Russia takes on assertive role in Syria: analysts

President Putin: ‘Russia wants to be seen playing a key role in the Middle East’

Andrew Jay Rosenbaum,Ekip   | 28.09.2015
Russia takes on assertive role in Syria: analysts

By Andrew Jay Rosenbaum and Zaki Shaikh


 Russia's military buildup in Syria is a bold move to establish a definitive role in geopolitics, analysts told Anadolu Agency on Monday.

“The deployment of Russian forces in Syria is an attempt by Russia to play a commanding role in geopolitical strategy,” commented Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Institute, in an interview with Anadolu Agency.

“Putin has taken the initiative,” pointed out Nickolai Kozhanov, a visiting scholar at Chatham House in London. “It may make finding a solution in Syria even more complex.”

According to Kozhanov, Russia is constructing two military bases in Syria, and has sent about 2,000 members of its armed forces, although Putin has denied that these are intended as boots on the ground. Russia has also supplied the Syrian regime with an air defense system, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, and regular arms.

Putin makes intentions clear

Russian President Vladimir Putin made his intentions clear, in a television interview with CBS News on Sunday.

“Russia wishes to ensure its role in the evolving international situation. At a time when all sides realize the need to fight terrorism, I will not avoid this issue either. At a time when global actors are still looking for clarity of action, Russia wants to be seen playing a key role in the Middle East,” Putin said.

But Putin insisted that Moscow was behaving with perfect legitimacy as it provided “assistance to a legitimate government by legitimate means only”.

The Russian president will speak at the UN General Assembly on Monday, and analysts expect him to call for a united effort against Daesh and extremism. But Wezeman pointed out that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been a long-time ally of Russia, and a regular purchaser of Russian arms.

Putin also hopes to move international attention away from Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict. “The conversation about Ukraine is going around in circles, so no breakthrough can be expected on that matter, but on Syria, the conversation offers opportunities for Russia’s participating in world affairs,” Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said in an article published on Sunday.

Worry in the West

Putin’s initiative is already causing worry in the West. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa on Sunday that the Russian buildup could lead to “clashes” with forces from the U.S.-led coalition.

“The military actions of Russia in Syria pose a number of risks,” Tomasz Otłowski, a security expert at the Amicus Europe Foundation, told Poland’s Wirtualna Polska website on Thursday. “Supporting Assad may only prolong the war and strengthen the Jihadist forces. Increased activity by the Russian contingent runs the risk of an accidental collision with forces of the anti-Daesh coalition.”

Otherwise, Otlowski said that this might lead to a repetition of the Afghan scenario, namely, a long, costly and bloody war on foreign soil, which could have tragic consequences for the Kremlin.

“The risk will remain low, if the scale of the Russian presence remains at the level of military experts, aviation and reconnaissance. But if any Russian ground troops and special units participate in combat that will prove different,” Otlowski said.

A full-scale global reboot?

But Putin may have more ambitious plans.

For some analysts, Putin is engaged in a full-scale global reboot: In Syria, an international coalition will be formed to combat Daesh, with Russian and Assad regime participation, explained Dawid Warszawski,  a policy expert writing in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on Tuesday.

“After containing Daesh, the coalition would take measures to organize the repatriation of refugees back to the country. An arrangement will be worked out under which Syrian President Bashar Assad will “after a transitional period, leave for Sochi on retirement,” Wyborcza said, adding that this would allow face saving both for him and to those in the West demanding his removal.

But Russia will maintain its presence at the bases in Syria as a guarantee of its continued influence, he added.

It is not clear that Western powers could accept such an arrangement. A senior State Department official told the press on Sunday: “We're just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians' intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here".

Kozhanov pointed out that Putin’s speech at the UN will be critical. “If a practical solution to the crisis emerges, that could be a major turning point. If not, solutions may be very difficult to achieve.”

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