On September 30, the Russians made their presence felt in Syria for the first time by launching air raids on the city of Homs, a known rebel stronghold. The direct involvement of Russia added another layer of complexity to what was already the most potent and complex war this young century has experienced.
In this mess, a few observations can be made that help understand the scope of the Syrian conflict, how it is re-shaping geopolitical relations and strategies, and how this is affecting the prospects of a larger war. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the loss of American influence in the region; second, Russia is opportunistic and is filling the void left by the U.S.; third, local forces, long perceived as mere proxies, are asserting their power in the region, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia; fourth, the West – EU & USA – is no longer in a position to dictate terms and is forced to compromise on the question of Bashir Al-Assad’s power; and fifth, IS will most likely be the greatest beneficiary of this conflict.
The American loss of influence
I would argue that three moments led to the Russian involvement in Syria, all of which are a direct consequence of U.S. foreign policy and its ensuing loss of credibility. It begins with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the toppling of Saddam Hussein not only engulfed Iraq in a civil war, but also created many of the terrorist groups active in Syria today, the most famous of which is ISIS. The unilateral invasion of Iraq created a dangerous precedent in the era of the United Nations, where a powerful country could act with total impunity despite being the aggressor. This severely undermined American soft power and credibility, one that took decades to build, and spoiled any capital of sympathy it received after 9/11.
The second moment is the U.N. sanctioned dismissal of Muammar Ghadafi in Libya in 2011. This was a very unique chance to regain the credibility, with the Obama administration having secured the support of Russia and the abstention of China to obtain the U.N. mandate. The operation in Libya had barely begun that the Russians felt cheated and denounced the operation while the country sank deeper into a still ongoing civil war. The operation meant to show support for the so-called “Arab Spring” turned out to be a complete fiasco, damaging the U.S. relationship with Russia and many of its MENA partners and turned Libya into a war zone to the benefit of terrorists, just like it did in Iraq eight years before. Furthermore, it re-created a “Cold War” type of discussion in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia was most likely to veto any American motion, something that has been a problem in dealing with the Syrian situation. This is not to say that Russia would have supported a UN mission in Syria in 2013, but it would have made the American position more trustworthy.
Finally, President Obama’s inability to enforce his “red line” on Syria following the first confirmed reports of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against the rebels gave the US a lame duck status in the Middle-East. This reversal sent the message that the United States no longer had the bite to go with the bark, and is therefore in no position to deter threatening parties. Consequently, the Americans were now deprived of both soft and hard power credibility in the Arab world. This created a void that Russia and local actors would not hesitate to fill.
The task of deciphering and understanding the policies and strategies of Vladimir Putin is always a difficult one because some of them – to use the word of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – appear completely illogical. What is not difficult to observe however is Putin’s need to re-assert Russia’s dominant position in the world. This is visible through his decisiveness and opportunism, which have often been displayed since he became President of Russia in 2000.
His handling of the Chechen war, his invasion of Georgia and most recently the Ukraine, all demonstrate a willingness to act quickly and unilaterally when he sees an opportunity. More importantly, these actions allow him to test the waters, or more accurately, push the envelope of what Russia can get away with.
No one batted an eye over Chechnya and Georgia and the reaction to the invasion of Ukraine was divided at best, with a focus on economic sanctions. Yes, the sanctions hurt Russia’s economy and left it vulnerable in its rapport with China, but it also showed that the West was not in a position or unwilling to take the forceful actions that he would require to turn around. The war in the Ukraine confirmed his assessment and strategy: the West could not counter his plans and any unilateral move would carry minimal consequences.
We see this again in Syria. President Obama spoke of a “red line” in 2013 but did not react. Western countries focus on providing proxy groups and rebels with weapons and training and limit their attacks on the Islamic State to aerial strikes. The coalition and NATO partners are divided and no one has a clear strategy to solve the Syrian war. In short, no one really wants to get involved. So in comes Russia, decided and willing to support its local ally Bashir Al-Assad with weapons and troops. Russia chose a side, and it is causing massive headaches for the Americans and the Europeans. Putin saw an opportunity to assert Russia’s power in the region and did not hesitate to do so, again counting on the divisions and military reluctance of the West. With its involvement in Syria, Russia is changing the geopolitical landscape in the Middle-East and becomes the enabler for other powers to assert their own policies.