Russia’s Syria gambit could be a game changer

ANALYSIS

Bombing by the Russian air force looks like a landmark event in the bloody four-and-half-year war in Syria.

In the space of just a few weeks Moscow has been making the weather on the crisis – by seizing the initiative where the US and others have vacillated and failed. Vladimir Putin has made a strong case for fighting Isis, though Wednesday’s airstrikes targeted other groups that are opposed to Bashar al-Assad.

The distinction matters because while the US and Arab states have taken military action against jihadis, no other country has used its own armed forces against other Syrian rebels. The partial exception is Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards advise the Syrian army and which has mobilised foreign Shia militias while keeping a low profile itself. Hezbollah, Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, fights openly with Assad.

Officials in Moscow suggested the planes bombing on Wednesday may have planned to strike Isis but in fact hit other groups, including one affiliated to the western-backed Free Syrian Army. Mistakes can happen: the US has also claimed to be targeting Isis and hit others, including civilians, so the Russians would not be alone in getting it wrong.

But reports from the scene suggested that the targeting was deliberate. Yet the detail may not matter. Unlike the US or Britain, Russia fully accepts the Syrian government’s view of the war. For Moscow, as for Tehran, there are only terrorists; they make no distinction between different armed groups, Islamist, jihadi or democratic. When Putin refers to the “rational” Syrian opposition, he means political opposition that is tolerated by the Assad regime.

And there is a clear expectation in Damascus that Moscow will do more to help Assad. Syrian military sources have been speaking in recent days of improved battlefield intelligence presumably obtained by Russian satellites or reconnaissance and predicting more direct involvement.

Russia and Iran are seen by the Syrian government as staunchly supportive allies. It was no coincidence that in a recent speech the Syrian president went out of his way to squash speculation that they had a gloomy assessment of his position after losing territory and admitting to suffering serious manpower shortages earlier this year.

Yet Russia’s direct military role may turn out to be fairly limited. Like the US and others it has made clear it will not put boots on the ground in Syria. Its air power is also less impressive than what the US led-coalition can deploy. And there are clear risks. “Anti-Assad forces of all stripes are equipped with relatively sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry and could imperil the viability of the Russian mission by downing even a handful of aircraft,” commented Daragh McDowel of the Verisk Maplecroft risk consultancy.

The larger question is whether Moscow can use its influence in Damascus to persuade Assad to take any steps towards the political transition that so many Syrians and so many other countries insist is necessary to try to end the war. If it does not do that – and there is no guarantee that it will – the airstrikes seem certain to do nothing more than further escalate an already dangerous conflict. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Ian Black
Guest Author
Advertisting

‘My biggest fear was getting the virus and dying in...

South African Wuhan evacuee speaks about his nine-week ordeal

Border walls don’t stop viruses, but a blanket amnesty might

Why South Africa should consider amnesty for undocumented migrants in the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories