Russia Tests American Power In The Middle East And Throws An Enduring Peace Solution Into Shadow

Much to Americas chagrin, Russia is becoming increasingly embroiled in the Middle East after backing the controversial government of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. The recently struck United States (US) – Russia airspace agreement reflects a growing consensus that these states must regulate their operations to avoid friendly fire over the battlefield. Russia began airstrikes in response to a ‘request’ for assistance by Assad to dismantle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and anti-government rebel forces on September 30 2015. Russian strikes have led to scores of casualties, and a most recent strike in the rebel-held area of north-western Latakia province on October 19 led to an estimated 44 deaths and an unknown amount of civilian casualties. The conflict is entering its 5th year and is becoming increasingly intractable as Iran, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement are supporting the Alawite-led Assad government, whilst Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, US, the United Kingdom, France, and other coalition forces support the moderate Sunni-dominated opposition. Hezbollah and Iran are believed to have sent in ground troops whilst a US-led coalition and Russia carry out airstrikes. Russian President Putin’s increased involvement in the Syrian conflict has led some to argue that Russia is supplanting America as the central interventionist power in the Middle East.

Tensions are high between Russia and the US who are backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War proxy wars. The US reported that American and Russian planes had ‘entered the same battle space’ last week and came within visual contact of each other at around 10-20 miles —or 15-30 kilometers— apart. This resulted in the signing of a memorandum to regulate air traffic over the warzone, which had been under construction since September. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook informed BBC that the text will remain secret on Moscow’s request and that the agreement establishes professional airmanship, a special communication frequency, and an emergency hotline on the ground. Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said the memorandum “contains a number of rules and restrictions aimed at preventing incidents between American and Russian planes.” The US and Russia will not share intelligence on targets but would ensure aircraft stay a ‘safe’ distance from each other. However, the Pentagon could not confirm the exact distance. This agreement does not address Turkish concerns regarding increasing Russian intrusions of its airspace. Senator John McCain said that the US-Russian deal was ‘immoral’ as it gave Putin a “green light to bomb American allies.” Air Force Secretary Deborah James disputed this and told the USA Today editorial board on Wednesday that it was an airspace accident prevention mechanism.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow three weeks after Russia began airstrikes against ISIL and anti-government forces, to the condemnation of the White House. This marked President Assad’s first international trip since civil war and extremism took hold of Syria in 2011. Mr. Assad thanked Putin for his allied assistance in preventing ‘terrorism’ from becoming “more widespread and harmful” in Syria. Mr. Putin’s welcoming of Assad showed the West that Russia is a key player in the Middle East and that it is central to the resolution of the Syrian crisis. White House Spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters, “we view the red carpet welcome for Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, at odds with the stated goals by the Russians for a political transition in Syria.” The US is primarily concerned about Russia’s continuing military support, which has served to protract the conflict that has claimed a quarter of a million lives and further displace millions of Syrians who have fled abroad. Following Assad’s visit, Putin spoke to Middle Eastern leaders, including those of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed that the visit demonstrated that “the Syrian government has no legitimacy left.”

On October 19, an estimated 45 people were killed by Russian fighter planes in Western Syria according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog. The attacks targeted the rebel-held Latakia province in the Jabal al-Akrad region of the regime-held Jatakia province on Tuesday. Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory, said the number of civilians among the casualties was undetermined. Rahman said that dozens had been wounded and the number of dead could increase as those with serious injuries succumbed to their wounds. Those killed include rebel fighters, families, and a rebel commander who was chief-of-staff of the First Coastal Division group, a faction fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. The far northern coastal area of Latakia has seen opposition forces gaining in Jabal al-Akrad region. Putin stated in a speech to military and intelligence commanders in the Kremlin “the operation has confirmed that Russia is ready to adequately and effectively respond to terrorist and other threats to our country.” Russia claims to have hit 500 ‘terrorist’ targets since launching the campaign in September 2014.

The US and Russia are backing opposing sides of the Syrian civil war to attain differing political objectives. The Russian dictatorship is utilising its regional power to support Assad’s totalitarianism —to the ire of the US— by exploiting a power vacuum left by American President Barack Obama’s hesitant foreign policy. The US ‘train and equip’ program failed due to the White House’s reluctance to act decisively in Syria due to an abhorrence of military interventionism, an assumption that military action would jeopardize nuclear negotiations with Iran and that Assad’s downfall will lead to ISIL taking Damascus. Following Assad’s controversial visit to Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has agreed to meet for talks in Syria in Vienna on Friday, October 23. Moscow also proposed another meeting of the Middle Eastern ‘Quartet’ of Russia, the US, the European Union, and United Nations, due to the ‘extremely tense situation’ in the Middle East.

