By Usman Butt
At the time of writing the situation inside Syria remains fluid. The Russian-sponsored ceasefire that came into effect on December 29 has largely held out across the country, but there have been violations with regime forces shelling Wadi Barada and local oppositional forces threatening to walk away from the ceasefire if this does not stop. The troubles of the ceasefire are predictable and will likely get worse. While the ceasefire is projected in the international media as yet another triumph for Putin and an ascendant Russia, the truth is that the ceasefire may unwittingly unravel the idea of Russian global power.
The Troubled Origins of Russia’s Intervention in Syria
Before we can examine the issues with the ceasefire, we must first understand how Russia came to intervene in Syria in the first place. Russia has been a long-time ally of the Syrian regime going back decades. The current Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s father, Hafez al Assad, trained in the Soviet Union as a fighter pilot before taking power himself. Events inside Libya would shape the decision to actively back Assad against the Syrian opposition in 2011. On October 20th, 2011, images beamed out of Sirte in Libya deeply shocked, frightened and enraged, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Gaddafi’s mutilated and battered body was presented to the world by the Libyan rebels who had executed him. Gaddafi’s death, which was the result of the Libyan popular uprising against his regime and aided by NATO airstrikes, had all the ingredients to terrify any Russian ruler.
The idea of popular protest is something that has frightened every Russian ruler since the times of the Tsar. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the introduction of democracy seemingly weakened Russia’s standing in the world, and this impression is firm in the minds of people like Putin and his officials. Authoritarian regimes have the same fears and think alike, and it’s not hard to image what might have been going through Putin’s head as images of Gaddafi crawling out of a sewer pipe were broadcast. What annoyed Putin more is the way Russia had been sidelined when the Libyan intervention by NATO was decided. Putin had not been president when the UN vote on Libyan intervention was passed. He blamed President Medvedev for allowing this to happen and decided the following year he would take over as president again. Nothing could be done about Libya and so Syria became the focus.
However, Putin’s plans for Syria nearly came crashing down on August 21, 2013, following the Syrian government’s sarin gas attack on rebel-held Damascus-neighbourhood, eastern Ghouta, in-which 1, 500 people had died. The Obama administration had said the previous year that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a red-line for the United States. President Obama had always been hesitant on the issue of state-to-state confrontation, using Special Forces and drones to take on terrorist movements was his focus, so long as local governments did not object. Libya was an exception, and this was only done due to European arm twisting. The world fully expected America to respond with force against the Syrian regime, much of his administration believed that Obama would act against Assad. Military officials, civil servants, and Obama’s cabinet had drawn up plans for military action, and everyone had gathered in the Oval office waiting for the final go-ahead from Obama. To their surprise, Obama did not give his approval. Privately, the Israelis were back channeling to Moscow looking for a way to prevent military action against Assad. Once the Israelis sensed Obama’s reluctance, they approached his administration with the Russian channel. Between them, they agreed that Russia would use their influence in Syria to help disarm the regime of its chemical weapons in exchange for American assurances not to strike the Assad regime.
This was a crucial moment. The Russians interpreted America’s acceptance of the deal as weakness, and it’s important to keep in mind that the ascent of Russia in the Middle East has less to do with Russian strength and more to do with American weakness. Russia used this interpretation a few months later after the Ukrainian revolution when it decided to invade and annex Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The failure of the West to respond to the Ukrainian crisis and the European Union’s inability to deal with the refugee crisis emboldened Putin and informed his decision to openly intervene in Syria in September 2015. We should pause for a moment here and also remember that Syria is roughly 500 miles from Russia’s southern, and troubled, border region of the Caucasus, while that sounds far for many, to Russian ears that sounds dangerously near.
There are a few other points we need to consider here. Prior to the Russian intervention on September 30, 2015, Russia had been active in Syria and intervened in the conflict in various ways, some of which are forgotten today. The critical area is the rise of both ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra in Iraq and Syria. In January 2014, the winter Olympics were being held in the Russian city, Sochi, which was formerly a Muslim majority state before Russia’s annexation of the area in the 19th century. Most of the Circassians in the Middle East today are descendants of Muslim communities expelled from the region of which Sochi is the capital.
The Russians were expecting protests and other possible action due to their decision to hold the Olympics there. Russia also had a further problem; a little farther south is Chechnya, which still has Islamist militancy in operation. Sochi would be a tempting target for them, and this would weaken Russia’s image around the world. The trouble was that Russia could not kill or capture all of the militants’ in time and to launch a military escalation would only create more militants. Thus in 2013, they began arresting a handful of Chechen Islamist leaders and cutting deals with them, which included new identities, passports, and money to leave the country and head to Syria. The plan was quite successful as many Chechen militants followed these leaders into Syria and thus established a network that ISIS and al Nusra would draw upon.
