It comes as no surprise to learn that Vladimir Putin has been extremely critical of how America has handled the ongoing crisis in Syria. In a Q&A at the Valdai International Discussion Club in 2014, he stated that ‘the politics of those in power in the U.S. is erroneous. It not only contradicts our national interests, it undermines any trust that we had in the United States’. Since the beginning of the civil war against General Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the surge of aggression from ISIS, the ongoing debate between Russia and the U.S. on how to deal with the situation has been tense, to say the least, with Russia favouring going the opposite route of the western coalition: wiping out resistance to Assad, and to the regime that has killed hundreds in its campaign to reign Syria back into its control. This includes American backed rebel groups, which have already suffered heavy losses and are set to lose even more, now that Russia has begun airstrikes against rebel forces.
Already it seems to have had an effect. Recently Reuters reported that “Russian air strikes in Syria’s Latakia province killed a rebel commander and four other fighters from a group armed by President Bashar al-Assad’s foreign enemies”, along with 15 civilians. Although his stance on Syria and the regime has been clear for years, Putin’s sudden entrance into the Middle-Eastern conflict is not. Why has Russia decided to enter the fray now, after such a long period of merely spectating?
Perhaps it has something to do with Russia’s stringent foreign policy, which prompts a swift response from the nation against threats to national security? Until recently, Russia’s relationship with Syria was quite amicable. In 2012, Russia was one of three countries that opposed the UN’s formal condemnation of Assad’s government for alleged attacks on civilians in Homs; perhaps this is related to the fact that exports to Syria from Russia in 2010 were valued at over $1 billion. The power struggle that has emerged in the country may have forced Putin’s hand in protecting what they view as an economic and political ally in order to assure the continuation of this mutually beneficial relationship.
On the other hand, the opposite may just as well be true. Hussein Ibish of the New York Times stated that the incursion by Russia ‘is aimed at securing the larger, western part of the rump Syrian state that is still controlled by Mr. Assad — in particular the air and naval bases near Latakia and Tartus’, and predicted that the end game of securing this territory was partition- putting an end to the conflict by means of a ‘Lebanese-style segregation of Syria into zones controlled by rival militias’. If this was the case, Russia’s strikes are a means of not only putting a stop to the conflict, but also of creating a larger Russian presence within Syria and the surrounding area. After the annexation of Crimea and the skirmishes against Ukrainian forces, it’s not out of the question that all of this is a power play by Putin against the machinations of the coalition forces for influence in the Middle-East.
Whatever his reasoning, Russia’s President has received a less-than-warm reception to his campaign. President Obama’s press secretary has described Russia’s action as motivated by ‘weakness’, yet after three weeks an agreement has been reached between the two nations so as to avoid conflict between nearby aircraft. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook has stated that it does not ‘constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia’s policy or actions in Syria’, but this hands-off tactic is something many people have come to expect from America. Russia’s actions, while at odds with US interests, are more than Washington has ever committed to doing in Syria. The White House has remained noticeably absent in the proceedings with Syria, despite its strong condemnation of the Assad regime. CNN does report that Obama has promised US co-operation, but ‘only if that plan includes removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’. If Russia does not agree with this scheme to unseat Assad, Obama warned that ‘Russia’s air campaign would only lead to further bloodshed’. Russia, he said, would become ‘stuck in a quagmire.’
Only time will tell what Putin’s true motivations behind these sudden airstrikes are, and whether or not western nations will choose to work with or against him. Until then all we can do is speculate as to the future of the conflict in Syria.
- By Fiachra Johnston