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Sunday, October 4, 2015

What Russia's Entry In Syrian Crisis Really Means

Image Courtesy: Yahoo Maktoob News 
Entry of Russia into the Syrian theatre of bloodshed and chaos could well change the dynamics of the conflict in the region, making it difficult to foresee the immediate future. In an already chaotic situation, among the very first things Russia did was carry air strikes against what US and its allies claim to being their coalition partners and civilian dissidents and not the ISIS which provided Russia with a justification to enter the war zone. Just few weeks  before Russian air strikes, Turkey carried out air strikes, apparently targeting ISIS terrorists but after the dust settled it came to light that the attack had killed several militants belonging to Kurdish groups, who apart from fighting against ISIS, are also considered hostile by the Turkish state since decades . Unfortunately, these are only reminders of the varying and sometimes diametrically opposite agendas of the  various actors participating in the  middle-east conflict and one of the reasons why ISIS continues to remain undefeated.

However, reports of Hezbollah and Iranian regular troops being mobilized to take control of regions cleared by Russian air strikes could complicate things considerably, given the rise in the level of mutual suspicion and acrimony between Iran and its Arab neighbours led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council's attack in Yemen to clear it from Iranian influence (or it it just clearing the population?) has already brought the fore, the bitter struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for hegemony over the entire middle-east,especially with the US pulling back from playing the cop that it had been doing until a few years back. Sunni Arab and Shiite Iran rivalry is definitely rooted in the sectarian divide but there are historical and racial differences too with Iran being the only non-Arab civilization in the gulf region. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, and subsequent charges by its neighbours of it trying to export the revolution, the relationship between Iran and its Sunni Arab nations have been especially vitriolic.

But let us not forget that the very catalyst of of Syrian crisis was the attempt by West, Turkey and Sunni Arab countries to oust Bashar al-Assad regime, a staunch ally of Iran and backed by Russia. Despite being a Sunni majority Arab country, al-Assad belonging to Alawite sect of Shia Islam but still being in power had much to do with its proximity with Iran which led the West and its Arab allies to believe that Syria was ready for an uprising against the regime after the Arab Spring. Of course, the fact that al-Assad was and continues to be an an authoritarian and ruthless dictator may be the primary reason for the uprising to begin, the sectarian factor may have helped it escalate. But the crisis in the real sense began when al-Assad ruthlessly suppressed civilian unrest, with death toll amounting to more than 200,000 and portrayed it wholly as an armed uprising which was aided by the fact that militants were already knocking at his doors.

Syrian air strikes on civilians (Image Courtesy: bbc.co.uk )
Around the same time foreign intervention began with the West backing the Free Syrian Army and Sunni Islamic radical militants attacking his forces. I  have already written on how Iraqi regime's sectarian policies resulted in alienating and driving Sunni tribes to radical outfits including the ISIS, something similar but more dangerous may emerge with this Russian intervention. It is quite clear from various news sources and statements by US and members of US-led coalition including UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others, that initial Russian strikes were targeted at civilian dissidents and various rebel groups at war with both the al-Assad regime as well as ISIS. Russia's statement, that it is coordinating strikes with al-Assad regime leaves little doubt that the intent is to first decimate its Syrian allies oppositions and then proceed to engage ISIS but there is a problem which Russian policy makers may have inadvertently or willingly overlooked. The motley groups of militant groups, fighting Syrian regime,themselves have very differing agendas, while the Syrian secular as well as Islamists may be fighting to oust al-Assad regime and push back ISIS, groups such as Jabhat al Nusra front, affiliated to Al Qaeda may have entirely different agenda.

 There have been reports of civil war between the Al Qaeda and ISIS about which there is very little information in mainstream media but there definitely is a huge ideological divide between the two. While Al Qaeda's objective as well as modus operandi is to carry out a lengthy war of attrition against Western powers and their allies in the region (nearly all governments in MENA) , with hit and run strategy and wait for the order to collapse, the ISIS has declared itself a state with a government and a standing army ready to take over its neighbouring countries. Al Qaeda affiliates also have the tendency to seemingly collapse in the face of impending defeat and their members disperse and re-emerge under new banners. According to media reports, in the recent past, ISIS has successfully poached a number of Islamist militants affiliated to Al Qaeda, which only points to  the  fact that  these fighters simply abandoned sinking ships in favour of what they perceived as more formidable force. As a matter of fact, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that many of the members belonging to West-backed secular militias were radicalised  and joined Islamists after the Syrian regimes ruthless persecution. Something similar was seen in Iraq when the secular Baathists ended up joining ISIS when faced with obliteration.

Image Courtesy :BBC.com
In such a complex scenario, attacking the Syrian rebels and even civilians before neutralizing or even inflicting  serious blow to ISIS is likely to see members of militias and powerful tribes joining ISIS, simply because it might seem more robust and resilient. Further, the manner in which ISIS remains entrenched in large swathes of Iraq and Syria, air and missile strikes may not be enough, boots on the ground seems quite necessary. Now the question is whose boots should it be? The Syrian rebels have already declared war on the Russian forces making it a triangular contest. As of yet, the Sunni Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as Turkey have been accused of funding the more radical Sunni militant groups fighting against Syrian regime, now even the US is complaining that the Russian strikes have been targeted against CIA trained militias and that the Russian offensive is to only ensure that al-Assad remains in power in Syria. Then after a long time, Syria has also become a flashpoint between the US and Russia. It is bit strange that Russia notified US about its air strikes only an hour in advance, leading to a situation where there was a probability of Russian and US forces running into each other for being in the same zone at the same time, which fortunately didn't happen. However, the US and its allies have made no qualms that Russian intervention is ill-advised with the US President Obama labelling Syria as Russia's quagmire.

With reports of Hezbollah militants and Iranian regulars entering the fray, it might compound the problem bit too much and make Obama's prediction come true. Given the strong contest between Sunni Arab allies of the US led coalition and Iran for dominance in the middle-east, the situation could turn more into a confrontation between these two blocs rather than fighting the ISIS. Then Turkey has its own interests in Syria and how the developments affect it's own Kurdish problem. And let us not ignore Israel which considers Iran as its main enemy, has inimical relationship with Russia and possesses considerable military clout to at least contemplate on ways to prevent Iran from spreading its influence. Precious time will be wasted in not only being unable to contain ISIS but also help it make further inroads into Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Afghanistan. It would be prudent for Putin to explore the possibility of a political transition in Damascus with Assad stepping down on Russian assurances. Russia does face a dilemma, if it doesn't correct it's course now and make eliminating ISIS it's primary objective, taking into confidence all the stakeholders in the region, it might be left perpetually defending it's only client state in the middle east while the murderous cult called ISIS consolidates it's position and capture more territories. If it fails to protect al-Assad regime and it is overthrown through military means, a political vacuum may arise with all parties rushing in to stake their claims and in the  process escalate into a for more bloody civil war. In either scenarios, ISIS stands to gain a lot and the turmoil lead to a  much bigger humanitarian crisis than the world is seeing now.