Russia’s Grand Game in West Asia
Moscow has worked to regain political will and military capability and its role in Syria has put it at centrestage alongside the US in the oil-rich region
Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav Delhi
Many strategic commentators argue that Russia’s recent intervention on the side of the Syrian government in its fight against rebel forces and the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) is a kind of marketing campaign for Russia’s weapons-makers. But while that seems partially true, the Western media has used this pragmatic goal of the Russians to downplay their achievements and obscure their main motivation – which is part of a well-planned ‘Grand Game’ with far-reaching strategic implications for the region and globally.
Energy security continues to be the prime reason that developed countries are interested in West Asia. The US has been making political maneuvers in Syria ever since the pro-democracy, anti-Assad protests commenced in 2011 by providing clandestine military support to Syrian rebels (SFA) and also a few jihadi groups such as Al-Nusra. Approximately 10,000 rebel fighters have reportedly been trained and equipped by the CIA since the protests commenced in Syria.
On the other hand, Russia is an old supporter of Bashir Assad, as Syria facilitates its access to the Mediterranean, a much-needed toe-hold in West Asia after the loss of Russian influence in Egypt. Without this access to the Mediterranean, Russia would be isolated with no influence in the strategically important junction of Asia, Africa and Europe, and lack access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Accordingly, Russia has high strategic stakes in Syria and has used its veto in the UN in favour of Syria a number of times. Now it has intervened militarily in the face of a dual threat to Assad from the US-backed rebels and the ISIS, who together are in possession of almost 80 per cent of Syrian territory, with one-third occupied by the ISIS.
It was the emergence of the predominantly Sunni ISIS in 2014 which prompted a paradigm shift in the politico-military dynamics of the region. It brought in a convergence of interests amongst all the stakeholders, local as well as extra-regional players. While Iraq was the victim, Iran had a strategic opportunity. The Syrian dispensation saw an enhanced threat to its survival, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan saw a chance to stir the pot for their own gain. The US and Russia both had a common interest in checking spread of a radical terrorist outfit with the potential to affect them more seriously than Al-Qaeda had demonstrated. Thus, the US and Russia are apparently on the same side against the ISIS, but on opposite sides when it comes to the Syrian political dispensation and concomitant regional power balance. While the US continues to support the Syrian rebels and has restricted its aerial operations against the ISIS, the Russians are targetting both the ISIS and the rebels. As reported, the two powers seem to be coordinating at the lower levels for air space management but cooperation at the apex level has been stymied because the US was unwilling to join in talks as long as the Russians were unwilling to provide details of their intended targets, and the Russians were reluctant to provide those details for fear that the US would pass them on to the rebels it supports.
Going back a few years, the genesis of the ISIS lies in US policies in Iraq, where the Americans destroyed the established order without doing enough to replace it with a stable and secure internal environment. That means American stakes are also high in the region. If the ISIS is not neutralised, it has the potential to take over a major part of Iraq. Such a situation would render American efforts of two decades futile and dilute US influence in the region. As a strategic compulsion, the US revisited its priorities and initiated aerial attacks on ISIS strongholds from mid-2014 and subsequently added ground operations by Iraq so as to retain its hold over Iraq and influence in Syria. The paradox, as it emerged later, was that the Syrian rebels whom the US was supporting were diverting part of the weapons and other equipment they were supplied to the ISIS, because of a perceived common interest among Sunnis, local tribal loyalties and opportunist regional dynamics. This link between the Syrian rebels and the ISIS and a few of their allies has diluted US objectives for Syria and in the fight against ISIS. As the situation unfolded, the US, without its full military mechanism in place in Iraq, had operational limitations despite full commitment to the cause. Moreover, the US has realised that without boots on the ground it is difficult to neutralise the ISIS terrorists. This, in turn, gave strategic space to Russia to take charge of the situation to its advantage. With its logistics advantage and support of old regional affiliates, Russia moved in to exploit the strategic opportunity through military means for future political purposes.
At the operational level, Russia, as of now, has not put boots on the ground, a much-desired tactical requirement to mop up the gains and then hold the ground once the opposition is neutralised. However, it has Syrian and Hezbollah troops available for ground operations who are familiar with the terrain and their opponents and have a clear military aim to recapture the lost territories. Besides, Iran and Iraq, who are directly affected by the ISIS threat to their territorial integrity, have been primed to lead the ground operations in coordination with Syria in their respective theatres. In order to facilitate coordination of joint operations, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria have established an operations room in Baghdad. The participation of Russian forces is restricted to aerial operations along with other partners on ISIS as well as Syrian rebel targets. Russian jets are now conducting nearly as many strikes per day as the US-led coalition has been carrying out a month. They are known to have achieved resounding success with a large number of insurgents having surrendered to Syrian government forces. They have employed Su-34 strike fighters and ship-based Kalibr cruise missiles, which can be fired from more than 900 miles offshore in the Caspian Sea. Any further enhancement of Russian participation in ground support is a matter of speculation as of now. What is reasonably clear is that it is going to be a long campaign, if past experience is any guide. Plus, there is enough support for the Syrian rebels and the ISIS from the Sunni dispensation in the region even if the US is not on the scene.
At the strategic level, what is most relevant is that (along with its maneuvers in Crimea) this marks the first time in three decades that Russia has shown its political will and military capability to project its power beyond its borders. It is obvious that these operations could be intended to send a message to the US about restoration of the country’s global reach after decades of post-Soviet decay.
