Russia has dramatically stepped up its air campaign against foes of President Bashar al-Assad, with heavy bombing by warplanes and cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea. Moscow says it is striking the Islamic State (IS) jihadist organization and “other terrorists”. Using Sukhoi Su-34, Sukhoi Su-24M and Sukhoi Su-25, the Russians have succeeded in hitting IS strongholds near populated areas in Homs province, and 11 training camps linked to the group in Hama and Raqa provinces. The Russian air campaign has provided cover for Assad’s ground troops, who had lost swathes of the north, east, and south of the country to jihadists and rebel groups since the conflict erupted in 2011.
By deciding to boldly meddle in the affairs of Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin looks as if he had pulled off a masterful power play in the Middle East. At least, his posture at the podium of the United Nations’ just ended Assembly seems to suggest so. Sunni factions already fighting in Syria are now extremely furious over Russian attempts to bolster the Assad regime. And so are the traditional financial patrons of militant Islam in the Middle East as well as Western powers, including the US. The Saudis have now openly called for an end to Russian airstrikes. One US-backed rebel faction, Suqur al-Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain), has accused Russian warplanes of destroying its arms depots and wounding several of its fighters.
Both the US and NATO, who are carrying out their own air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, have voiced alarm at Moscow’s escalating military activity in the country, accusing Moscow of targeting Western-backed moderate rebels and seeking to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally. Putin has hit back at the West, criticizing Washington for refusing to share intelligence with Russia on Syria and accusing it of muddled thinking.
Truly, on the Syrian question, Putin has been smarter, more pragmatic, and calculatedly realistic. While standing by his longtime ally, Assad, Moscow studied the seemingly misguided approach, adopted by Washington and its allies- the approach that supported anti-Assad forces (in a loose coalition by name ‘Free Syria Army’) with money, intelligence, and logistics. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, had openly supported the group with $100 million. Most of the weapons, supplied to the group finally fell into the hands of the ISIS. Recently, President Obama had to express regret at this turn of events, promising a revision of the policy. Again, in the resolution of the Syrian question, the US and its Western allies insisted on regime change, stressing that Assad should not play any role in the re-configuration of Syria, a policy that played into the hands of ISIS and their collaborators.
The Russians, on the other hand, insisted on Assad, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia being veritable variables in re-crafting Syria. Meanwhile, in the stalemate (Assad hanging precariously on to power in the face of the impotence of the so-called Free Syria Army), the ISIS grew stronger, capturing large swathes of territory. With American leadership (in geopolitical terms) completely fading and the US public not ready to allow US boots on Syrian soil, the need for action became paramount. Russia saw an opportunity to release the burden of isolation (sanctions etc.as a result of the Ukrainian problem), unleashed by the US and its NATO allies, off its shoulders and take the mantle of responsible leadership. She started building alliances. Just days before Russia launched its air campaign in Syria, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was in Moscow to open a new mosque with his friend Vladimir Putin. Erdogan lauded the way trade between the two countries had risen to $31 billion in 2014 (from $5 billion in 2002, the year Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won power). The Turkish leader set a target of $100 billion by 2020. In April, works for a nuclear plant on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a $20 billion Russian contract was started. Last year, the two countries agreed to build a pipeline taking up to 63 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to Europe each year. The Iranians were fully supported by Russia and a coalition for alliance in dealing with the upsurge of Sunni Jihadists was initiated among Iran, Iraq (the two have Shite majorities), and Russia. In July, Saudi Arabia announced an investment plan of up to $10 billion in Russian agricultural projects, medicine, logistics and the retail and real estate sectors. This was soon followed by the two countries appending signatures to a nuclear power cooperation deal, including potential upcoming arms deals. Clearly then, the Russians prepared the grounds for entering Syria. Even though both the Saudis and the Turks are angered by the smart move, they have neither the moral and/or military capacity to confront the Russians at this time except to ‘bark’ and ‘howl’. With the history of interventions in Afghanistan (1979-1989) in thought, the Russians know the price for entering Syria. But this time they have been smart. Already Russia’s embassy compound in Damascus has been struck by two rockets and Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, with its chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, has urged jihadists in the Caucasus and other Jihadists around the world to target Russians. Indeed, as already indicated, the scores of Sunni factions already fighting in Syria are now nearly unanimous in their fury over Russian attempts to bolster the Assad regime.
The latest smart move of the Russians is the call for a meeting of Generals from the US and Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to share information and map out strategies to defeat ISIS once and for all. To US President Barack Obama, who has arguably looked weakest as a result of Putin’s muscling into Syria, these moves cannot be pleasant. The US has on the contrary, indicated a desire to revise policy – to be selective in which rebel group to support. Already there is a new coalition of anti-Assad forces, which the US Generals are urging Obama to support. But for any proxy group to succeed they will need to raise the cost of strikes from Russian and Syrian warplanes. U.S.-backed rebels, especially the new coalition, have requested anti-aircraft weapons to do just that. It’s unclear whether their requests will be met.
The only answer to the spread of jihadism and to an end to the turmoil in the Middle East is a global coalition against ISIS and terrorism generally. A desire for regime change is not the answer. The most immediate need is the defeat of ISIS and the stabilization of the Middle East. Even though what the Russians have started may seem to inure to the benefit of their geopolitical interest, a concerted effort should be made to either support or modify their move. African countries must raise their voices, especially through the UN for a proper resolution of the problem in Syria.