Russia’s move in dispatching air assets into Syria has resulted in criticism for US President Barack Obama’s Syria strategy and claims that he has been outmanoeuvred by Moscow.
Such criticism, of course, ignores the fact the Syrian problem has always been much more complex for Washington than it has for Moscow, for whom Syria has always been simply about supporting the Assad regime against anyone opposing it. But what largely has been ignored is the reaction of the regional states, whose actions have greatly contributed to the situation and whose response will influence the future of the Syrian conflict.
Regional states throughout the Syrian conflict have backed, or allowed the private backing of, anti-Assad forces regardless of their political or religious views, contributing to Syria’s morass.
Indeed, Washington’s half-hearted dabbling in arming some opposition groups may have been motivated in part as a way of placating regional states that demanded military support for groups inside Syria, without offering the accountability mechanisms that responsible actors need to have in place. The potentially adverse second-order effects of backing rebel groups in Syria has never featured highly in regional considerations, whose policy horizon has never extended past the removal of Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s limited military intervention has posed questions for these states and it is their reaction more than Washington’s that is likely to determine how effective any renewed Assad offensive is likely to be.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought the removal of Assad, the influence of pro-Ankara Syrian opposition groups in any post-conflict government and, in the interim, forces disposed to Turkish interests along as much of its border with Syria as it can manage to wrest from the Kurds. Turkey has long advocated for a no-fly zone, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes but in reality as a way of ensuring groups supported by it have a freer hand in areas abutting its border. Washington has opposed such a move because of its limitations and because of the self-interest obvious in Turkey’s demands for it. Vladimir Putin’s move has effectively killed any further discussion of it.
For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two other states that have backed different rebel groups during the conflict, the intercession of Russia also poses policy difficulties.
Riyadh is already fighting a war in Yemen, and it tried early on after the accession of King Salman to cajole Moscow into softening its support for Assad with visits from envoys, an invitation for Putin to visit Riyadh and the signing of various co-operative agreements. But such entreaties had little effect and Riyadh has called for the immediate cessation of Russian military actions against non-Islamic State targets in Syria. Qatar has also voiced its opposition.
The Russian move is bold but not necessarily decisive. The number of aircraft deployed is limited, and the ground forces of about 2000 are likely meant for protection of the air assets deployed to a single location in Syria.
The limitations inherent in air campaigns have been highlighted once again in Iraq and eastern Syria, and Russia understands that, in insurgencies, air power is often influential but rarely decisive. Rebel groups need to be defeated on the ground and territory retaken. That will be up to the Syrian military and, if reports are to be believed, Iranian advisers and other foreign Shia militia groups.
Russia’s aim is to bolster the Assad regime and in doing so it appears to have targeted non-Islamic State groups opposed to Assad, while the Western coalition bombs Islamic State in the east of the country. Russia’s bombing campaign is likely designed to allow Assad’s forces to regain momentum in the short term and to expand regime control in the areas it regards as its vital ground. The medium-term aim is to weaken the regime’s opponents and gain an advantage by establishing facts on the ground in advance of any future political talks.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are left with hard decisions. They can continue, directly or indirectly, to support armed opposition groups who fight in the name of an identity more religious than national, and try to promote their own candidates among the political opposition. To date, neither of these policies has brought tangible results other than to prolong the war. But they have increased the cost paid by Iran and its allies, so the tactic has had benefits. Now that Russia has become more involved, the strategic calculus for these states has changed.
The West has criticised Russia’s actions publicly but Obama has also said he won’t oppose them, and warned Moscow it risks being stuck in a quagmire. In reality there is little that Obama can do. Neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan could also live with an Assad, or Assad-lite regime remaining in power.
The question is whether Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar believe that Russia’s moves should be reluctantly accepted or whether they want to blunt Moscow’s attempts to bolster Assad’s negotiating position by supporting rebel groups.
With the Gulf states’ enormous financial assets and Turkey’s border access into Syria’s north, they are in a position to do the latter if they so desire.
If they oppose the Russian intervention with only rhetoric, then the Russian intervention may shift the balance sufficiently to allow for realistic negotiations to take place. If the regional states provide military support to groups in response to the Russian intervention, then all that will have been achieved is an even greater mess than before Russia decided to intervene.
Rodger Shanahan is an associate professor at the National Security College at the Australian National University and a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.