extremism – something it calls ‘a striking offer.’ But the deal included co-operation with Syria’s President Assad; and President Obama ‘was not inclined to co-operate.’

In fact, Putin and Obama held a 90-minute meeting during the Assembly, but its only practical outcome was an agreement to begin military-to-military discussions about avoiding accidents in the skies over Syria; and two days later Russian airstrikes began.

According to the Survey, Western experts believed that although the Russian air campaign could strengthen the Assad regime, it could not achieve military victory, even with the aid of Iran. Syria would become ‘quagmire’ for Russia, and all the West needed to do was to wait patiently for the inevitable failure. Although there were further Russian overtures regarding co-operation, they went unheeded.

Turn of the tide

While the West stood aside, the tide began to turn for Russia in Syria in early 2016. Backed by the Russian air campaign, Assad’s forces made significant gains in January and February. By mid-February the regime had gained a slim footing.
That is to say, Moscow had ’strengthened its proxy to the point that the political process would align with Russian interests. So the political track intensified, leading to a US-Russia statement on 22 February; outlining terms for a “cessation of hostilities” agreemen’t.
According to the Survey, this was not a true cease-fire, since extremist groups were fair game for all sides. Nevertheless, Moscow largely complied with the deal.
On balance, Moscow’s intervention achieved several objectives, say the editors. The bombing campaign crushed the aspirations for regime change harboured by opposition groups, some of Syria’s neighbours and elements within Western governments. It brought all the players to the negotiating table. It weakened the IS and other extremist groups. It led to a significant change in regional and global perceptions of Russia’s great-power status and military capabilities.
Above all, it established Russia as a key outside power in the Middle East, even though its aspirations remained modest compared with those of the US.
All the same, the ultimate objective of the intervention – a political settlement in and around Syria – was highly uncertain. It was therefore too early to say whether post-Soviet Russia’s first major power-projection was truly a success.

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