U.S. communication with Russia to de-conflict counterterrorism operations in Syria has been dealt a hefty blow by the suspension of bilateral talks over the fate of Syria, Monday October 3, 2016. The same day, Russia deployed its advanced S-300VM Antey-2500 defense system, (a cutting-edge anti-missile system, which NATO calls SA-23 Gladiator missile) to Syria for the first time. Such system had never been deployed outside Russia.
The move, the latest in a series of maneuvers, is an indication that Moscow continues to ramp up its military operations in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. The move is also interpreted in geo-political terms as Russia’s show of indignation to US policy in Syria or the Middle East generally. Further, the move is interpreted to signal Russia’s assertiveness and demand for respect in international politics. We are inclined to believe in the plausibility of all three. The move also coincides with Russia suspending an agreement with the US on disposing enough weapons-grade plutonium to make 17,000 nuclear weapons due to alleged “unfriendly acts” by the US towards Russia.
The Syrian situation is a sorry, sour chapter in the history of mankind. How did we get here and why has the international community stood unconcerned and watch the stagnation and decay till now? The insipid desire for regime change and the haste for colouring every insurgency as pro-democratic have caused the use of unilateral interventions to cause chaos in most parts of the world. Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and lately, Syria are clear cases in point. Such interventions that have ideological and/or geo-political considerations have always met with resistance and created instability both locally and globally. The US (Obama) has accepted that ‘Libya was a mistake’, but so are all such interventions – Iraq, Afghanistan, and, especially, Syria. These interventions have assisted in festering terrorism and created chaos for the whole world (consider the rise of terrorist activities, not only in the areas under discussion, but also in Europe – especially France, Belgium, and Germany. Note also the problem of immigration that has torn Europe apart). The rise and increasing poison of Al-Qaeda and ISIS may be attributed to unilateralism, especially of the US and the West.
Specific to Syria, the West, led by the US, labelled the uprising five years ago as part of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. The US quickly rallied behind the anti-Assad elements (the Free Syrian Army), urging them and supplying them with intelligence and materiel. I fact, the US Secretary of State promised (and subsequently doled out) One Hundred Million US dollars ($100mln.) as support for efforts to oust Al-Assad. The demand for regime change was outrageous, since a vacuum would have been created. Soon it was clear that the anti-Assad forces were themselves not united. It gave rise to the ISIS and even as the situation grew worse, the US was still demanding the ouster of the Syrian regime. Russia, as a long-time ally of the Syrian government could not stay unconcerned. It had backed the Syrian government to the hilt and asked for a one-fist approach to exterminating terrorism. To them all rebellion is terrorism. They would not discriminate between the so-called pro-democracy forces and ISIS, something that obviously would not be acceptable to the US. The ground was therefore prepared for an un-avoidable clash between the US and Russia, which clash we are seeing now. In the midst of all these, Russia felt threatened as NATO kept moving eastward, urging Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics to join NATO. Russia would in geo-political terms, assert itself by annexing Crimea and supporting rebellion in Ukraine. Russia would go further by exploiting US foreign policy weakness in the Middle East to establish a base in Syria and deploying troops.
In 2013, President Obama weighed military action against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities as well as airbases housing the regime’s attack helicopters and jets. US Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean were prepared to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles in a limited strike to cripple the regime. But Obama was hesitant. Russia came in to suggest alternative measures; that saved Obama from humiliation (having failed to honour the promise of attacking, if Assad would use chemical weapons). Subsequently, Russia deployed a separate air defense system, the S-400, to Syria after a Russian jet was shot down by a Turkish warplane last November. Since then, the U.S. military has been careful about flying manned aircraft inside the range of the system, despite repeated pledges by the US military that its airstrikes in Syria are focused on ISIS, not the Assad regime. Russia virtually, by this, had imposed a no-fly zone over Syria. Before then, long-range bombers, flying from Russia and Iran, have also been used to attack Syrian rebels and ISIS positions.
Somehow, the US led efforts to find a common solution by inviting the Russians to discuss Syria. A ceasefire agreement was brokered only to be broken by a US strike which killed about sixty Syrian government troops. A day later, a UN convoy, carrying medical and food supplies was hit by missiles. Two hospitals were also hit. While Russia pointed at the US the latter pointed the other direction and called for UN action against Russia. It was in the fury of accusations that Russia pulled out and has deployed one of the most modern and sophisticated of her arsenals (the S-300VM Antey-2500 or, in NATO terms, the SA-23) in Syria. Syria has launched an all-out push for Allepo the second largest city. The humanitarian conditions are unimaginable.
Whither now Syria is the question on the lips of every observer. Indeed, U.S./Russia relations are at a new post-Cold War low, each side blames the other for Syria’s failure in nearly apoplectic tones.
Russia is looking for respect for its geo-political interest and recognition of her as a power. This is discernible from the show of force. None of the rebel groups to be targeted have air forces. The new deployment of the SA-23s are meant as a show of force for respect. It is also meant to alert the West of Russia’s readiness to call the latter’s bluff, where international politics is concerned. According to Peter Doran, vice president of research at The Center for European Policy has noted that ‘by deploying the anti-missile system, Putin is trying to set up a “military bubble” in Syria and deter the U.S. from using air power’. Russia knows clearly, that the US has ran out of options on Syria and is therefore, raising the stakes. One Russian political commentator, Leonid Radzikhovsky, sums it all up: “Russian foreign policy is all about the battle for America’s respect. There’s nothing else in our foreign policy”.
The impotence of the United Nations in all this is what is worrisome. How long will unilateralism continue to exacerbate global instability? The question of Syria lies in a UN-brokered peace talks in which Assad and/or his government is a variable.