Syria conundrum: Russian bear roars as the West slides

Was the downing of a Russian bomber always in the offing? Given the number of air forces currently operating in and around Syria, one may be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Currently, there are American, British, French, UAE, Jordanian, Australian, Syrian and Russian military aircraft sharing the skies above Syria. Most of them have different agendas, and different targets. A narrow divide would suggest that apart from Russian aircraft, all others broadly share targets as well as objectives.

Russia has moved S-400 air defense missile systems to its airbase near Latakia in Syria

Russia has moved S-400 air defense missile systems to its airbase near Latakia in Syria

However, if the crowded airspace was to be blamed for this shooting of a Russian jet, we should be prepared to see such incidents in the near future also because ‘the space’ is after all going to stay over-crowded as long as the war is there.

Looking from another angle, the downing of a Russian bomber was always going to happen. After all, the Russian air campaign had started to inflict considerable damage on the Western strategic assets on the ground. As far as Turkey’s position is concerned, Russian campaign against Islamic State (IS) has certainly changed the position of Kurds in the region, who are much more organized and equipped than ever. But should we necessarily ‘blame’ Russia for this? Should we use the word ‘blame’ at all in this case?

It is an open secret that the US has been providing all sort of assistance to Kurds in Syria and Iraq in the name of ‘tackling’ the IS. While Russian campaign may have indirectly enhanced Kurdish position vis-à-vis IS and Turkey, the US-supplied weapons have come as direct aid to this effect. While Turkey was certainly not ‘happy’ with the US over arming Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, the latter was able to neutralize the former’s reservation by allowing it to bomb KPP.

Turkey and the US are, therefore, undoubtedly on the same page as far as their position vis-à-vis Russian military presence is concerned and this continues to be the position of other coalition partners. The downing of a Russian bomber was followed by the shooting of a Russian rescue helicopter. According to reports, the TOW missile used to destroy a Russian rescue helicopter and kill its pilot was manufactured by the US, and paid for by Saudi Arabia.

All these crosscurrents and competing agendas have once again affirmed that the efforts of the various members of the two coalitions fighting in Syria are widely dispersed and mutually conflicting, leaving only a marginal space for “co-operation”, or even some hope for it.

These incidents have, yet again, reinforced that the war in Syria is a case of conflict of strategic interests which are too vital for all the State-actors involved to be achieved by just holding periodic rounds of talks in Geneva and Vienna.

While the leading actors, including Russia and Iran, have been involved in the attempts to reach a compromised solution, efforts to build a larger coalition are also glaringly going on in the West. Not only has the US President been wooing Israel’s Netanyahu to mend his ties with him in the wake of heightened Russian campaign, but he has also geared his efforts towards seeking support from other partners, especially Britain, for greater military engagement in Syria.

The efforts to build this grand-coalition (excluding Russia, of course), which have provoked significant opposition in Britain, received a sort of ‘ideological’ cover recently when the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a French resolution to eradicate IS.

The passage of this resolution looks rather sobering and paradoxical given that even as the UNSC deliberates on the best course to defeat what the body called “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security,” the US and other members still double deal on Russia’s initiative to tackle terror in Syria.

On November 18, 2015, the Washington Post had reported that while Russia does want to form a coalition, Obama administration continues to remain leery of Putin’s eagerness to form such a coalition.

This “eagerness”, however, has now been (successfully) replaced by an outright refusal to form a coalition. Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman, told reporters during a conference call on Friday that, “at the moment, unfortunately, our partners are not ready to work as one coalition.”

This announcement came within 24 hours of Hollande’s meeting with Putin where the latter had said Russia “was ready to cooperate with the coalition which is led by the United States.” Friday’s announcement is, in fact, an acknowledgement of Russia’s solo assault in Syria — something that Putin had also implied in his joint press conference with Hollande.

In this context, the US-led coalition strikes in Syria against IS have dramatically stopped. Both the American and Turkish air forces halted their strikes on Syrian territory around the time Russia deployed S-400 air defense complexes at the Khmeimim airbase, from which it stages its own incursions against IS.

