Monday 22 January 2018

Putin's Syria plan is all about showing Russia's 'great power' status

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Natasha Kuhrt

The Russian missile strikes in Syria come hard on the heels of Vladimir Putin's speech to the UN General Assembly.

In that speech, the Russian president made clear his country's opposition to so-called "colour revolutions" and the need to continue the fight against terrorists of all stripes.

In Mr Putin's view, "terrorists" in the Syrian context means not just Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), but any anti-government forces.

Yesterday Russia appeared to target the area around Homs, which is not even considered to be an Isil-held area, although it has not confirmed the targets of the strikes.

So Russia's main objective is to shore up the Assad regime by providing the government with close air support.

The question then arises whether Russia might contribute ground troops at some later stage.

This could be complicated. It seems that Russia's top military brass are definitively against this, fearing being drawn into a protracted conflict.

On the other hand Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, allegedly expressed disappointment that Russia wouldn't be putting boots on the ground, as he suggested Chechnya might be only too willing to send forces (much as it has done in eastern Ukraine).

Russia knows the limits of air power (it learnt from the West's errors in its strikes on Serbia in 1999, when a predicted short air war to oust Slobodan Milosevic turned into a much longer, drawn-out affair), so it would be surprising if Moscow thought air power alone could be decisive.

If Russia cannot persuade the US that they should work together to defeat Isil, Moscow will work with an ad-hoc group, a coalition of the willing made up of Russia, Iran and Iraq.

For Russia, the situation in Syria has clear parallels with the situation in Ukraine, where protesters forced the incumbent from power, and Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was hunted down, leading to chaos and the dominance of Islamist groupings.

As far as Mr Putin is concerned, the West's sponsoring of anti-Assad insurgents has been primarily responsible for the situation in Syria, or as he termed it "external interference" and only a renewed show of support for Assad and the Syrian state will remedy the situation.

As is well known, Russia has accused the West of fomenting the protests in Ukraine and encouraging a "colour revolution" there.

So what next? Moscow emphasises the short-term nature of its intervention, yet Russia should remember that going in is the easy part.

Without an exit strategy, Russia could risk embroilment in a costly foreign adventure at a time when the Russian economy looks increasingly vulnerable.

The lack of a real strategy in Syria may however be missing the point: Russia desperately wants to engage the US in dialogue and demonstrate its great power status by showing that Moscow, not Beijing, is once again Washington's main interlocutor in global security. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Dr Natasha Kuhrt is a Lecturer in the Dept of War Studies at King's College, London

Irish Independent

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