Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017.
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS)
Russia stormed back into the Middle East in 2015 riding a proverbial high-horse to the rescue of Bashar al-Assad's then-crumbling regime in Syria. More than three years later, Moscow's predicament perhaps is better depicted by the circus-like image of a Russian Bear pedaling a tricycle while juggling the competing interests of countries whose apparent irreconcilability accounts for the absence of order now desperately being sought.
"The Russian estimate about Syria was wrong from the beginning but the military convinced [President Vladimir] Putin that it would be a very quick operation. This is a multi-sided conflict with complex and unpredictable developments and Moscow was bound to get bogged down," former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov told The Media Line.
"The whole adventure was surprising given that Putin has a much bigger problem—ten times larger—in Ukraine. The Russian army should have learned from its wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya that the type of enemy it’s fighting in Syria cannot be totally defeated. Presently, there is no coherent plan other than to respond to incidents and try to save face despite the disastrous situation."
The intricacy of Russia's conundrum—that is, seemingly impossible balancing act—was evidenced last week by the intersection of events involving all major players in Syria. The cascade began Sunday when Iran's Quds Force responded to a rare Israeli day-time strike in and around Damascus by firing a powerful missile towards the Mount Hermon ski resort. While intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, the Israel Defense Forces, in turn, launched a significant cross-border operation, reportedly destroying more than three dozen targets and killing up to 12 Iranians in the process.
The altercation came against the backdrop of reports that Quds Force boss Qasem Soleimani earlier this month visited southern Syria and may have pre-planned the rocket attack. This raised the collective eyebrow of Israel's political and defense establishments given that Russia previously vowed to bar Iranian soldiers and their Shiite underlings from operating within about 60 miles of the shared frontier.
Irrespective, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman immediately denounced the "practice of arbitrary strikes on the territory of a sovereign state…[which] should be ruled out.” Russia's ambassador to Israel echoed the sentiment while suggesting that Jerusalem’s recent policy of claiming responsibility for attacks in Syria is politically-motivated and connected to the April 9 elections.
Then, in a total about-face, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov vehemently rejected even the implication that Moscow and Tehran are allies. In an interview with CNN, he also stressed that the Kremlin "in no way underestimate[s] the importance of measures [read air strikes] that would ensure [the] very strong security of the state of Israel,” adding that upholding this "top priority" is known not only to the Iranians but also to the United States, Turkey and the Syrian regime.
As this was unfolding, Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Moscow amid threats by Ankara to annihilate Kurdish YPG units, the ground force most responsible for the demise of Islamic State. The Syrian Kurds—which Erdogan considers an extension of the banned PKK in next-door Iraq—are backed by Washington, Russia's primary geopolitical foe, which further complicated matters for Moscow by walking back the declared prospect of a complete troop withdrawal from Syria.
Adding to the complexity is that Idlib Province—which Syrian-led forces last year aimed to reconquer until a supposed agreement transformed the region into a "de-escalation zone"—has almost entirely been overrun by the al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, raising the specter of another major battle in a sensitive area straddling the Turkish border and Assad's coastal Alawite stronghold. Finally, Russia's nightmarish week ended with Hassan Nasrallah—chief of Iran's Lebanon-based Hizbullah proxy—warning that his terror army, portions of which are stationed in Syria, is liable to begin responding militarily to Israeli air strikes.
Notwithstanding the quagmire, some observers still argue that Russia has not bitten off more than it can chew and that the relatively limited military resources invested in Syria have enabled the Kremlin to project a disproportionate amount of power globally.
"Russia's goal to stabilize the Assad regime has been quite successful and it is now looking to expand the territory Damascus controls. Meanwhile, Moscow has secured access to a warm-water [military] port in the Mediterranean and created an air force base in the Latakia region," Yaakov Lappin, a Middle East specialist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, explained to The Media Line.
"Nevertheless, this was achieved by teaming up with the Iranian axis which is starting to create problems. Russia's interests are starting to diverge from those of Tehran and there are public signs of this, including the statement by the deputy foreign minister about not being aligned with [the Islamic Republic]. Forcing Iran out of Syria is likely to be Russia's most difficult challenge as [the mullahs] have no intention of leaving. This also means that the shadow war between Israel and Tehran will continue and might lead to serious consequences."
Indeed, the combustible status quo that has persisted in Syria for some time can at any point unravel, with Russia primed to bear the brunt of the responsibility. Whatever the result Moscow is liable to learn the hard way what all relevant parties have long known: namely, that peace and quiet is a dynamic as foreign to this region as the Russian Bear was for the better part of four decades.
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