Russia’s intentions in Syria seem to be finally getting clearer thanks to Moscow’s current diplomatic and military moves on the ground.
Russia, understandably, left all options opened within a specific space of movement. The limits of this space extends from the minimum default objective of carving out a mini Syria for Assad and his regime, to the maximum objective of reaching a political deal and waging a multi-party war against the opposition including the non-ISIL non-Nusra groups. The minimum here is similar to the current situation in Ukraine-Freezing the conflict in a way that gives Moscow the utmost leverage for a minimum investment. The problem of Assad is that he is short in boots. And in this, the Russians can’t help. The Iranians and Hezbollah sent several thousand of ground forces to be stationed on the north and south of the Assad-Alawi mini-Syria in the western part of the country. They may be involved in clearing a buffer zone around the Assad mini-Syria if the Russian project of keeping Syria in whole under a friendly government is not fulfilled.
The current Russian moves and contacts tell us that Mr. Putin is aiming at this “comprehensive” solution while bombing the road into the future of Syria.
There are reports that Moscow has reactivated its contacts with the moderate opposition figure Mouaz Al Khatib (Former head of the Syrian Coalition) in an attempt to put together pieces for a political solution. There are also speculations among Syrian opposition leaders that Russia is moving on the political track along specific lines:
* The formation of a Syrian transitional government based on a combination of moderate opposition (will get back in a minute to the Russian definition of that term) and regime figures (Like Manaf Tlas). Tlas, who belongs to a prominent Sunni family, was a Brigadier General in Assad’s elite Republican Guard and a trusted member of Assad’s inner circle. His father was the defense minister of former President Hafez Al Assad, the father of Bashar. Tlas defected in 2012 and has been living quietly in Paris ever since. He did not join any opposition group.
* Offering a cease fire around Aleppo and in some other hot spots along the war lines in parallel with the UN conference called for by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura
* Reaching a deal in the proposed Geneva-3 with some groups of Syria’s opposition. (The alternative to Geneva-3 would be talks hosted by Putin in the Russian capital)
* Telling opposition groups that Assad intends to leave Damascus either conditional on holding elections or as a “concession” from the Syrian President to “save the country”. (The second is mostly what is on the table now).
* Demanding a participation in the transitional government and a declaration, by cooperative opposition, that the crisis is over and that it is time to cleanse Syrian territories of “all terrorists”.
This is how President Putin will appear to the world as the champion of both, the war track and the political solution track. How will that make President Obama looks in the eyes of a watching world does not need any comment. It is not even important in this context.
If this solution would not work, the Syrian army backed by around 10,000 Iranian and Iraqi Shia soldiers, and Hezbollah fighters, the Assad militias and Russia’s air force will start a fight of multiple phases to end the armed opposition existence where relevant and force the population into submission.
The Russian definition of “moderate” opposition will be attached generally to the acceptance of this political initiative. Sorting out the opposition will be presented through a specific narrative: If you are opposed to Assad, now he is gone (or will certainly go). Come on and join in. If you want the rule of Sharia or if your cause is dictated by countries other than Syria, you would be radical and deserve to be bombed.
The timing of Assad’s departure is left undetermined. But President Putin hinted to the Turkish President and to some opposition leaders in unambiguous terms that a deal of that kind will definitely include the departure of Assad at a point to be agreed upon, and that if things go as planned he guarantees personally the departure of Assad.
Furthermore, First Deputy of General Staff of the Russian armed forces General Nikolai Bogdanovsky met October 6 with Israel Deputy CGS General Yair Golan. Israeli media predicted that the issues of arms supplies to Hezbollah through Syria and the freedom of movement for the Israeli air forces to attack hostile moves in Syria topped the talks. Also assurances that no attacks will be allowed against any Israeli location from Syrian territories while the Russians are there.
The general logic of Putin’s approach is clear. He aims at splitting the opposition along the line of accepting his political plan. That will guarantee to Moscow a wide international support, particularly if Assad steps down or announces his intentions to do so. A refusal by any party, Syrian or non-Syrian, will be presented as a manifestation of the existence of hidden agendas. If these agendas are Jihadist, therefore the world will side with Putin. If they are strategic, like for example driving the Iranians out of the east Mediterranean, the Syrians will be told that foreign (regional) powers are trying to achieve their own goals at the expense of Syria, and that Assad will be leaving, therefore all should back the transitional government and turn their back to regional powers who want to fight the Iranians until the last Syrian.