What has prompted Russia to undertake such a bold action? To begin with, we have to go back to the Russian pullout from Afghanistan in 1989 and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union. Following those events, the Americans swiftly moved into Iraq and later into Afghanistan to dominate the energy resources of western Asia as well as the Central Asian Republics (CAR). Accordingly, Russia’s is now out to regain lost turf, not to mention the honour and prestige of a former superpower. Pursuing these objectives, it gradually worked towards rebuilding economic and military capabilities.
The first opportunities started opening up with the US draw-down in the region, which resulted in continued security inadequacies, social anarchy and political instability. The Syrian crisis per se has sectarian overtones with Sunni and Shia affiliates of various shades pitted against each other as a continuum of the Arab Spring in West Asia. A strategic flux prompted the emergence of the ISIS on the cusp of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
It was in this time and space that the Russian resurgence commenced in small steps. First, it tested the waters by taking over Crimea in a bloodless coup in 2014, which was followed by armed intervention in eastern Ukraine, though officially Russia denied direct involvement. Finally, in the backdrop of a not-so-assertive reaction from the world community to its military overtures, Russia has now come out openly to display its confidence in its capabilities. Russia has stunned the world by deploying aircraft, guns and missiles, evading US intelligence, and attaining spectacular military successes within a short period.
To counter the ISIS, the geographical as well as ideological (Shi’ite) bridgehead lies in Iran, which has prompted all the stakeholders to court Tehran. While Russia has long been Iran’s supporter, the US, too, cannot afford to alienate what is effectively the only stable nation in the region so there are now cracks in Washington’s longstanding resistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In consequence, it also appears that the US, in its schemes of strategic calculations, is on board with Russia to save its turf in Iraq, especially in the face of duplicity from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. The US, with its knowledge of the politico-cultural dynamics of this region, is well aware that entanglement with the ISIS would be a long-drawn affair, and it surely does not have the appetite for yet another such campaign. Thus, Washington has chosen to partner with Russia and other regional countries rather than leading the crusade in its GWOT this time.
In a major policy shift, the US officially suspended its $500 million programme to train Syrian rebels on October 8, acknowledging its failure. However, Washington will continue supporting the rebel cause. One reason for the change is probably the fear that their arms would find their way to the ISIS. But it is a significant development for Syria, for it means that its government forces will face less resistance from the rebels. While the Syrian rebels may be subdued enough to bring about a political compromise as a result, the ISIS will likely continue to cause problems, as it draws strength from sectarian philosophy and has many supporters in the region. Ultimately, its intransigence may well prompt Russia and the US both to put boots on the ground.
Russia’s success in projecting its power notwithstanding, one cannot ignore the fact that it is all happening without all-out opposition from the US and its European allies. It certainly could not have happened so easily, had there been disagreement from the Western world. It is indeed a significant demonstration of power projection, but other players are not out of the arena. The US and NATO have much greater military capabilities which can be unfolded if the situation warrants. Moreover, in the economic domain, Russia is even further behind the US and its allies in Europe and Asia. Therefore, current operations are being conducted in a cooperative political dispensation against a common cause, and granting Russia stature of a superpower on the basis of what has happened so far may well be premature. Moreover, the current context of global interdependence weights foreign policy toward inclusivity rather than the exclusivity of the Cold War era.
How this new regional, politico-military initiative may manifest in the global arena is a matter of speculation for now. However, the message which has gone out loud and clear is that Russia is back at the centrestage of world affairs.
This, in turn, may lure back Moscow’s erstwhile allies who had drifted away. New followers who felt neglected in the US dispensation are also expected to join the band. That would enhance Russia’s stature in the UN and give Moscow enhanced ‘strategic pull’ in world affairs.
Moscow may also enhance its influence in energy-rich Western and Central Asia once the US and its allies pull out. Russia is expected to have its footprints in the region for a long period, which would bring about stability and regional predominance even if it is not achievable at the global level yet.
All these factors would give Russia greater leverage in European politico-economic affairs, as Moscow would be in a stronger position to manipulate energy supply as it has already done in the Ukrainian crisis. The economic compulsions may also prompt a few European countries to shift allegiance towards Russia. There are already certain dissenting voices.
It may also have a sobering effect in world affairs, as monopolistic tendencies would be deterred to some extent. The flip side is that the intoxication of power may make Russia also indulge in similar practices with impunity.
Live demonstration of the quality of its military hardware, as seen in the Syrian theatre, would certainly boost its arms sales which had taken a beating in the recent past. It may also generate a competitive market environment which would benefit arms-importing countries immensely.
Russia may well try to change the currency of international trade, especially in oil, from dollars to rubles, once it has appropriate economic buoyancy and adequate political leverage over oil-rich countries. It would have a major effect on the bullion market and the value of currencies the world over.
Russia, along with China, as a counter to the US would have the potential to realign the strategic complexion of the world with far-reaching spin-offs in the politico-economic field. There could be other strategic alignments with the predominant status of Russia suiting national interests
All that is in the future. What Russia has achieved straightaway is to establish its role as a leader and an arbitrator to resolve the Syrian crisis. Any dispensation in Syria henceforth will have direct Russian involvement and the Russians will be the reference point in any future political or military parlance, alongside the US. Another immediate strategic takeaway is the coming together of the US and Russia to neutralise the ISIS by military means, which is expected to put brakes on their maverick spread so far. The ever-increasing refugee problem has made the European Union look to Russia for an early solution, since Moscow has some leverage over Assad as well as Turkey. That will no doubt have long-term political spin-offs favourable to Russia.
President Assad’s visit to Moscow on October 20, President Putin’s subsequent talks with the Saudi king and the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry along with their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Vienna on October 23 were all part of this Russian leadership initiative. Now everyone is looking at Russia to deliver and critically observing this case study in military diplomacy.
(Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is former Director General, Infantry and Director General, Rashtriya Rifles)