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ANALYSIS: Russia using Syria to widen Middle East role

Moscow has armed Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and is looking to take on a bigger role in the Middle East, analysts tell Middle East Eye
President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (AFP)

As Russia beefs up its presence in Syria, EU leaders seem to be weakening their stance on President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power being a pre-requisite for peace talks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday said Assad should be involved in any peace talks on Syria. Her comments came after an EU summit on the refugee crisis.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russia’s military build-up in Syria so far amounts to self-defence – but the country’s long-term aims were still in doubt.

"For the moment, it is the judgment of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection," Kerry told reporters on Tuesday.

He added that if Russia’s presence in Syria was motivated by a desire to “shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn't have to negotiate, then I think it's a problem for Syria, and it's a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict, which has gone on for too long."

The motives behind Russia’s open arming of Syria have been questioned over the past two weeks as satellite images emerged of a heavy military build-up of Russian tanks and artillery at a military complex north of Latakia.

According to Randa Slim, a director at the Middle East Institute, leaders in the rest of the region are starting to pay attention to Russia as a major player in the Middle East following its arming of Assad’s forces – and this was likely to have been one of the Kremlin’s primary motivations for doing so.

“Every leader now in the region is looking at these moves and is looking at America’s reaction to that and the lessons they are drawing is that the Russians are really serious about reasserting a presence in the region,” Slim told Middle East Eye.

“Syria will be the first test case of that and every leader will now be saying ‘maybe it is time to reassess our relations with Russia’. Until recently Russia was seen to be a non-player in the region and now once again they are a player and as a result other leaders in the region are going to start treating it as such - depending on the outcome of their moves in Syria.”

“Russia is not deploying for a few days or even a few years, Russia is basically saying ‘I am here to stay’,” she added.

Slim explained that Russia had four primary motivations when it came to Syria – all of which are rooted in interests Moscow is trying to protect through its foreign policy.

“The first of these interests is that they are not going to allow the military defeat of the Assad regime. This deployment should be seen as a signal of their assessment that the regime was getting very weak and was about to fall. That’s why they came in to prevent that eventuality, which is a red line for them,” Slim said.

The second motivation, according to Slim, was to make sure that a discussion about Syria could not take place without Russia at the table, and without taking Russia’s interests into consideration.

One result of the build-up was that earlier this month Washington and Moscow held talks for the first time in more than a year, an indication that this aim, at least, is already being met.

“The third message is very much domestic Russian interest,” Slim said. “This is fighting Chechen extremist groups. Those they cannot defeat in Chechnya they are going to go after them in Syria.”

Many Chechen fighters left the Caucasus to fight alongside the Islamic State (IS) when the group began its campaign through Syria.

“It will be interesting to see who they are going to target first once they start hitting anti-Assad forces,” Slim added. “My hunch is they are going to start hitting any deployment of Chechens - under ISIL or under other groups. That will affect the opposition’s standing in Idlib and Aleppo – if they go after a group of the opposition and weaken them, that will, ipso facto, affect the opposition in this area.”

Finally, Slim said, the arming of Syria is part of Russia’s projection of power.

“It is Russia stating to the world, to the US, to the Middle East, we are back as a super power and you have to contend with us,” she said.

In arming Syria, Russia said it was helping the Assad forces in the fight against IS – calling the Syrian troops the “most efficient means” of fighting the group.

Syria on Tuesday said that they were already becoming more accurate in their attacks.

“In the past two weeks there has been a noticeable increase in the accuracy and frequency of air force strikes,” a Syrian special forces fighter told AFP.

“[The Russians] might supply the weapons, but we will be the ones fighting on the ground.”

Arming Assad’s forces to fight IS has been met by criticism that it would escalate the conflict and lead to more deaths and a larger number of people fleeing to Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, maintained that Russia’s actions were, in fact, reducing the flow of refugees.

"Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole, and to protect the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Syrian people from destruction,” he told reporters last week.

"Without Russia's support for Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the flow of refugees would have been even bigger.”

Director of the Center for Russia and Eurasia at RAND, Olga Oliker, told Middle East Eye that the argument against Russia arming the government could also be made against the US arming rebel groups in Syria.

“If I were Lavrov or one his staff I would point out that sending weapons to an actual government has got to be more controlled than giving weapons to random rebels,” she said.

Oliker added that part of Russia’s defence of Assad comes from a deeper belief that states and governments are allowed to behave as they wish within their own countries.

“[Russia believes] you don’t have a right to unseat governments just because you want them to treat their people better. So they have almost a philosophical support of Assad which is very strong from that perspective,” she said.

“Russia has also looked at the Syria conflict and is first of all concerned in general on the basis that instability is bad. There is also the fact that one of its partners [Assad] is in trouble.”

The relationship between Syria and Russia extends back to the end of the Cold War – when Russia made a number of sales of arms to the country. Since then the two nations have had a stable political relationship.

“Generally, I think they [the Russians] are very concerned about what comes afterwards when they see the spread of IS. [They think] maybe there is someone over there we can cut a deal with and they would rather have to deal with Assad who is comparatively secular, and putting a new government in power is always much more difficult than working with what you’ve got,” Oliker said.

“The US might have been better served to be more careful in who it was arming, because I think if there is one thing the last decade shows is that it is awfully hard to help an insurgency take over a country.”

Distraction from Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has been serving as a backdrop to all of this action in the Middle East and it has been speculated that Russia’s headline-grabbing activities are designed to draw attention away from the war with its neighbour.

“I wouldn’t put it quite like that,” Oliker said. “I would say that Russia is hoping in part to remind the US and Europe that it is important to them, and do they really want to give up the co-operation they could have with Russia over Ukraine – is Ukraine worth it?”

“I think Moscow was surprised at the extent of the Western response to Ukraine and I think as a result of that they are trying to get the world back to the world they thought it was.”

The conflict in Ukraine’s East began after protests in November 2013 that demanded closer integration with Europe and a move away from Russia’s policies. This was escalated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014 and support for anti-Kiev rebels in the east.

The West’s response involved economic sanctions against Russia and sending non-lethal aid to Ukraine.

“So when we talk about the build up – it is consistent with their policy but there is a ramp up – it is their way of pointing out to the rest of the world that ‘we’re in this too and we have interests’.

“They’re trying to protect their interests, to play a role, to be respected, and to be at the table.”

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