A new balance of power, albeit an unstable one, has emerged in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2011. The struggle for regional supremacy pits an alliance of Sunni Arab monarchies—the Gulf Cooperation Council members plus Jordan and Morocco (GCC+2) —against the Shiite regimes and militias in the Levant—Iran, Iraq, the Al-Assad regime, plus Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (Al-Hashd Al-Shabi). Internationally, the GCC+2 is supported, however reluctantly, by the United States and NATO, whereas the Shiite coalition is supported by Russia.
Syria is the battleground for both the regional and international competition between these alliances. Alongside their military efforts in Syria, both Russia and the U.S. are actively involved in trying to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war ostensibly so they can both join forces against a common enemy, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Their somewhat collaborative efforts in war and peace not withstanding, Russian and American interests are not compatible. Instead, their struggle for influence in the region is part of a new cold war of global dimensions.
Russia has several goals in Syria, the most immediate of which is supporting the Al-Assad regime in the service of their main client in the region, Iran. Secondly, Russia has reason to be worried about the domestic implications of an Islamist takeover in Syria by any combination of Sunni Jihadi groups currently fighting the Al-Assad regime. Third, and perhaps most importantly, President Vladimir Putin is trying to regain a strategic foothold in the Middle East, lost with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990. This last objective fits in with his overall attempt to regain superpower status and influence globally.
Russia’s gradual but deliberate entry into the current conflict in Syria started with arms shipments to the Al-Assad regime, which were at first routine and based on contracts signed prior to the 2011 uprising. As the war in Syria intensified, however, Russian arms shipments quickly evolved in importance and graduated from sophisticated artillery to combat helicopters and Mig fighter jets.
Russia’s direct role in the conflict grew very quickly after September this year. The small and outdated naval base in Tartous had fallen into practical disuse after 1990. In September, an advance forward airbase was quickly outfitted at the Latakia airport, allowing Russia to deploy sophisticated fighter-bombers in the midst of the Syrian president’s Alawite stronghold. Whereas Russia’s support for President Bashar Al-Assad was well known and therefore came as no surprise to the U.S., Russia’s qualitative buildup—especially the most recent deployment of its sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, the S-400—has radically altered the nature of Russia’s foothold in Syria and the Middle East.
Russian forces in Syria have so far concentrated their strikes largely on anti-Al-Assad forces arrayed in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. These forces had, until the direct involvement of Russia, made serious advances on Al-Assad’s military and seemed to threaten Latakia itself. While Russia has begun to increase its aerial attacks on ISIS fighters outside the above-mentioned arc, it is estimated that only 20 percent of Russian airstrikes have targeted the organization. Clearly, the first order of business for the Russians has been to shore up Al-Assad’s flagging forces, help him regain the initiative on the battlefield, and give him the option of either waging a more aggressive war or going to the peace table with a stronger hand.
Having presided over the retaking of Chechnya in 1999 and 2000, President Putin is concerned with the growing number of Chechen Jihadi fighters in Syria—not to mention the real possibility of returning fighters reigniting an Islamist opposition in Chechnya and Russia proper. Putin is an authoritarian ruler who, like Al-Assad, has put down his own domestic opposition. He is ideologically sympathetic to Al-Assad, and not at all interested in the Arab uprising and the instability it has fostered in countries where authoritarian rulers fell.
By helping shore up Al-Assad, Putin is not only assisting his ally Iran but also asserting a role for Russia as a mediator in regional conflicts. Foreign minister Lavrov has offered to help mediate and resolve conflict in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere in the region as needed.
Putin has focused on regaining the advantage vis-à-vis the U.S. and NATO on at least two fronts: in the Middle East where he calculates to take advantage of a gaping hole left by President Barack Obama’s indifference to the regional power struggle and, closer to home, a reassertion of Russian power vis-à-vis the country’s neighbors.
In seizing the Crimea in 2014, and directly supporting Russian separatists in the Ukraine, Putin precipitated a crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West that was unprecedented since the end of the original cold war in 1990. Russian intervention in Syria must be seen in the broader context of this new cold war.
The Obama administration has, since the President’s dictum “Assad must go,” sought to support moderate political and military opposition forces against the Damascus regime. The military component of this support has been begrudgingly given in small, though lately increasing, doses. Politically, in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, the U.S. has taken Saudi Arabia’s side in its various proxy confrontations with Iran. Whereas U.S. and Saudi military support for the Syrian opposition has only been indirectly coordinated, the U.S. has taken a much more direct role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict. Regardless, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have both supported forces fighting Al-Assad with arms, funds and training despite the disagreement between the donors as to who the appropriate recipients should be.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are currently working on two tracks, political and military, though not necessarily in full coordination with one another. While the U.S. has upped its military involvement with enhanced support for its chosen Syrian opposition forces, Secretary of State John Kerry has been closely coordinating a potential peace effort with his Russian counterpart. Saudi Arabia has similarly increased support for its chosen Syrian opposition groups, and has recently embarked on an effort to get those groups to coordinate their efforts and their message in preparation for potential peace talks.
Russia and Iran have expressed misgivings on the Saudi sponsored conference of opposition forces in Riyadh, calling the effort unhelpful. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has on several occasions criticized the Russian airstrikes in Syria, charging the Russians with focusing on groups supported by the West as opposed to ISIS forces.
The tensions that flared up dangerously between Russia and Turkey over the downing of the Russian bomber over Syria highlight the problem: The gap between Russia and the West on Syria is largely due to having divergent interests in which forces on the ground to support, the future of President Al-Assad, and how to define who is a terrorist and who is not when drawing up the invitation list for another peace conference.
Russian and Western perceptions of the future of Syria may not in the end be compatible enough to allow for a successful joint effort to find a political solution. With the deployment of Russia’s S-400 anti-air system, along with an increasing number of sophisticated fighter-bombers, the U.S. has advised Turkey to hold off on further airstrikes over Syria. Another serious incident with the Russians might force NATO into an embarrassing choice between failing to support a NATO member or sliding into a dangerous confrontation with Moscow.
The reality is that Russia now has the ability to monitor and interdict any and all air operations over Syria, Lebanon, and even parts of Israel, which translates into a real-time strategic advantage over the West. NATO can, in principal, bring more major deployments to the Syrian theater but it will have to coordinate with or confront Russian forces in the process.
While President Obama may be taking the high road in pursuing peace and refusing to involve the U.S. in a direct combat role in Syria, Putin, playing pure brinkmanship on cold war terms, has staked a solid strategic footing on the ground and may be better positioned to take a leading role come war or peace in Syria.
Nabeel Khoury is non-resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. On Twitter: @khoury_nabeel.