Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Russia capitalises on US hesitancy, bolstering Assad

Officials in Washington have recently expressed their concern that Russia may be escalating its military involvement in Syria in defence of Bashar Al Assad’s regime. While the Russians have denied deploying ground forces to the country, there are numerous indications that the Russian military presence is expanding.

Whether the Russians are playing a combat role or merely an advisory one remains unclear. The evidence suggests that the Russians are reinforcing the Syrian regime militarily in key areas, particularly Latakia, the heartland of the Alawites. On Monday, the London daily Al Hayat reported that Latakia’s airport is now controlled by Russian experts.

A source told the paper that Moscow’s aim was to impose a balance of forces in Syria and prevent the collapse of the Syrian army, for the purpose of reaching a political solution based on the principles agreed in Geneva. What this means is that Russia has no intention whatsoever of accepting Mr Al Assad’s departure as a basis for negotiations – quite the contrary.

In this, both Russia and Iran are on the same wavelength. And they are watching the United States very carefully to assess their own margin of manoeuvre. The Obama administration’s reaction will determine to a great extent how Europe and the Arab states react to Moscow’s and Tehran’s moves in Syria, but for now neither Russia nor Iran has much to worry about.

While the Obama administration has opposed a military build-up and has persuaded friendly countries to close their airspace to Russian transport planes, both also see that the Americans are profoundly ambiguous when it comes to Mr Al Assad’s future, not quite saying what they really believe. On the one hand they want the Syrian president ultimately to leave office. On the other, they do not want this to happen precipitously, fearing it could leave a vacuum that would be exploited by ISIL.

This attitude has given Russia and Iran wide latitude to reinforce Mr Al Assad and turn the international anti-ISIL effort to their advantage.

The Russians will be able to justify their military escalation in the context of the anti-terrorism campaign that Vladimir Putin has called for in the past weeks, and that was rejected by the Gulf states in early August.

What Mr Putin realises is that the Americans have fundamentally shifted in their outlook towards the region. In the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, president Barack Obama has been much more willing to recognise and defer to Iranian interests in Syria, a point he implicitly acknowledged in a letter last year to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Moreover, Mr Obama’s primary interest in Syria continues to be ISIL, and far less so inter-Syrian dynamics. Putting two and two together, Russia and Iran have concluded that Washington will probably not seriously oppose their actions in Syria, nor will it greatly bolster efforts by Mr Assad’s foes to bring him down.

Indeed, the continued delay in Turkey’s establishment of a security zone in northern Syria may confirm this. Even though news of an agreement over the zone was leaked by American officials as far back as July, until now there has been no evidence that the plan is about to be implemented.

In remarks to a conference of G20 finance ministers in Ankara last week, Ahmed Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, declared that his country had tried to persuade the international community of the need to create a security zone in Syria to shelter Syrian refugees, but the response had not been positive.

Mr Davutoglu was speaking in the shadow of Europe’s migrant crisis, but there were broader implications to what he said. The Obama administration is still reluctant to allow a security zone, fearing several things: that anti-ISIL Syrian “moderate” rebels are not yet prepared to fight the group in this area; and that Turkish and American military involvement may help bring about the Syrian regime’s disintegration.

Not surprisingly, there is nothing here to dissuade Mr Putin from building up Russia’s military role. If anything, Russia and Iran are regarded by Washington as objective allies against ISIL, in much the same way as were Shia militias in Iraq, despite American criticism of the militias’ sectarian behaviour.

In light of this, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the recent American-Saudi summit in Washington, regardless of efforts by both sides to accentuate the positive.

Almost nothing unites the Americans and Saudis in Syria. Nor is it likely that Mr Obama convinced King Salman that America is serious about containing Iran regionally. The president has sought to integrate Iran more into regional solutions, and previously recognised Tehran’s interests in Syria.

Russian and Iranian resolve in Syria is in proportion to American detachment. The Obama administration seeks a negotiated solution, as do the Russians and Iranians. But while the Americans know what they don’t want in Syria, they are unsure of how to arrive at what they do want. Moscow and Tehran will continue to take advantage of their indecision.

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