While a spokesperson of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) said that the absence of anti-IS coalition airstrikes “has nothing to do with the S-400 deployment” in Syria, the deployment is not merely an act of tightening of Russian air defense. A closer look at it suggests its other significance. Certainly, Russian is not going to use these missiles against IS or any other terrorist organization. The only actors these missiles can potentially be used against are the States involved in Syria.

It is, as such, a clear message to them. In fact, the very location of deployment tells the whole story plainly. From Khmeimim airbase — which is only 30 miles from Turkish border — S-400 radar covers Syria, western regions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, nearly all of Israel and Jordan, Egypt’s northern Sinai, a large part of the eastern Mediterranean and Turkish airspace as far as the capital Ankara.

Therefore, it cannot be gainsaid that this deployment has literally turned almost the whole of Syria into a “no fly zone” for US led coalition air strikes.

Commenting on the decision, Putin said there was previously no need for such measures, because no-one imagined the Russian aircraft could be in danger. Russia would have brought S-400s to Syria a long time ago to protect its warplanes, if it entertained the possibility of a traitorous back-stab.”

While the US-led coalition strikes are on a halt, Russia has certainly speeded up.  The monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Russia had launched heavy bombardment in the area as Turkmen forces and members of al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front battled against the Syrian army. It said that at least 12 air strikes hit Latakia province.

Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman for a rebel brigade in the region affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, told the Associated Press the Kremlin appeared to be taking “revenge” for the downing of the plane by providing cover for advancing pro-government forces.

While Russia may have increased the rate of strikes, it seems to be an oversimplification to project it as “revenge” only. Arguably, it is a continuation of what Russian strikes were already achieving before its bomber was shot down.

In the days preceding the downing of a Russian bomber, Syrian troops were reported to have retaken large swathes of territory from IS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist fighters. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was also reported to have begun to approach the Euphrates River east of Aleppo, which would effectively cut off IS from its supply lines leading out of Turkish territory.

In this context, Latakia province, which is located in Western Syria bordering Turkey and houses a significant Turkmen population, has been hit several times during the past few days. While for Erdogan, there are no IS militants in Latakia, for Russia it does have enough terrorist population and does function as a supply base for IS militants and therefore is needed to be bombed to dust.

For Erdogan, however, the crucial importance of these Turkmen lands is that he wants to convert them into long-cherished “no fly zones” to be used as a launch-base for terrorist attacks well inside Syria.  While Turkey continues to harp on the mantra of “innocent deaths” in Turkmen lands, for Russia the thing that strategically matters most is to smash any possibility of a future 900 km-long ‘jihad highway’ between Aleppo and Grozny.

And that explains the Russian bombing of Latakia province. For Russia, the area known as Turkmen Mountain or heights  – which Turks call Bayirbucak –north of Latakia province is a major target. That is where the notorious ‘jihad highway’ is located through which Ankara, side by side with the US, weaponizes various terrorist outfits.

For Russia, any possibility of militias allied with Salafis and Salafi-jihadis trying to make a push to conquer overwhelmingly Alawite Latakia province is a red line because this would threaten Russia’s airbase at Khmeimim and eventually even the port of Tartus. Were this to take place, it would lead to a permanent Russian strategic exit from Syria and the Middle East.

No “grand coalition”, with Russia part of it, can therefore work.  Russia’s day-in and day-out changing position vis-à-vis such a coalition is a reflection of this very high improbability, resulting from their poles-apart strategic interests vis-à-vis the US and its allies. And perhaps, it is for this reason that the US has been least enthusiastic among all about forming this coalition at all.

The so-called “common cause” to form this coalition has so far been hard to come by. And the way Barak Obama tapped Erdogan on his back for taking a ‘bold’ decision against alleged violation of its aerial sovereignty has made finding the “common cause” even harder.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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