This does not mean Russia created ISIS purposely but does demonstrate Russia’s reactive nature to the Syrian crisis. It’s this lack of overall thought and improvisation that characterizes Russia’s approach to Syria. In Washington and London, there are countless think tanks, universities, and journalists who specialize in analyzing events in the Middle East and beyond. These experts build up language skills, local contacts and follow events closely. Governments in America, Britain and European Union states, have a revolving door culture that allows these experts to come in and out of government departments to advise them on what is happening and how to respond. These governments don’t only have to rely on diplomats and intelligence reports. In Moscow, this culture is relatively absent, and the extent to which the Russian government understood the ground situation in Syria is highly questionable.
The Aftermath of Intervention
Russia’s international goals for the Syrian intervention were clear. To project Russian strength on the world stage, be the center of attention, and to be taken seriously as a world power by the United States. The situation was terrible for the Syrian regime and in July 2015 President Assad acknowledged publicly the seriousness of the losses suffered by his forces. He seemed to be admitting that his forces were either collapsing or on the verge of collapse. Iranian military officials traveled to Moscow to ask for Russia’s help, and this was followed by a visit from Assad himself. Russia sensed an opportunity and took it. Russia’s essential goal upon entering the conflict was to prevent the collapse of the regime and to freeze the fighting. The idea was to cut a deal with the United States and bring the fighting to an end with Assad retaining Damascus and other key cities.
However, once Russia had intervened they found that their goals were nearly impossible to achieve due to the conflicting nature of Assad’s allies. The Syrian army had been reduced to a fifth of its pre-2011 size. Reflecting upon the state of the Syrian army, one Russian general wrote that Syrian soldiers were poorly motivated, corrupt and exhausted from the fighting. He went on to say that Russia would effectively have to re-build the entire army from scratch. What made matters more complicated for the Russian military was the fact that most of the fighting on behalf of the regime was being done by a series of different militias, private armies, and mercenaries. There was no overall command structure, and while each group had pledged allegiance to Assad, they weren’t taking orders from him, and each of the militias hated one another. This inter-militia rivalry cost the Syrian regime Palmyra in 2015, when the two tribes entrusted with holding the city on behalf of the Assad regime, began fighting one another, which resulted in both groups pulling out and ISIS walking in.
There is a further division between the militias we need to take note off. Local Syrian and Palestinian tribes and groups, and International Shia Jihadis groups. The Syrian tribes are usually local to the areas they fight in, and their numbers vary. While they have pledged their loyalty to Assad personally, the Syrian regime does not control them, and this causes tension within the regime itself. In July 2016, the Tiger Force (Pro-Assad Tribal militia) captured Rammousa (outskirts of Aleppo) and re-took apartment complex 300, which use to house Syrian army officers and their families. Once they took the complex, despite efforts by the Syrian army to stop them, the Tiger Force began looting from the apartments and taking stuff that belonged to the officer’s families. They saw it as their reward for fighting, and the regime could do nothing to stop them. The Shia militias who come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon (including Hezbollah) do much of the actual fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, but as the Syrian militias, they do not take orders from Assad, rather they follow direction from Tehran. Iranian generals usually plan Syrian regime military efforts and almost never consult Syrian generals, only bothering to inform them when they need them to do something specifically.
This complex patchwork of groups and command structures made life difficult for the Russians. For the most part, they couldn’t understand it and did not know who was in charge or who they were meant to be supporting in battle. The fluidity on the ground and poor communication have led to numerous cases of friendly fire. In spring last year, when pro-Assad forces launched operations to recapture Palmyra, the Syrian army moved its unit away from Palmyra and towards the coast, but the Russians mistook the army unit for an anti-Assad rebel faction and bombed them. In the first three months of the Russian intervention in Syria, pro-Assad forces had launched 17 offensives with Russian air support to recapture areas held by the Syrian opposition. Each time, pro-Assad forces would take an area, but within a few days, would lose the newly conquered territory to the opposition forces. Pro-Assad forces could take an area with Russian support but not hold it; a very serious problem for the Russians.
What was meant to be quick glory was slowly turning into a protracted conflict that would swallow more Russian resources. Russia’s economy was weak (and still is), and they could not afford to fight in a long-drawn-out fashion. To make matters worse, every time Russia would help Assad forces with an offensive, the Americans would abandon peace talks with them, leaving Russia to hold a broken country. Whenever the Russians would try to negotiate a ceasefire with the Americans, the Iranian would sabotage it, and Assad would not co-operate with the Russians on enforcing a ceasefire. This leads to the other problem in Syria. Russia’s goal was to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime, Iran and Assad’s goal is to re-claim the whole country, the difference in the two strategies are stark, especially when you consider what has just been outlined. It would take years for Assad to reclaim the whole country, cost the Russians billions and wear down their military.
