Putin’s grand strategy for West Asia

By sending troops in support of the Assad regime to prevent its collapse, the Russian President has opened a new phase in the four-year-long civil war. Unless Moscow backs this up with a global diplomatic initiative to end the crisis, it could be sucked into another Afghan war-like situationMoscow is wary of the Turkish-Saudi Arabian game plan for Syria. These countries’ major concern is not the IS, but the Assad regime itself. Since the outbreak of the civil war, they have been training and bankrolling anti-Assad rebelsRussia’s weapons have landed in Latakia, just 85 km away from the Tartus naval base — its only naval base outside the erstwhile Soviet Union region. In case the Assad regime collapses, Moscow would not hesitate to move troops further

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

Published - September 29, 2015 01:42 am IST

Syria is not a new theatre for Russia. It has long been a pillar of Moscow’s >West Asia policy . The only Russian naval base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria’s Tartus. And Russia has been a strong supporter of President Bashar Al-Assad in the >Syrian civil war . It resisted every Western move at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to pass a resolution seeking Mr. Assad’s removal. Also, its aggressive diplomacy was instrumental in thwarting U.S. air strikes on Syria in 2013 amid allegations that government forces used chemical weapons against civilians.

Over the years, Moscow kept supplying military and financial aid to Damascus. But despite these deep ties with the regime, Russia had tactfully stayed away from joining combat in the past four years. Even when Iran and Hizbollah sent troops to Syria, Russia limited its role to outside support for the regime. Not any more.

Stanly Johny

Three days later, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, citing satellite imagery from AllSource Analysis, confirmed the arrival of Russian battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters at the Latakia airbase, indicating that Russian troops are deployed in Syria. Though Moscow has not confirmed its military presence, authorities have made no secret that Russia is ramping up its role in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has acknowledged that new military supplies are being sent in, accompanied by Russian “experts”.

From an ally to a combat partner While the exact details of the Russian military presence are yet to emerge, a change in Moscow’s Syria strategy is already evident. Mr. Putin wants to move Russia from being an outside supporter to a combat partner of the Syrian government. To be sure, this is a risky move. It has come at a time when Russia is battling a severe economic crisis at home. It hasn’t fought a major war outside its traditional sphere of influence since its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Needless to say, the 10-year-long Afghan war was a disaster, and the chances for the Russian troops to get swamped in the complex Syrian civil war are high. Still, what made Mr. Putin change the Russian strategy? And what’s Russia’s actual game plan?

Two recent developments in the battlefield could have influenced the thinking in the Kremlin. First, there’s a growing concern in Moscow as well as in Tehran about the recent setbacks suffered by the Assad regime. The government is facing acute manpower shortage as its troops are overstretched in the prolonged war.

Also, the key focus of the regime is to defend its strongholds — the long stretch from the South along the Lebanese border and the Mediterranean coast to the outskirts of the Idlib province in the northwest. Hizbollah has positioned itself on the Lebanese border region, while Iran has deployed its troops and proxies in key city centres such as Damascus, Homs and Hama. It is in the outskirts of the regime-held territory where Mr. Assad’s troops are under pressure, a clear indication of their waning strength.

In May, in a major setback to the regime, the >Islamic State (IS) terror group seized the ancient city of Palmyra from government troops. Besides its archaeological significance, Palmyra is a strategically important place from where IS could march on to both Homs and Damascus in two directions (The distance between Palmyra and Damascus is around 250 km, while that between the ancient city and Homs is hardly around 160 km). In the same month, a rebel coalition, largely supported by Gulf countries and Turkey, captured the Idlib province, breathing down the neck of the regime’s costal territories. These two defeats revived the discussion about a rapid collapse of the Assad regime.

It was in a similar scenario in 2013 that the >Hizbollah announced that it would join the Syrian war. The rebels had captured Qusayr, a strategically important town on the Lebanese border, and were making further advances. On May 25, 2013, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed that the “Syrian war is our war”. The Hizbollah intervention was crucial in retaking Qusayr and re-establishing the regime’s hold over the Lebanese border region. The Russians may be thinking that Mr. Assad is facing another Qusayr moment.

