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Russia and Syria
Confronting Isis
Report - 17 September 2015
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Can Moscow's initiative stir dithering Western leaders to action? NEW
By Nina Bachkatov

In his address at the summit of the CSTO, the collective security body of the CIS, on 15 September, President Putin called again for a coalition against ISIS including in Syria and Iraq. He said that the fight against terrorism was the key to solving other urgent problems. He added that, without the aid provided by Russia to the Syrian regime, the situation on the ground would be even worse than it is today, putting even more refugees on the roads of Europe.

This is certainly not an opinion shared by the West. On the contrary, according to numerous Western officials and pundits, Russia is seeking to use the refugee crisis as a way to reassert its influence in global affairs, including in the Middle East. And is hoping to save the person of President Assad.

There is certainly a big element of political opportunism in the recent calls by the Kremlin for an international coalition against ISIS ‘terrorists’. Clearly all the state members who attended the CSTO Dushanbe summit, from the Caucasus to Central Asia, share Russia’s concern over the recruitment by ISIS of members of their population.

In addition, Russia’s opportunism has been helped by the lack of leadership over Syria and the refugee crisis within the international coalition, and by two elements in its own conduct that are strikingly lacking in the case of the West - good intelligence and consistency.


Intelligence lead

Russia benefits from being the successor of the Soviet Union, with long-time links in the region and not having been a coloniser in the Arab world.

This provides it with unique intelligence capabilities, especially compared with those of Washington, which looks to exiles who may provide valuable information but are often biased or hope to be part of a new Western-backed regime in their own countries.

By contrast, the Kremlin can pursue its goals using diplomats with long experience of the Arab world, speaking fluent Arabic and attuned to Arab culture. This includes the presidential special envoy for the Middle Eastern and African countries Mikhail Bogdanov. In addition there is a highly regarded group of academics following the tradition of orientalists, notably in the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Even in atheist Soviet Union, scientific groups were studying Islam and its ethno-cultural dimensions, backed by the experience of regional experts with a Muslim background.


Deep expertise

Such a conjunction of political, ethnic, religious and cultural approaches explains why many Russians have kept permanent, and often very friendly, contacts with everyone who matters in the region. And this includes grass roots levels which can be of great importance when the vital actors in conflicts are liable to be clans, religious communities, ethnic groups, or even families.

The list of heads of the Institute of Orient al Studies includes former foreign minister Evgueni Primakov; while the present director, Vitali Naumkin, has been the moderator of high-level talks among Syrian groups (with the exception of the Western-backed opposition) and organiser of earlier meetings among other feuding Middle Eastern factions.

For the Kremlin, this is a way unofficially to test the ground for official policy, as the events in question take place outside diplomatic circles. In the West, those meetings have been derided as empty gesture. It is also part of a policy of small steps which can one day enable Moscow to project the image of a doer and not just a sayer. It also marks Russia as the country which can not only talks to all factions, but can also provide the place where people who would not normally talk to each others can do so with the help of a go-between.


Consistency

From the start of the Syrian crisis, Moscow kept the same position it adopted from the beginning of the ‘Arab spring’ revolutions – namely, that destroying governmental structures creates a vacuum which only sinister forces such as ISIS will occupy.

But pursuing this line, Moscow confirmed Western suspicions that, as the president of a non democratic country, Vladimir Putin was doomed to back ‘fellow’ dictators even if they are killing their own people as Assad has been doing. And that his policy in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, is governed by an almost pathological drive against the West.

Now, things are changing, and even German chancellor Angela Merkel, keen to redress the confused image it sent through EU concerning Germany’s capacity to accept refugees, has declared that it and other West European powers need to work with Russia as well as the United States to solve the crisis in Syria. Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier went further, saying, after a meeting with his Russian, French and Ukrainian counterparts in Berlin, that he saw growing support for creating an international contact group to solve the Syrian conflict.

In fact, Russia has said this from the start. But it has sought to keep Assad in the picture, or at least not to sacrifice him to the West against his own will. (Not that that cannot be managed; Assad is well aware of his weakness without Russian support and could accept a save-face transitional position while negotiating his exile.)


Action plan

It also from the start wanted to keep Syrian territory undivided - thought now Moscow seems to be facing the possibility that the best and more urgent thing would be to keep a zone of the country, including Latakia and of course Damascus, under firm government control, and to retake the rest when ISIS is sufficiently weakened.

And it wants, as again it has done from the start, to involve Iran, and now also the Gulf countries and Saudi-Arabia in a broad Arab coalition.

While the United States expresses concern at what it calls a military build-up and a potential Russian military operation in Syria, Russia claims that there is nothing abnormal in their action. They have long supplies the country with weapons and sent advisers to train locals in their use.

The next stage of the game will be the forthcoming address of President Putin to the UN – where at least he will come with a positive message, rather than simply be the target of criticism over his country’s behaviour in and around Ukraine.

17 September 2015
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