Russian airstrikes against ISIS — and in support of the Assad regime — in Syria do not resonate well with the United States that is desirous of defeating the outfit but sees Assad as a destabilizer of Syrian politics. Moreover, Iran has been traditionally supportive of the Assad regime; in contrast to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE who form part of the anti-Assad bloc in the Middle East. Although the US and Russia displayed a rare consensus in signing the nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015, yet another consensus with respect to the Assad regime still evades them. The US maintains that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy and should be replaced with a more broad-based representative government including also the Syrian opposition groups.
To begin with, why did Russian military intervene in Syria and what does it stand to gain out of it? At the outset, it may be stated that Russia’s presence in Syria has been embedded during the days of the Cold War. The Syrian regime has relied on Russian arms and armaments in order to empower itself against its regional rivals as well as domestic opposition. Russia’s recent entry can be explained with respect to enhancing its strategic presence and leverage in the Middle East as a principal military player.
Second, the Russian domestic constituency is the principal factor in Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria. Riding on a high wave of popularity sustained through higher oil prices in the international market, the sharp dip in oil prices since mid-2015 and the growing domestic opposition provided the impetus for Putin to shift attention to his anti-Western and anti-US rhetoric in order to shore up his own constituency. In this sense, Putin’s actions have a dual foreign and domestic policy impulse that is projecting his power, as authoritarian leaders do, both in the foreign policy arena as well as domestically.
It is also important to assess how regional states see Russian military intervention. The Chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s Majlis has stated that Iran’s cooperation with Russia, Syria and Iraq has proved successful in fighting terrorism as compared to the US-led anti-terrorism coalition. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, have expressed serious displeasure and reservation over Russian intervention for that stands to sustain and embolden the Assad regime.
Amidst of all this is the major issue in the Middle East of today; ISIS and its eventual defeat. Defeating ISIS requires not only aerial bombardment but also on-ground troops. This was precisely what divided the American administration as it contemplated air strikes against ISIS in August 2014. While President Obama fervently argued against sending troops on the ground, General Dempsey argued in favour of sending troops without which any success against ISIS, according to him, was implausible.
With the American and, presumably, Russian strategy bent on not sending the ground troops, most of the battle initiative necessarily then rests on local actors. In this case, the Kurdish forces in Iraq (the Peshmerga) and Syria (PYD) provide for both the offensive and defensive forces against ISIS onslaught. However, the empowerment of the Kurdish forces is seen as detrimental by Turkey which fears that it would be a further step on the road to Kurdish statehood. Ahmet Davutoğlu was unequivocal in his warning to both the Americans and the Russians against supporting Syrian Kurds. While the Kurdish forces are seen as reliable allies in the war against ISIS, this contradicts with Turkey’s stance that PYD is a terrorist organization with links to the PKK.
The geopolitics of the contemporary Middle East thus presents a complex scenario: Turkey and Saudi Arabia seem committed to oust Assad of power and this commitment runs parallel to the defeat of ISIS. Besides ISIS, Turkey is also worried about the possible emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East and has targeted Kurdish nationalists within its own territory and neighbouring Iraq more than it has taken concerted action against ISIS itself. Iran, on the other hand, stands to sustain Assad regime while also conniving to defeat ISIS not only in Syria but also Iraq.
An added factor in the complexity of contemporary Middle Eastern geopolitics has been the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal. The probable emboldening of Iran as a consequence of the nuclear deal, the removal of economic sanctions and engagement with the international community has further fuelled the decades-old Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Israel has also publically expressed its opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal and, in the process, relations between Israel and the US have nosedived. Because of this the disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Syria is intensifying where the former fears a spread of the latter’s influence along with its already-entrenched in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The divided stance over Assad’s regime means that ISIS continues to sustain itself with an embarrassing absence of a coordinated strategy on the part of different Middle Eastern states to defeat the Islamic State. As long as the Middle Eastern states remain divided over Assad and his regime, the war against ISIS will be all but hard to win.
The writer is an Associate Professor at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.