Russians in Syria: Fervour After Syndrome

12 october 2015

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The Russian operation in Syria is an indisputable milestone in the country's political development. For the first time in over a quarter of a century, the Kremlin is officially conducting a high-scale military operation abroad, motivated not by peacekeeping and "peace enforcement", but by strategic reasons.

The Russian operation in Syria is an indisputable milestone in the country's political development. For the first time in over a quarter of a century, the Kremlin is officially conducting a high-scale military operation abroad, motivated not by peacekeeping and "peace enforcement", but by strategic reasons.

The "Afghan syndrome" is history. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow has been showing an idiosyncratic attitude towards such military and political campaigns, watching the United States repeat the Soviet blunders with a slight sense of malevolence.

Why the turn? The Ukrainian collision perceived in spring 2014 as another leap towards a new capacity of Russia's global influence transformed into another fixation of the country's regional status. Its pinnacle was the Minsk Process – a marshy and laborious diplomatic marathon foredoomed to losses.

Russian leaders figured that Ukraine was prospectless in terms of its role in international affairs. Leading Western states were eagerly propping up the model where the pivotal, if not sole, subject of negotiations with Moscow was settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. The Middle East, despite its hopelessness, is a much more topical issue. It stands on the crossing of strategic lines, rather than on the sideline offshoot to a dead end, like Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin's political intuition has panned out. He took the opportunity to break the gridlock, forcing others to react to Russia's initiative, not the other way around. This knack of the Russian leader has been demonstrated on many occasions throughout the years of his presidency – both on the international and home arena.

By destroying chemical weapons on Moscow's insistent advice, Damascus gave up the "tool of last resort", protection in case the survival of not only the regime, but also of everyone deeming it the lesser evil would be at stake. Ditching it in such a situation would not be a very decorous act. However, the originally moderate reaction of the West (ambiguously negative) and the overt presence of some mutual understanding with the West paves way for assumptions that the operation has chances for success. I remind that no one had originally been giving countenance to the feasibility of the proposals on chemical weapons.

The Islamic State is indeed an enemy of Russia; weakening it is crucial for our security in any case. Yet, Moscow entered the civil war siding with Bashar al-Assad and his adherents. It can be called a war on terror, but there is no alternative to backing the formally legal government against its enemies. In essence, John Kerry voiced Washington's acknowledgement that immediate resignation of the Syrian president is no longer on the agenda. However, Russia should be prepared for a sharp flare up of accusations of war with all enemies of Assad, not only ISIS. For the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, for instance, it is not just a fiasco of their policy, it is humiliation.

Moscow's actions are technically akin to the role the NATO coalition played in Libya in 2011. NATO provided aerial cover for the rebels, who took advantage of the air strikes to turn the campaign around. Of course, the difference is that Russia sides with a regular and quite capable army. Besides, a coalition was formed. Iran and Iraq have united their forces with Russia in Syria; add to that the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. It is a serious regional bloc that, we assume, will stay intact after the end of the campaign. There is another side of the coin – Russia risks being pulled into the center of a religious war.

Russian officials swear that a ground operation was out of the question. There are no reasons to doubt their words, but it is hard to rule out unforeseen turns of the events. For example, the desire to revenge the losses (especially if they, as it is customary in the ISIS ranks, are ritual) may become a mechanism getting it bogged down deeper and deeper.

Should no contingencies occur, success would consist in achieving a tipping point in the operation and in toppling the progress ISIS made in the last months. Russia's positions in the region will be strengthened, Moscow will break from the Ukrainian quagmire and act on a much wider operational expanse. Revival of old Syria is unreal, but Assad's fixation on a certain territory, which will also serve as a Russian platform in the Middle East, is executable.

The Middle East has entered a period of change, which will continue regardless of ISIS' fate. The military scenario, successful or not, should be accompanied by intensive diplomacy, bearing in mind that intricate conflicts are solvable, yet such specific wars are won behind the negotiation table just as often (if not more often) than on the battlefield.

Should the run of events divert from the expected course, i.e. the Libyan scenario, and instead follow the Iraqi or, worse, the Vietnamese one, Russia will run into huge internal and external problems.

On the other hand, the last two years, since the autumn of 2013, when the Ukrainian struggle around the EU association erupted, Russia has been living in the atmosphere of a military and political fervour. But this fervour, the social mobilization and the agenda it generates substitutes all other matters. In particular, the need to develop a new model of socio-economic development to replace the one exhausted before the crisis and now falls a long way short of the situation that took a twist. And despite the incessant mantras about national interests and the concordance between foreign policy and domestic demands, the geopolitical achievements are becoming intrinsically valuable. Of course, the topic of ridding the world of the plague called the Islamic State is a lot more attractive than the lackluster discussions about the need to raise the retirement age. But substitution of one topic by another endlessly will not work out.

This is an abridged version of the article, published in Russian in Ogonyok magazine.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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