However, if a solution to the four-year conflict is to be achieved it must take into account the situation on the ground and the complex power play between domestic and international actors. The West views the Syrian conflict through three exceptionally problematic lenses: first, the security threat posed by ISIL; second, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe; and third, the high rate of casualties in Syria from the Assad regime’s bombing of civilian areas under rebel control, pushing migrants to Turkey and Lebanon. Randa Selim, the Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute and non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, argues that negotiating with Assad or supporting his reign will exacerbate these issues rather than alleviate them. Evidence indicates that Assad facilitated and manipulated ISIL and will not fully support their destruction until his reign is safe. Refugees have fled to Europe in the recognition that there is unlikely to be a forthright political solution to the conflict, as Assad will not voluntarily surrender his power.

It is highly unlikely that Putin will abandon Assad after his staunch support of the regime throughout the crisis. Putin vetoed the United Nations Security Council resolutions targeting the Syrian government and engineered a chemicals weapon deal that prevented Assad’s downfall in 2013. Selim argues that this was a crucial time as US air strikes could have brought the end of the Assad regime. Putin has now deployed Russian troops, planes, and anti-aircraft missile systems to ensure Assad’s survival and Al Jazeera argues it is “…naïve to assume that he will be willing to abandon him unless the cost of propping him up dramatically increases.” It is equally unlikely that Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime will defeat ISIL, as the regime is focused on holding the areas of Syria still under Assad’s control. Russia may target ISIL units consisting of Chechens without seeking to change the balance of power. It is therefore the responsibility of the pro-oppositional camp, led by Turkey and Jordan and financed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the US, and European countries, to defeat ISIL. Indeed, former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov notes that Syria may also have regional importance for Putin in relation to the Ukrainian conflict, as Moscow will continue to support Assad until Putin receives concessions over sanctions and Crimea. Russia is putting additional diplomatic pressure on the US by building a new coalition of nations that include Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, which overshadows the limited build-up of Moscow’s forces in western Syria.

Selim advocates that US-led coalition cooperates with the 100,000 Syrian rebels battling ISIL and Assad’s regime. She also suggests that neighboring states such as Turkey and Jordan send ground troops to assist the rebels if they are to gain control of the country. However, this outcome will no doubt result in more civilian casualties, which is also plausible if the coalition adopts a stance of non-interference on the ground. Syria’s neighbors are becoming war weary and the endless flow of refugees is creating conflict within the EU, which recently proposed providing Turkey with money to stop the flow of asylum seekers into Europe. Saudi Arabia has threatened military action against the Syrian government, however it is unlikely that the West would back an action like this as it did previously in Yemen. It is therefore clear that a more meaningful approach is required.

Currently, the US-led coalition hasn’t offered an efficient conflict resolution mechanism, which is probably due to the complexities of the conflict itself. An interesting and largely neglected deal between Iranian and Turkish officials brokered between regime and rebel forces in the northwest of the country shows promise, as it guarantees a no-fly zone, a six-month cessation of hostilities in specific areas, rebel withdrawal from Zabadani along the Lebanese border, and civilian evacuation from the two villages under rebel siege. UN envoy Steffan de Mistura attempted to negotiate local freezes throughout other parts of the country to facilitate aid provision and provide civilian relief from lengthy sieges. Samer Abboud, Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Arcadia, argues that measures must promote the “…strategic, targeted relief for civilian populations, while reducing armed hostilities and violence in the country.” This may not resolve the conflict but will change dynamics on the ground to enable serious negotiations.

In conclusion, the US-Russian airspace agreement will prevent any instances of friendly fire and may enable the states to coordinate their attacks on ISIL. The local freezes and Iranian-Turkish agreement represents an attempt at addressing the Syrian conflict based on realities on the ground, rather than a broader US-Russian great power agreement. Therefore, peace-builders should focus on striking micro rather than macro deals to promote a ceasefire within Syria to set the scene for more in-depth peace negotiations.