Iranian and Assad attempts to derail the peace process meant that Russia’s strategy for a quick exit was out of the question. The inability to control the Iranians and Assad is a constant source of problems for the Russians. With the Americans refusing to talk, the Russians were forced to bow to Iranian and Assad pressure and launch an offensive to take Eastern Aleppo towards the end of last year. The Russians timed the operation for East Aleppo to happen during the American elections and took full advantage of it. Eastern Aleppo allowed Russia to project its strength and create facts on the ground. It’s what laid the groundwork for the ceasefire agreement with Turkey.
The capture of eastern Aleppo gave Russia significant leverage and increased its international image as a rising power. There are consequences for the Russian government in involving itself in the Syrian conflict which could harm Russian ambitions in the region. The first consequence is that Russia is increasingly despised and hated across the Arab world, while regional regimes are trying to cut deals with the Kremlin, the populous of many of these countries identify Russia as an Islamophobic and anti-Arab aggressor. Such identifications in an unstable Arab world are quite dangerous, as regimes that Russia is now dealing with may not last and Moscow could be left out in the cold if any popular-uprising led regime change occurs. Elsewhere, Russia has already gotten a taste of its unpopularity with the assassination Andrey Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, last month, by a gunman invoking Aleppo.
The second consequence happened during the Aleppo ceasefire and evacuations of eastern Aleppo, which preceded the current ceasefire. 100, 000 civilians were trapped as Iranian-backed forces, Russian Special Forces and a handful of Syrian militias closed in on them. Russia by-passed Iran and Assad and cut a deal with Turkey to remove the remaining civilians. The Iranians were unhappy as not only had they not been consulted but some reports suggested that Tehran wanted to go further and make an example of the entrapped residents. This difference played itself out on the day the evacuations were due to begin. Russian soldiers took up monitoring positions and buses arrived to start the evacuations, and civilians got onto the buses and passed Russian checkpoints, but as soon as they did, militias backed by Iran turned up and began opening fire and forced the buses to stop. Russian officers went to find out what was happening and were admonished by Iranian military personnel. The Iranians made addition demands not agreed by Russia with Turkey or the Syrian opposition. The demands were eventually agreed to, and the evacuations resumed.
The evacuations from eastern Aleppo, although illegal under international law as the forceful deportation of civilians is a war crime and covered in the UN Genocide Convention, nonetheless paved the way for the current nationwide ceasefire and a possible peace process. Turkey, the Assad regime, the Syrian opposition (civil and rebel groups) and Iran signed onto the ceasefire and will partake in the Russian peace process. Russia wants Saudi Arabia to be at the table too, but Iran is trying to block their participation, and it’s questionable whether or not this peace process will actually take-off or if the current ceasefire will hold.
Warning signs that the ceasefire might collapse appeared within days of it starting. Despite the ceasefire, Hezbollah forces have continued attacks on Wadi Barada claiming that Al-Qaeda affiliates still hold the area, which is not true, and the situation is ongoing. Russia has tried to stop the fighting and send in monitors to the besieged area, but their monitors have been obstructed and prevented from entering by Hezbollah forces. It’s unclear how this will play out, and serious questions about Russia’s influence over the different pro-Assad factions persist.
Beyond Wadi Barada, the idea of the peace process is quite fragile; fundamentally all sides want different and contradictory things from one another. Turkey is key to the whole process: despite articles lampooning Turkish foreign policy failures in Syria, Turkey has succeeded in securing itself a stake in Syria’s future, put simply, no important decision about Syria can be made without Turkey. Turkey wants Idlib and northern Aleppo province to remain in Syrian opposition hands, and it wants a free hand in northern Syria. It seeks to crush both ISIS and the Kurdish PYD-forces, set-up a no bombing zone, and allow Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to northern Syria. The Iranians and Assad want to regain control of the whole of Syria, and the Syrian opposition wants to negotiate Assad’s exit, and Russia intends to get out of the Syrian conflict with its interests in the country secured.
To do what Iran wants means escalating the war and Russia calling on more resources, which is does not want to do, but Iran might try to sabotage the whole peace process if Russia doesn’t do it. The Syrian opposition is threatening to walk away if breaches of the current ceasefire continue, and the rapprochement with Turkey will fail if Russia does not deliver, leaving Russia more, and not less, isolated on the international stage. And this is without discussing what to do with ISIS, which adds a further layer of problems. While Iran might be considering replacing Assad in a few years time with a ‘less controversial’ Alawite president, this is unlikely to improve the situation as the same fundamental problem would exist, and the cycle of war will continue.
The whole world is watching, and if Russia fails to deliver on a peace process, it could well be the unmaking of Russian power.
Usman Butt is a freelance journalist and political analyst who contributes articles to The Huffington Post and Muftah. He is also a television and documentary researcher & maker. He recently made Aleppo: Life under Siege with BBC Panorama (Worldwide and Arabic). @theusmanbutt