Russian Power Play in Syria

By Saira Nawaz Abbasi.

Middle East has gone through a fundamental change after the Arab Spring since 2011. Uprisings had spiraled through the whole region thus resulted in the demise of the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Syrian conflict is also part of this chain of events and it started with the massive anti-government protests which erupted in March 2011. The uprising in Syria turned violent due to the government’s use of force to crush the opposition and thus the situation escalated and turned into a civil war when the opposition took up arms to defend itself.  Various forces found this to be a golden opportunity to cut into the conflict for the purpose of pursuing their own objectives. Sectarianism increased and many regional states and interest groups such as ISIS and world powers became actively involved in Syria. Hence, this civil war resulted as a consequence of Arab Spring and mushroomed into a proxy war, where both regional and global actors came in to play their roles. Iran and Russia have been supporting the Alawite-led government of Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon’s Shia Islamist Hezbollah also provided his support to the Syrian government. On the other hand, the Sunni dominated opposition is supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar along with US, France and UK. Russian aspirations of global role in the world politics has been fundamentally fulfilled in its intervention in Syria.  Since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russian policies have gone through a significant change particularly in Middle East. Kremlin has refused the western notions of changing the regime of Bashar al-Assad which seriously damaged its relations with the US and other western countries. However; it has been committed to the policy of defending its old ally.

Russian intervention in Syria is deeply embedded in its Cold War pattern of thinking. Since Putin came into power this paradigm has become more pronounced, as Kremlin is seeking a framework of dealing with international issues where nothing can be achieved without the cooperation of the Russian Federation. Therefore, Russian intervention into Syria is mainly done in order to achieve geopolitical interests such as regaining power in the region and on the world stage. Changing dynamics of the power structure require intensive involvement of Russia as new trends of conflict and cooperation will emerge in the region. Unilateralism is somehow diminishing in Middle East and Russia has risen to the level where it can promote multilateralism in the region. Kremlin aspires towards a more powerful role in the emerging multi polar world, where it would be impossible to achieve anything without its cooperation. Its involvement in Syria in 2015, its leading role in Geneva negotiations (2016), its restoration of diplomatic effort in dealing with Saudi Arabia on oil and its revival of relationship with Egypt, Iran and more recently with Turkey signifies its growing strategic importance in the region. Syria is not just an ad-hoc adventurism: it is way more than that. Russia wants to revive its role as a great power in the region, occupy its own client states and create its own sphere of influence like in the time of the Soviet Union.

Two partnerships can be useful for the Kremlin to achieve its geopolitical goals, one could be the anti US with Iranian-Russian-Syrian nexus and the other could be anti IS of Syria-Iraq-Kurd alliance. American policies in the region have been meeting with failures thus provided it with the opportunity to achieve its objectives. Syrian intervention does not only mean to defend an important ally in Middle East rather to establish the necessity of Russian cooperation in producing results in the region. Cooperation between the old adversaries seems impossible due to incompatibility of goals as Russia wants to protect the Bashar al-Assaad’s regime and to defeat ISIS while USA is seeking to topple the current government. The only common ground could be defeating IS while Russian are skeptical about American intentions as the two countries could not materialize any truce deal and most importantly there is uncertainty of the future course of action by the President-elect Donald Trump.  US economic and military strength is greater than Russia; however, the situation on the ground is different amid recent success in events.

Currently USA has to face three challenges in Middle East; first, there is a lot of uncertainty about the upcoming policy of newly elected President of USA which is favorable for Russia to take full control. Second, two geopolitical adversaries Iran and Russia are playing jointly against the USA which needs a comprehensive strategy to control both. Third is American declining influence in the region due to the faulty policies because there is growing anti-Americanism and alienation in Arab population. Due to American’s inability to solve the issues such as Palestine, Iraq and Syria there is the development of perception that the rise of ISIS is the phenomena created out of the chaotic environment for which America is responsible. The question here is how to tackle the situation and how to transform the ground in US favor? Would it be possible for Donald Trump to bring the positive results in Syria? How to restore American prestige and trust back in Middle East? Russian defeat and US victory in Syria, Elimination of ISIS and extremism, resolution of Palestine issue might help USA in getting the lost influence. To achieve this USA needs to closely counter the Russian activities in the region because it won’t provide the smooth road in getting back.

About Author.

The writer is Senior Lecturer at Bahria University, Islamabad and a Ph.D candidate at SPIR, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad.

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