Why Russia is suddenly interested in Syria’s civil war

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
September 9, 2015

For days now, reports have been circulating on increased Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, including attacks against Islamic State with Russian aircraft and the appearance of more advanced Russian weaponry than heretofore seen. This prompted a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

The White House, while not confirming increased Russian presence, said it would be watching the situation closely and described the additional presence of Russian forces in Syria as counterproductive, destabilizing and an expansion of the conflict.

That last part is a little rich; it is difficult to imagine how a civil war that has lasted four years, and by most accounts killed 300,000 people and created millions of refugees, could become any more expansive in its effect. Paradoxically, if the increased Russian presence is true, it may in fact hasten an end to the conflict.

However, it is important to understand why Russia chose this moment to move, when it could have done so at any time.

Russia has long-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and along with China vetoed any UN-sanctioned security efforts in Syria due to how the Responsibility to Protect norm in Libya morphed into opportunity to overthrow. For years, Mr. al-Assad held on to power while what once might have been called a democratic opposition was eclipsed by and co-opted by various jihadi extremist groups.

But this stalemate, which prevailed for the past three years, has shifted toward a situation in which Mr. al-Assad is losing ground. He admitted as much earlier this year saying that “we will have to focus on areas that are key to us, we cannot defend everywhere.” What Mr. al-Assad is defending is his power base, which is an Alawite minority (a Shia offshoot) and the Christian population, which numbered between 10 and 12 per cent of Syria’s population at the start of the war in a land that is predominantly Sunni.

With Mr. al-Assad now controlling only 17 per cent of the country, and fighting on an axis running from Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Latakia (oddly enough the centres of Alawite and Christian populations), the fear is that without any discernible moderate opposition the groups best positioned to take advantage of an Assad collapse are IS – the best organized – and any number of splinter Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front. IS was not spawned by the Syrian civil war but took advantage of it, flowing in from Iraq. The thought of a clear victory by IS or some other Sunni Islamist group is unimaginable to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For Mr. Putin, Islamist success in Syria will reverberate in his own backyard in Chechnya – a number of the best IS field commanders are Chechen. An Assad collapse potentially leaves Syria as one mega-jihadist state, or splintered into two or more Islamist states. Often forgotten in the West is that the majority of Christians in Syria, the land of one of the oldest Patriarchates in Christendom (the Patriarchate of Antioch) – founded by Peter and Paul in 34 AD before Peter founded the Holy See in Rome – is resident in Damascus and has collegial relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Mr. Putin, who portrays himself as the “defender of the faith” of Orthodox values, has a close alliance with the Moscow Patriarchate and its Eastern Orthodox interpretation of history.

Russia has, however, recently made statements to the effect that it is not tied personally to Mr. al-Assad, hinting that power-sharing or elections could occur – a likely code to mean that Alawite and Christian minority rights would have to be respected and protected. Equally, any effort that abets the so-far anemic efforts to dismantle the Islamic State should be welcomed.

No solution will be perfect by any means. In Iraq, the Kurds will likely not get their state and, at best, keep their autonomy. Fledgling steps at Shia-Sunni reconciliation in Iraq may take hold. In Syria, Mr. al-Assad should end up retired in a Crimean dacha, and Moscow will undoubtedly keep its port facilities on the Syrian coast. But if any combination of these factors leads to the conflict ending and IS dismantled, then the world will be better off, if very imperfectly.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.

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