Russia: Real game changer in Syria

Russia: Real game changer in Syria

It was mid-July this year when senior American officials described a deal between Ankara and Washington over the former’s full and active participation in the international coalition’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), opening its most strategic bases to coalition countries as a “game changer” with the hopes that Turkey’s move would help to defeat jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

Although it’s still early to discuss about its initial military results this recent in the field, it obviously has already caused a counter-move from Russia, which has already proven that it won’t let Western powers to do whatever they want in Syria. Russia has openly stated its intention to provide more military assistance to Syria, as well as to deploy its own troops in its traditional ally’s soils for President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule. It is reinforcing its naval base in northern Syria with more sophisticated weaponry systems and making clear that it will continue to challenge U.S.-led coalition countries as it did since unrest broke in this country.

Thus, Russia’s move can be seen as retaliation to a recent deal between Turkey and the U.S. that would on the one hand fight against ISIL but on the other hand would aim at further weakening the Assad regime. 

That allows one to describe Russia’s move as a game changer in response to Turkey joining the coalition and the U.S. using Turkish air bases.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem confirmed on Sept. 20 that Russia’s growing military role will prove a game changer in the fight against jihadism, namely ISIL and al-Nusra Front. He also blamed the U.S. for not having a clear strategy in combatting jihadists.

What’s unclear and worrying is how Russia will use its military force in Syria. At an already tense conflict theater where coalition-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), moderate rebels and forces of Syrian Kurdish groups are fighting against ISIL; where FSA and rebels are fighting against Assad’s army and where a number of other terrorist organizations are trying to take advantage of this chaos.

Russia’s official statements underline that the move is aiming to fight ISIL. “Russia has never concealed its military-technical cooperation with Syria. Our country has been supplying Damascus with arms and military equipment for a long time, due to mutual contracts. There are also Russian military specialists in Syria who explain to Syrians how to use the technology,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova explained recently.

“The only aim to offering military aid to Syria is combating the terror threat, which has reached its highest points in Syria and Iraq. Terrorists have challenged the whole world community, including Russia,” she said.

However, there are those who are suspicious about the real motive behind Moscow’s move. Western capitals consider the move as an attempt to fill the vacuum before the U.S.-led coalition moves forward in its fight and degrades the Assad regime. Concerns are that the Russian military and intelligence would provide assistance to Damascus against the FSA and other moderate rebels so that Assad can re-gain its positions lost in the last year.

With this move, Russia is, at the same time, forcing coalition countries to compromise over a political transition in Syria with keeping Assad in power. Although Washington and other leading Western countries loudly oppose this idea, the prolongation of unrest in Syria and the fight against ISIL would surely help Russia to this end.

Turkey’s position is also going to be affected by Russia’s move. Already in dire straits because of a growing refugee problem, Turkey’s hopes for a quick settlement of the problem in Syria after the collapse of the Assad regime would surely fade. Russia’s deployment of troops and military role will delay the political solution to the problem as well as deepen and complicate the armed conflict in Syria. This would also cause colder ties between Ankara and Moscow as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin will hold talks today in Moscow.

Obviously, after Ukraine, Russia and the Western block are coming face to face again, this time in a more dangerous theater.