With the sudden news of a surprise meeting with Bashar al-Assad in Moscow, Vladimir Putin has once again left his critics in the West with egg on their faces. Even before the visit, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict had surprised the US-led coalition with both its speed and its efficiency.
Against all expectations and with minimal intelligence leakage, Russia crisply executed refurbishment of the Latakia airbase and set about moving into the Syrian morass in a businesslike and determined fashion. For the first time since 1945, American and Russian forces are, at least on the surface, fighting alongside one another – and being forced to work out how to do that.
The symbolism is inescapable. These events fit a pattern stretching back more than two centuries, where distrust of Russia by Britain (and its successor on the global stage, the US) is punctuated by major wars in which they actually find themselves, uneasily, on the same side. Only in the Crimean War of 1854-6 were they directly opposed. They stood together in the major conflicts to defeat Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler.
Russia’s intervention in Syria is serious and committed. Crack military units have been selected for the job. Bombing sorties are being carried out thick and fast, with hundreds already completed. Cruise missiles are being launched. And yet the West has scarcely welcomed the entry of a force whose entry is surely hardly good news for Islamic State (IS).
The main bone of contention between Russia and the West, of course, is the former’s long-term support for Assad. Ever since IS emerged as a serious force, the West has been dangerously indecisive. It wants to destroy IS and also destroy the Assad regime – which is the most effective challenger to IS on the ground. By pinning its hopes on weak entities, such as the Free Syrian Army, which opposes Assad and IS, the West has done little but confuse its own strategy.
This is not the first time Russia has intervened significantly in the conflict. In 2013, after a throwaway remark by John Kerry that if Assad destroyed his chemical weapons the threat of bombing Syria would be lifted, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, seized on it and the Russians persuaded Assad to comply.
Had the bombing gone ahead and weakened the Syrian army, the chief beneficiary would have been IS – since the Syrian Army has, so far at least, been its main opponent on the ground. If Raqqa is to be prised from IS’s hands, it’s hard to see what force other than the Syrian Army will be able to do it.
So why is the Kremlin suddenly so involved in the crisis, and why does it support Assad?
Close to home
The most obvious reason is geography. At its nearest point, Syria is barely 1 000km from one of Russia’s most sensitive areas, Chechnya. The Kremlin has a vital concern for the stability of the region and, in its usual realpolitik fashion, it places stability above human rights. Nonetheless, Russia does not support Assad because he’s a brutal dictator, but because he has the greatest degree of control in the area and there is no apparent alternative.
That matters to Russia for obvious reasons, There is currently an arc of crisis from the eastern Black Sea (Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk) to Turkey/Kurdistan and then down into the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and on to Kenya. Given that much of the instability is linked to Islamic militants, Russia is especially concerned for its own, extensive, Islamic community – which, like IS, is largely Sunni.
There’s another dimension too: Russia is beginning to feel strong again, not as much as in Soviet times, but as a major power once more, unlike the desperate days of the Yeltsin era. By coming into Syria well prepared, heavily armed and with the element of surprise, Russia has briskly restored its reputation as a military force to be reckoned with.
Don’t look now
Of course, Russia’s Syrian venture is also distracting the world’s attention from Ukraine. The Dutch report on MH-17 has brought some attention back to that crisis, but it hasn’t really changed anyone’s position. Its findings reaffirmed the likely explanation of the disaster: that the plane was shot down with a Russian-made BUK missile, a type deployed by all sides in the conflict.
While it stopped short of apportioning blame or assigning a motivation, the report does not flatter Russia’s official explanations for the crash, which include a hypothesised Ukrainian air force attack.
That said, the report did point to Ukraine’s failure to close the airspace of the conflict zone to civilian aircraft, indicating that incompetence on both sides should take much of the blame. The Russian BUK manufacturer’s counter-report demands careful analysis, but at first glance, it looks like little more than a feeble attempt to muddy the waters.
Barring an upsurge in military activity, the Ukrainian crisis seems destined to continue to simmer down rather than boil over. After all, in real terms, the West’s interests in a bankrupt Ukraine are not as strong as their interests in the Middle East. Realpolitik would demand at least a tacit deal with Moscow over Syria – and a negotiated agreement over Ukraine.
Once again, Putin, Lavrov and Russian policymakers have shown their skill in that field. Any open confrontation with Russia will achieve little, and the West faces a rude awakening; whatever its moral or political objections, it has no option but to settle its differences with Russia with cooperation, discussion and negotiation.