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Paul McLoughlin

The stakes are high for Russia's gamble in Syria

Going to war: Putin ordered Russian airstrikes in Syria [AFP]

Date of publication: 1 October, 2015

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Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday in Syria, sharply escalating Moscow's role in the conflict, angering many players including the opposition which has vowed vengeance against the 'European invader'.

If Russia's targets in its two-day bombing raids of Syria tells us anything, it is that like his ally Bashar al-Assad it feels more threatened by moderate and Islamist rebel movements than it does of the Islamic State group.

Today, Russia bombed Kafranabel in Idlib province, a small town that encapsulated the rebellious spirit of the Syrian revolution. It is also a million miles away from what might resemble IS territory.

Heart of revolution

Kafranabel folk are known for their humorous and damning cartoon banners, which usually depict Assad's murderous campaign against the Syrian people and the hypocrisy of Western leaders.

Russia's decision to bomb this bastion of hope amid an titanic wave of destruction clearly shows that Putin's main concern is propping up Assad.

He is likely to be entrenching Moscow's influence over the small rump state that is beginning to emerge in regime-controlled territories.  

Russia's military is now firmly planted in the slither of land - around 15 percent of Syrian territory - that the regime controls from Daraa city in the south, through Damascus, Hama and Homs, and up into northern Latakia.

The airbase in Assad's home province is now under Russian control, with reports emerging it had banned Syrian military personnel from the base.


It also controls Hama equestrian club, which is being transformed from a horse ranch to a military base. It highlights Assad's willingness to sell Syria to retain power.

The Russian Embassy in the UAE today tweeted photos showing Russian troops setting up tents for "internal refugees" in Hama province.

It was a projection of Russia's soft power in the crudest of ways - making tent homes for refugees while it bombs rebel-held territory.

Although Russia insists it has not targetted civilian areas, it is likely that dozens of civilians are dead - including five children during the first round of airstrikes. Putin's Chechen scorched earth campaign show that he has little concern for civilian deaths. 

War and peace

Putin's war strategy - in targetting the rebels - looks like a desperately misjudged plan to force the advancing Syrian opposition to negotiate on the regime's terms. 

However, this show of force has also been something of a damp squib.

Out of dozens of sorties Russia has carried out in Syria so far, none have hit IS targets.

It makes the West-Arab coalition and rebel-Kurdish forces the only real fighting force against IS,. The regime's war on the group is largely isolated and defensive.

Many activists and social media users have "informed" the Russian president that the missiles it has fired in Syria were miles away from the IS targets Moscow insists it hit.

They also pointed out that explosions from suspected Russian bombs happened close to Kafranbel's Roman ruins. 

Ironic, considering the global furore created after IS' destruction of temples in Palmyra.

Propaganda

Then there is the Russian ministry of defence's propaganda  campaign with a video compilation of the air strikes.

"It looks like some of the targets may have been storage depots, but in the case [of one video] it looks like they missed," said Eliot Higgins, an investigative journalist.

"Some farmer got his field blown to pieces by the looks of it."

Putin's gamble looks like a case of the emporer's new clothes - believing himself to be smarter than his opponents.

After US and Russian politicians sat down during the UN meeting in New York earlier in the week, Moscow's rhetoric about finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis looks nothing short of lies.

Moscow has hosted a number of meetings between regime and opposition figures, and tried to strike a peace deal between the two groups.

[Click to enlarge]


Putin's "tough love" approach to cracking a deal now looks insincere.

His targeting of rebel forces rather than IS fighters also show that Putin is a negotiator unequivocally on the side of Russia.

In short, Putin's international standing as a statesman has taken a heavy blow.

At home, he might open himself up to broad criticism for dragging Russia into a long and bloody war. He also has made Russia enemy number one (or two, after Assad) for international jihadi fighters.

"They're certainly basing a significant amount of aircraft and equipment [in Latakia], and I very much doubt this is going to be a short term operation for Russia. I suspect Russia might find itself staying in Syria far longer than it originally intended," said Higgins.

Home support

Putin was, and perhaps still is, an undeniably popular figure in Russia.

His tough stance against the US gave him the stature of Joseph Stalin. 

Putin also managed to rein in many of Russia's mafia gangs, and defeated an insurgency in Chechnya and Georgian military.

High oil prices brought Russia incredible economic growth and prosperity after years of hardship, benefiting many in Russia's middle class.

However, the brutal counter-insurgency efforts also served in radicalising many young Chechens - with a number joining IS and proving to be capable military commanders.

Instability has also been pushed out of Chechnya's borders and into neighbouring Muslim-majority republics.

Low oil prices and sanctions after Russian intervention in Ukraine have also drained its coffers.


If Putin's foreign adventure was supposed to boost his popularity ratings at home, it will likely prove to be very short lived.

"State-run media is supportive of this campaign, while the opposition media picture it as nothing less than another Afghan intervention," said Yury Barmin, an analyst of Russian affairs.

"This campaign is unlikely to bolster Putin's approval rating simply because ordinary people do not care about Syria that much. If Russians start dying in Syria there will certainly be questions to Putin but until then it's a minor factor."

Rebel war

The opposition have declared war on Russia, and a number of its interests in Syria have been hit by rebel rockets.

"I think Russia's campaign is off to a bad start. Moscow had a chance to prove to the US-led coalition and the Syrian opposition that it came to Syria to fight IS and by doing so to win trust," Barim adds.

"Yet it chose to first bomb other rebel groups, such as al-Nusra Front and reportedly Ahrar al-Sham, in the areas where the Islamic State is not present. It seems that current strategy is designed to eliminate rebel "pockets" in the lands primarily controlled by Assad."

Putin's efforts could also be a ways of undermining Western and Arab abilities to operate in Syria, and extend Moscow's power and influence in the region.

It also convolutes the potential for an opposition-backed no-fly-zone in Syria to end the regime's catastrophic barrel bomb campaign against rebel-controlled towns.

Turkish-Western plans to establish a safe haven for refugees and civilians in northern Syria might have to be kicked into the grass for now.

Higgins said that this might still be possible in small pockets of liberated territory, but a larger no-fly-zone appears to be out of the question.

Russia now has full coverage of the skies of Syria from its Latakia airbase and surface to air missiles.

However, Washington appears to have acquiesced to Russia's actions and the two appear to be communicating on the issue.

Moscow is also in touch with Israel to avoid any aerial clashes. This makes an escalation of tensions between the West and Russia unlikely to spill into war, Barmin said.

"Judging by Netanyahu's visit to Moscow he's willing to negotiate and coordinate with Russia on Syria, and the same goes for the US," Barmin said.

He also believes that Russia's targeting of the opposition will be short-lived.

"I don't think Moscow will follow this strategy for long. It will probably have to switch to fighting IS because the repercussions of its current tactic are dire," the Russian expert explained.

"Russia's strategy may also alienate Syrian opposition… what Russia is doing in Syria certainly helps Assad. But it doesn't create more trust needed to launch a new round of negotiations that was announced by Putin at the general assembly."

The opposition is unlikely to forgive or forget what Russia has done and know that Moscow is far more interested in propping of the regime that is losing the war than peace.

Russia faces a strong and united resistance from battle-hardened rebel forces.

Those often fractured ranks between moderates and Islamists will likely solidify now that all opposition groups are under attack from an outside force.

"Syria will be the graveyard of the Russians... it will be your Afghanistan" many in the opposition have remarked.

If Putin wanted to crack the opposition with a hammer, he has struck his own fingers, too.

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