by Gunnar Eigener

Content warning: mentions drone attacks, conflict, and terrorism.

While the US President, Donald Trump, has made it clear that the US presence in Syria was to carry out the extermination of Daesh, Russia’s intentions have always been to support their ally, Bashar al-Assad. Last September the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, made a surprise visit to Syria to announce that Russia had succeeded in its mission. While both might be correct, it is Putin who is in a more difficult position and the risk that Russia will be dragged further in has become ever more likely.

Syria was an opportunity for Putin’s Russia to flex its muscles on the international stage again after creating trouble in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Having already interfered in the election in the US and potentially in other elections in Europe, Russia remains largely unchallenged. Sanctions brought about by the US Congress do little to curb the ambitious plans of a nation seeking to relive past glories. Russia continues to forge relations with former satellite states and the lack of US involvement in NATO does nothing to deter the risk of another cold war breaking out in Eastern Europe. Yet, as with so many Western states, Russia has found itself stuck in the political and religious quagmire that is the Middle East.

What the Russian people think of the war and the actions of the Russian forces in relation to Ukraine and Crimea is  hard to gauge.

In February, Syrian anti-aircraft missiles brought down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet. The jet had been returning from a mission to shoot down a Iranian surveillance drone that had been launched from within Syria. The retaliation by the Israeli Air Force destroyed a significant portion of Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries. It is uncertain but considered likely that Russian military advisers may have been killed in the bombing sortie. This has put Russia in a difficult position. While Russia and Iran are allies in their pursuit to protect al-Assad, Russia and Israel are also on good terms.

That, however, may change as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, is currently being looked at for corruption by prosecutors. Previous airstrikes by Israel in Syria have occurred to prevent the exchange of weapons between Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and military group and listed terrorist organisation. Any suggestion that Russia and Israel’s relationship includes a hands-off Syria remains on the sidelines. But there has existed an understanding – Israel may tackle Iran and Hezbollah in Syria but not strike at the Syrian regime. The events of early February have cast doubt over this understanding.

While Russia and Iran are allies in their pursuit to protect al-Assad, Russia and Israel are also on good terms.

Putin’s recently ordered five hour daily ceasefire of Syrian government bombing of the Eastern Ghouta area and the creation of a humanitarian corridor demonstrates the influence that Russia has over the Syrian regime. After all, the UN-backed resolution for a ceasefire was weakened by the prospect of a Russian veto and so was diluted to prevent this – not that it mattered as the bombing recommenced almost immediately. Russian support for the bombing has been met with all the usual criticism and the lack of US involvement in the regime other than to fight Daesh means that there is very little anyone can do. The Syrian regime and Russia regard all those opposed to the government as terrorists so groups like Jaysh al-Islam, the largest of the opposition groups, will continue to be targeted and civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.

(Syria flag via Freedom House / Flickr. Creative Commons)

Russian influence is being tested. Jaysh al-Islam is backed by Saudi Arabia. Relations with Turkey have been frosty since the shooting down of a Russian jet fighter by Turkey and the fatal shooting of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. In late 2017, Turkey announced that it would buy Russian made surface-to-air missile defence system. However, in recent months, attempts by Russia to court the Syrian Kurds are being thwarted by the military actions of Turkey against any possibility of Kurdish territorial consolidation, an act which be considered destabilising to the region. Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria attacked a Kurdish military base in early February that contained US military advisors. The Russian mercenaries took heavy casualties but since they were contractors, their part has been down-played.

What the Russian people think of the war and the actions of the Russian forces in relation to Ukraine and Crimea is  hard to gauge. State media and propaganda present the best side to the people, which leaves them expecting positive results. But the reality is that Russia risks being dragged into a long and arduous conflict in Syria. The withdrawal of major US support and interest suggests that the war will progress, lives will continue to be lost by all sides, and the bitterness will increase many times over. Syria has not yet completely destroyed itself but once it finally has, then Russia may finally claim victory and leave. After Afghanistan, Russia needs a victory in the Middle East but this might end up costing them more than they were willing to pay in the first place. The US’ longest fought war is in Afghanistan and it is taking its toll on American morale as well as muddying the waters when it comes political allegiances elsewhere in the region. Russia would do well to learn from this but eagerness to show the world its strength may well mean that they won’t.

Featured image of a map of Syria / Pixabay. Creative Commons License.

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