A Different Take on Russia’s Move in Syria

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Aziz Shah-Mohammadi

A) Assessment of Russia’s military action in Syria in terms of its strategy and its impact on international security, regional security and crisis control

a. International security

i. During political crises in Georgia and Ukraine, West tried to depict a blood thirsty image of Russia and while attempting to show its President Vladimir Putin as a dictator, went as far as imposing sanctions on Moscow.

ii. West does not want to see Russia led by a powerful leader, but it is willing for countries like Russia to be ruled by the same type of democracy, which prevails in, for example, Bangladesh in which regardless of who wins elections, the losing party accuses them of cheating in elections. They want voting and election to continue in Russia, but without the most important advantage of democracy, which is establishment of stability in the country.

iii. By taking part in efforts aimed at restricting Iran's nuclear program and by launching military strikes against the positions of terrorists in Syria, Russia has been trying to introduce itself as an effective and useful member of international community and part of the solution to providing international security. In doing so, Putin has also retouched the general image of Russia.

iv. The role that Russia played in promoting the nonproliferation regime and fighting against terrorism put a practical end to the monopoly that West had on these issues. It ended West’s monopoly on defining action and inaction and its monopoly on determining what is nonproliferation and what is not, and also terminated West’s monopoly on determining who is a terrorist and who is not.

v. In 2015, Russia took effective steps and ended the unilateral regime that had governed the world since the 1990s; a regime, which had arisen out of a unipolar world in which Americans were the sole commentator and agent of that regime, and a regime in which good and evil were determined by the United States as a hegemonic power. With regard to Iran's nuclear issue and by attacking terrorists’ positions in Syria, Russia took part in providing a new definition of the fundaments of the nonproliferation regime and the fight on terror, and became a partner to any initiative in these two fields. Of course, the role played by Russia Alyoum television network must not be ignored.

b. Regional security

i. When attacking the positions of terrorists in Syria, Russia both did a good thing, and did it well. The timing of the operations was also extraordinary. The extraordinary timing chosen for Russia’s military operations in Syria had little to do with developments in the war theaters, but the main cover was storming of European mainland by a flood of asylum seekers. The issue of asylum seekers was first raised as a threat to international peace and security by the Islamic Republic of Iran in a letter sent to the United Nations Security Council when the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, attacked Kuwait as a result of which 2.5 million Iraqi and Kuwaiti asylum seekers arrived in Iran. Through an initiative by France, that letter was registered as a Security Council document and for the first time, the United States used it as a ground to attack Haiti. The second time that the letter was used as a ground for military action was by Italy when the government in Rome considered influx of asylum seekers from Kosovo toward Europe as a threat and asked the NATO to take action against the regime of the then Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević. This issue has not been raised with regard to the influx into Europe of Syrian asylum seekers yet, but Europe had this issue in mind. Russia, for its part, was aware of this situation and in addition to pursing its own interests, took a step to suppress terrorists in Syria on behalf of the Western European countries, thus, reducing the movement of asylum seekers toward Europe.

ii. Turkey is now playing the same role that Pakistan did when it supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is now a base for supporting terrorists in the neighboring Syria, which has practically turned into a workshop for promoting global terrorism. Therefore, Russia appeared more rational than Europe and the United States in this regard and targeted a terrorist current, which compared to Afghanistan, has gotten thousands of kilometers closer to borders of Europe and Russia.

iii. Russia, which is facing the threat of disintegration, cannot agree to alterations in borders, which may not necessarily mean division of countries, but may cause Moscow to have to face ethnos-state and religion-state phenomena instead of the nation-state phenomenon. In other words, when change in borders is going to be the result of efforts similar to those made by Lawrence of Arabia or an outcome of treaties like the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the final output would be creation of new states in the Middle East tantamount to the number of the existing ethnic groups and religions. The results of such a change would be certainly beyond the power of countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to adapt to.

c. Crisis control

i. Russia knows that none of the problems plaguing the Middle East have been ever solved during the past 70 years. Poverty, corruption and dictatorship as well as all kinds of territorial, border, political and other differences are still in place with full force. Therefore, if Russia could play a decisive role in controlling the crisis in the Middle East, it would be an important accomplishment and if it proves able to play a role in totally freezing the crisis, it would be a great feat.

ii. Therefore, thinking that Russia was supposed to stay in Syria up to the end of the crisis – and only God knows where the end of the crisis in the Middle East is – and continue its military operations, would be a mistake.

B) Military aspect of Russia’s move

I don’t call Russia’s withdrawal from “overactive” operations in Syria as retreat, but I call it a “move.” But why I call it a move?

i. There is an old military adage, which says enemies learn from each other. It means that apart from what every soldier learns in training camps and military academies, warriors also learn from each other in the battlefield. Military experiences since the 1980s have proven that a regular army has no chance in the face of an irregular guerrilla, terrorist, or resistance force. The experience of the former Soviet Union against the Afghan Mujahedeen, the experience of the Turkish army against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the experience of the United States against the Taliban, the experience of the United States  in Somalia, the experience of the United States in Iraq, and the experience of Israel in the face of the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas movement, and also the experience of the Syrian army against terrorists operating in that country all attest to the fact that a regular army is nagged by the phenomenon of “the limitations on power” and has no choice, but to make recourse to some tactics of irregular war. Therefore, if a regular army thinks about entering a war, it must think about how to get out of it as well.

ii. With this introduction in mind, just imagine that the entry of the Russian military forces into Syria was a guerrilla operation and guerrilla pilots have returned to their bases after termination of their operations.

iii. The bottom line is that Russian’s military assault and subsequent withdrawal from Syria must be considered as a combat tactic, which combines regular and irregular forms of war, and also avails itself of lessons learned through previous wars.

iv. The fact that Russians embarked on this military move without informing their allies, although unpleasant in emotional terms, is rooted in the history of military operations. A military superpower is never willing to make implementation of its initiatives conditional on the discretion and consent of its allies. This is why NATO’s military commander is always an American general, although its secretary general is usually a European figure. Therefore, when it comes to military and strategic issues, the United States never looks for a partner, but only looks for followers.

In short, Russians have not wasted their time from 1990 to 2015, have read a lot of books, and have continuously updated their contingent plans.

Key WordsRussia, Move, Syria, Military Action, Democracy, Iran's Nuclear Program, West’s Monopoly, European Mainland, United Nations Security Council, Crisis Control, Regional Security, International Security, Military Aspect, NATO, Shah-Mohammadi

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