Second, Moscow is wary of the Turkish-Saudi Arabian game plan for Syria. These countries’ major concern is not the IS, but the Assad regime itself. Since the outbreak of the civil war, they have been training and bankrolling anti-Assad rebels. The rebels’ Idlib advances would not have been possible without greater support from outside powers. Besides, Turkey has recently allowed the U.S. warplanes to use its Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases for the latter’s attacks on IS positions, and both nations — Turkey and the U.S. — have also agreed to create a 60-mile-long ‘safe zone’ strip, free of IS and the regime troops, along the Turkish border.

This could be part of a larger regime change game plane. Incirlik is just 15 minutes flying time from the Syrian border. From the air base, the U.S. war planes and drones could easily patrol the Syrian skies. In the name of fighting the IS, the U.S. could establish a de facto no-fly zone across northeastern Syria which would neutralise the regime’s air power advantage vis-à-vis both the rebels and the jihadists.

Further, the ‘safe zone’ proposal also offers a peek into the Turkish game plan. If Turkey and the U.S. successfully create a “safe zone” in the border area, the model could be repeated elsewhere in Syria. Instead of finding a national political solution to the Syrian crisis, many more “safe zones” within rebel control would be created. Brookings Institution’s Michael E. O’Hanlon, a former national security analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, strongly advises the West to follow this “ink-spot campaign”, which he calls the “deconstruction of Syria”.

The Russian assessment is that if Mr. Assad falls, the balance of power in West Asian geopolitics would turn in favour of countries hostile to Moscow’s interests. Besides, Mr. Assad’s removal would weaken the Iran-Hizbollah network, which is another pillar of Russia’s West Asia policy. More important, Moscow perceives the rise of Islamist militancy in the region as a “national security threat” and considers Mr. Assad a bulwark in the fight against the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

So, from the Russian point of view, the survival of the Assad regime is key to its interests. Russia has interfered in West Asia in the past to defend its interests. During the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition in the 1969-70, the Soviet Union sent troops to defend Egypt. Operation Kavkaz was aimed at preventing a regime change in Egypt and to save the Russian interests on the Egyptian soil — the intervention was a success in meeting the objectives.

Protecting the Tartus naval base In the case of Syria, Russia has short, medium and long-term goals. The immediate objective is to prevent a rapid collapse of the Assad regime after its weakening on the warfront. Russia might be calculating that once its forces start joining the war, it would strengthen the Syrian government troops in terms of military capabilities and raise their morale substantially. And even if the regime collapses, the Russian goal would be to protect the Tartus naval base.

It is worth noting that Russian artillery and tanks have landed in Latakia, which is just 85 km away from Tartus. In case of an eventual collapse of the regime, Russia would not hesitate to move troops to protect the naval base.

In the medium term, Russia wants to build an international coalition, with a U.N. mandate, to fight terrorism in Syria. There is already a multilateral coalition led by the U.S., bombing locations controlled by the IS in Syria and Iraq. But these bombings, started in August 2014, have hardly weakened the jihadist group.

The Russian idea is to stitch together a coalition of ground troops to fight both the IS and the al-Nusra front. >President Putin floated the idea on September 15 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, while speaking at a regional event. For this proposal to gain traction, Russia would need the West’s support. Mr. Putin knows that the U.S. is facing a strategic dilemma over Syria, and Europe, swamped in a refugee crisis, is scrambling for practical solutions to the Syrian conflict.

If a common ground is reached between Russia and the West over Syria, Mr. Putin can also re-channelise the resultant goodwill to settle the Ukraine crisis without its vital interests compromised. It is a bet, but the contemporary history of Russian foreign policy tells us that Mr. Putin is a man who makes big geopolitical bets.

In the long run, Syria offers Russia an opportunity to re-establish itself as a regional player in West Asia. Reclaiming the lost glory of Soviet Union is of high priority to Mr. Putin. He has recently stepped up ties with Egypt’s military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. West Asia offers a potential market for Russian products and weapons as well as a political theatre for Moscow to expand its influence.

It is far from clear whether Russia would be able to meet its goals or would face another Afghanistan-like situation in Syria. What is certain is that Mr. Putin has opened a new phase in the Syrian civil war. If in the first four years, President Assad had to fight his enemies — supported by regional heavyweights — with limited resources, he now has the direct backing of a big global power.

However, unless Russia couples its military move with an international diplomatic initiative to dial down the regional support for rebels and jihadists, the Moscow plan could backfire. Because otherwise, to offset the Russian support for Mr. Assad, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and their Western backers could step up support for anti-Assad groups, leading to a major escalation of the conflict. The outcome would be worse than that of the Afghan civil war.


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