November 22, 2015

Syria: Decisive Russian Role

Yohannan Chemarapally

WITH the West standing aside and preferring to be a virtual bystander as the carnage in Syria goes on unabated and the refugee crisis intensifying, Moscow has decided to step into the void to find a solution. Russian political support and military aid have been crucial for the government in Damascus as it withstood the military onslaught that was financed by the West and its allies. In the last two years, the situation on the ground has changed with American trained Syrian militias either surrendering or decamping with their weaponry to the Islamic State (IS) or the Jabhat al Nusra. Recently, an elite militia trained by the Americans, refused to fight these two groups. In the third week of September, President Barack Obama had to finally admit the failure of the American plan to train so-called “moderate” Syrian forces to take on both the jihadi forces and the Syrian army. The West is now more preoccupied with the bombing of targets linked to the Islamic State after allowing the jihadi menace to fester and grow for more than four years. The military steps Washington and its allies are taking have so far had minimal impact on the IS which remains firmly ensconced in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. According to reports, money and arms from some Gulf monarchies are still reaching groups like the al Nusra. Turkey has been making the case that the al Nusra front, which is an al Qaeda affiliate, should be treated sympathetically and co-opted as an ally in the fight against the Syrian government. David Petraeus, the former CIA head is among American strategists openly arguing for the incorporation of al Qaeda affiliates to simultaneously fight the Syrian government and the Islamic State. The US has a history of using Islamists to pursue its agenda. It was blatant in Afghanistan in the 1980's when the Reagan administration armed and financed the jihadi groups fighting against a secular regime. The al Qaeda itself was formed by a jihadi called Osama bin Laden. He was initially trained by the CIA. Robert Ford, who was the last American ambassador to Syria, has admitted that Washington had initially contributed to the arming and financing of the IS and the Ahrar al Sham, another group fighting in Syria which has closes links with the al Qaeda. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has been repeatedly stating that Washington is not really keen on defeating the IS. The Obama administration's main priority is to ensure that the Syrian government does not militarily gain the upper hand. Washington, despite the dramatic rise of the IS, remains committed to regime change in Syria, the only secular one in the region. Now Russia has decided to call the American bluff in Syria. Moscow has been long insisting that the only way to defeat the IS in the region is by forming a regional coalition, that would include Syria, to jointly fight the US. In early September, Russia dispatched tanks, sophisticated weaponry along with Su-27 fighter planes and T-90 tanks to Syria. President Barack Obama had harshly criticised the Russian move initially saying their strategy in Syria was “doomed to failure”. There were statements from top American officials that the Russian move in Syria constitutes a dangerous escalation. Syria is the only West Asian country in which Russia has a military presence and that too a very limited one in comparison to the American bases which pock mark the region. NEED FOR A POLITICAL SOLUTION For the last four years, Moscow has been calling for a political solution to the crisis and for more decisive action against the IS that is now in control of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. Both the IS and the al Nusra have large numbers of Chechens and other Russian nationals in their ranks. The Islamists in Chechnya had launched a brutal secessionist movement in the Caucasus in the 1990's. Well wishers of Syria do not want to take any chances especially as the IS and the al Nusra have established a military presence in the provinces of Damascus and Aleppo. The way the major cities of Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq fell to the IS has been a warning. If per chance, major cities in Syria are captured by the IS, it will be an excuse for the West to wage a full scale invasion of Syria. The IS is also gaining ground in Afghanistan. If the IS contagion remains unchecked, the jihadi flames could seriously singe Russia. The Kremlin had even mooted the idea of a negotiated political transitional government in 2012, according to the Finnish diplomat and Nobel peace laureate, Martti Ahtisaari. Washington rejected the proposal, confident that Assad would be overthrown in a few months, meeting the fate of Muammar Gaddafi. Top Russian diplomats have been warning the Obama administration about the perils of pursuing the regime change agenda in Syria. All the Russian initiatives and friendly advice were spurned by the West, which till very recently would only settle for outright regime change in Syria. In the last four years, the Syrian army has remained united and kept the Islamist hordes out of Damascus and most of the populated regions of Syria. The help of Russia and Iran along with Hezbollah militia has been invaluable for the government in Damascus as it withstood the coordinated assault sponsored by the West and its allies in the region. Turkey continues to be the main conduit through which money and the militants are still flowing into Syria. The Obama administration has established a virtual no fly zone along the Turkish border with Syria after the Americans were allowed to use the Incirlik air base for bombing raids over Syrian territory. The Turks on their part have been bombing Syrian Kurdish militias fighting the IS, claiming that they are linked to the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). President Vladimir Putin's decision to significantly bolster the beleaguered Syrian army was another strong indicator that Moscow remains committed to the government of Bashar al Assad. President Putin has also said that the Russian decision was also motivated by the plight of two million Christians in the region. They face an existential threat from the IS and other Salafist forces. The Russians have said that they may even sympathetically consider requests for ground troops. The Syrian government is insisting that its army still has the capability of defeating the opposition, provided it gets sufficient quantities of sophisticated weaponry. The IS is flush with American supplied equipment, including tanks and Humvees which it has captured in Iraq. From 2012-14, they were being openly trained and supplied by the West and its proxies in the region. In the third week of September, the Obama administration did a volte face and finally agreed to start high level talks with the Russian government on the Syrian issue. This happened after Washington had failed to stop the transport of Russian weaponry by trying to pressure many countries into closing their air space for Russian transport planes bound for Syria. Only Bulgaria acceded to the American request. The American president ordered his secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, to initiate talks with the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu. The Americans are saying that the “military to military” talks are meant to avoid accidental conflicts between the two sides on Syrian territory. But off the record, the American government officials have been suggesting to the media that the main goal of the talks will be to persuade President Putin to be part of the game plan to replace the government of Bashar al Assad. HUMANITARIAN TRAGEDY The American secretary of state, John Kerry, said the talks “will help to define some of the options that are available to us”. Moscow has reiterated that it supports its Syrian ally to the hilt. Kerry recently stated that Washington is now not averse to the Syrian president staying in power for some more time. Till a month ago, “Bashar must go” was the chorus emanating from western capitals. Kerry said that Washington was now trying to find “a common ground” with Russia. He said that the focus remains on destroying the IS and finding a political solution with respect to Syria. The American secretary of state said that Washington was of the view that a political settlement in Syria “cannot be achieved with the long term presence of Assad”. The gargantuan refugee influx into Europe, triggered by the war in Syria is another key factor that has motivated Washington to change its stance and start looking for a political solution. 250,000 Syrians have already perished in the war instigated by the West. Half of the country's population has been turned into refugees. The Americans also have concluded, given the military presence of Russia in Syria, that regime change by force is no longer an option. In the first telephonic conversation between Shoigu and Carter, the two sides agreed to continue discussions “on mechanisms of deconfliction” in Syria. Moscow wants Washington to join in the efforts to stabilise Syria. Russian officials are of the view that the only way of doing so is by strengthening the government of Bashar al Assad, the only bulwark against the rampaging extremists. Moscow wants the Obama administration to prevail on its allies, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to stop helping the jihadi groups. Russia wants the creation of a genuine anti-IS coalition that would coordinate attacks and tactics with the Syrian army on the ground. The West has to start talking with Assad if it seriously wants to end the humanitarian tragedy and bring the IS to heel. President Assad in an interview with Russian journalists in mid September appealed to smaller insurgent groups in the country to join the Syrian army in its fight against the IS. He reiterated that only after the group is defeated can there be a political solution to the crisis in Syria.