Just two months after he declared “the successful end of military operations in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be looking for ways of reducing his footprint in the war-torn nation without jettisoning his principal gains there. In other words he hopes to square the circle, analysts believe.
One sign of the possible change of course came late Saturday night when Russia interrupted its six-year cycle of vetoes at the United Nations Security Council by endorsing a Kuwaiti-Swedish resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus subjected to relentless bombardment from land and air by Russian and Syrian government forces.
More importantly, perhaps, Putin seems to have agreed to attend a” summit” in Istanbul in April to discuss “ ways of ending the Syrian war” with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. The foreign ministers of the three theoretical allies will meet in Astana, Kazakhstan, in March to prepare for the summit.
Since it entered the Syrian imbroglio, Russia has scored four major gains which Putin hopes to preserve. The first is the lease concession Putin obtained from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to establish two bases on Syrian soil and on the Mediterranean coast. The bases would allow Russia to develop a blue-water navy capable of operations beyond the backwaters of the Sea of Azov while Russian air power could be deployed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
Putin’s second gain was to signal the return of Russia as a major player in the Middle East, ending the 25-year hiatus created by the fall of the Soviet Union.
A third gain for Putin was to supplant the Republic of Iran as the major foreign backer of the Assad regime and thus as the strongest voice in shaping Syria’s future.
A fourth gain may have been the change of narrative on Russia’s recent expansionist moves that included the annexation of Abkhazia , South Ossetia and The Crimean Peninsula and the consolidation of a foothold in eastern Ukraine.
However, as some critics even inside Russia itself have noted Putin’s boast about a “basically accomplished” campaign may have been premature and his gains may prove transient.
As the Moscow daily Kommersant has reported the rising cost of the Syrian adventure in both blood and treasure is beginning to be noticed by a growing segment of the Russian public opinion.
The latest nationwide poll published by the Russian media shows that only a third of Russians votes now support continued involvement in Syria, a sobering message for Putin as he prepares for his re-election campaign.
Worse still, Russia’s role in Syria is becoming increasingly unpopular among Russian Muslims who account for some 20 percent of the federation’s population as testified by a recent rise in the number of violent Islamist attacks in Dagestan and Ingushetia and the uncovering of terrorist plots in Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
A number of recent events indicate that all of Putin’s gains may be in jeopardy. It is only now that the Defense Ministry in Moscow implicitly admits last December’s “terrorist attack’ that shook the Russian base in Hmeimim that destroyed 20 per cent of the warplanes stationed there and claimed the lives of at least 9 Russian military personnel. The message is clear: a base that can be attacked can hardly be a dependable asset in attacking an enemy.
Having started with a minimum of investment in the Syrian conflict, Russia ended up committing up to 4000 warplanes and at least two units of its elite troops plus an unknown number of contractual fighters, in other words mercenaries, supplied by private companies. The scale of Russian human losses is only now beginning to become public.
As for Russia returning as a major player in the Middle East, Putin faces the prospect of getting bogged down in a Syrian quagmire with no end in sight and thus allowing no space for projecting power elsewhere in the region. The United Nations’ mediator on Syria Staffan de Mistura has already invited Moscow to remember the “Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
Putin’s third gain, supplanting Tehran as Assad’s main backer, may also be a poisoned chalice. Iranian official media is already playing the tune that Russia should foot part of the bill for keeping Assad in place in his canton in Damascus.
“All those who wish to preserve Syria’s independence and the integrity of its government should contribute to the cost of what is a hard campaign, “noted the FARS new-site, an organ of the Islamic revolutionary Guard in an editorial last week.
Partly hiding behind Russia, Iran has started to slowly reduce its cost in Syria.
“There can be no military victory in Syria,” according to Iran’s deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi in an address in London last week.
This is in stark contrast with Assad’s boast about “liberating every last inch of Syrian territory” with Russian support.
Divergences between Iran and Russia also became clear when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly castigated Iran for talking about “the elimination of Israel”. Moscow’s categorical statement of support for Israel’s “security” was received with barely disguised anger in Tehran where the official media, among them RAJA News, claimed that recent Israeli attacks on Iranian military positions in Syria had received tacit support for Russia.
Success in diverting attention from Russia's expansionism elsewhere has also proved temporary. The European Union is reactivating pressure on Russia for annexing some 20 percent of Georgia's territory while the Trump administration in Washington has agreed to supply a new range of weapons to Ukraine to defend itself against Russian-backed aggression.
In fact, operations such as the relentless bombardment of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta may have raised public support in the West for a more overtly anti-Moscow stance across the board.
The fact that Turkey has also embarked on a strategy of its own in Syria is a further indication of the limits of Russia’s role as the setter of agenda in Syria.
One formula that Moscow, Ankara and Tehran are now looking at is a re-heated version of the Helsinki Accords of 1975 when the Western democracies, led by the United States, accepted the principle of equivalence between the Free World and the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union thus acknowledging Moscow’s position as the agenda-setter in Eastern and central Europe.
The possibility of a new Helsinki accord, this time recognising Russia as the key player in at least part of the Middle East was tangentially raised by Russian diplomats in the recent Security Conference in Munich and elaborated upon by Iran’s Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif.
Moscow hopes that the planned summit in Turkey would concretise the idea in the form of a diplomatic initiative and used as a basis for the formation of a broad “ friends of Syria” concert of nations to bring peace and embark on reconstruction in that war-torn nation. If that happens, Putin may preserve at least some of his gains while reducing the cost of his Syrian adventure.
However, he may find out that while he has won Assad he has lost Syria.
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