While Putin tries to improve his options, he already has guaranteed the minimum of his objectives through stationing his forces in the west of Syria.
Two questions remain: What are the forces that will stand against Putin’s plan? And to which extent they may succeed?
To answer these two questions, we have to go back to what is actually happening on the ground.
Fifty five Saudi Ulamas (religious scholars) in the General Authority of Muslim Ulamas (AMU) issued a communique October 4 condemning both Russia and the US. “How similar Today is to Yesterday. Thirty six years ago the USSR invaded Muslim Afghanistan to support the communist party and prevent its collapse. And today, its inheritor, the Christian Orthodox Russia invades Syria to support its Nasiry (a branch of Shia) regime and prevent its collapse. The West claims that Bashar (Assad) is illegitimate but none buys that. It was them who prevented the Syrian people from having anti-aircraft defenses to protect themselves, and it was them who blocked declaring a safe haven in the north (of Syria). And without their approval neither Assad could remain nor could the Russians interfere. They wanted to deceive the people by saying they fight Daesh (ISIL), but Daesh was hurt a little by them”.
The communique called for all Syrians to fight. “All able men should join Jihad. This is your day. All Muslims are behind you with all they can and victory is close with the will of God”.
While the communique stopped short from calling upon “all Muslims” to join Jihad, a veiled invitation for mobilization is illicit in the language. The first paragraph of the communique was a plea for the unification of all opposition groups in Syria “under the flag of Jihad”. The Muslim Brotherhood-Syria branch issued a separate communique calling Jihad in Syria “an Islamic duty for all Muslim adults”. Many leaders of Islamic trends and groups said the same.
The impact of these important statements in the “operational” sense is not only related to the Syrian opposition. Those who know the weight of the names which appear on the communiques understand that the real impact will be evident soon. It will come on the form of a mobilization of Islamists on the ground in Saudi Arabia and other countries to join the “Holy War” against the new “Crusaders”. The unwise declaration of Russia’s Church that the military effort in Syria is a “Holy War” is widely echoed in the Islamic world. It is obvious that the Church was trying to garner public support to Putin’s otherwise unpopular decision to go to Syria.
In the meantime, Arab countries and Turkey are moving ahead with a plan to supply the opposition with qualitative arms, including anti air craft and anti-armor weapon systems. The Obama administration made itself too irrelevant to be able to have any final say about this plan. Putin is taking care of what is left of the US ability to shape anything in the crisis. He, under sanctions, moved forces to Syria and is currently preparing for another surprise-the political solution.
Following the current debate among the opposition and its backers we may detect a specific narrative emerging slowly. This narrative is significant inasmuch as it reflects the real intentions of the “other side”.
The argument says that Russia considered all Islamic groups, even those that have never got involved in terrorism, and even those who fought ISIL and lost hundreds of men in that fight, as terrorists. They believe that Russia’s real intentions are indeed anti-Islamic per se, and has nothing to do with ISIL. They provide the examples of Moscow’s attacks against non-ISIL opposition as a clear evidence of their assertions.
Furthermore, Iranian presence on Syrian territories, according to the “other side” narrative, is not refused only by the Arab backers of the opposition, but also by the vast majority of Syrians who suffered on the hands of Iranians, Hezbollah and Assad forces. The question asked by one opposition figure is: How does anyone expect us to accept the presence of Assad or Iran-Hezbollah forces on our land? Even if Assad goes, who gave the Iranians and Hezbollah that right to remain in Syria? The Russians?!
It is obvious, regardless of the extent of coherences of the opposition’s argument, that in most part they are determined to carry on their fight. Now, they will be fighting Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and the Russians. The regional backers of these groups seem to be determined as well to carry on, regardless of Moscow’s political games.
A chain of meetings took place last week in regional capitals ended with a decision to go ahead and fight. Every side of the confrontation has his own narrative. But in reality it is not a war of narratives.
When we step backward and examine Mr. Putin’s approach thoroughly we find out that in fact it does not change the dynamic of the Syrian crisis. This dynamics is defined by two specific dimension-the Syrian political-military stalemate and the regional conflict between the Arabs and the Iranians. Mr. Putin addressed the Syrian dimension in a limited manner and not only neglected the second, but is heading to using the first in order to preserve and deepen the second.
The manner in which the Russians will deal with the Syrian dimension of the crisis will definitely lead to the radicalization of the opposition. Russia’s expected impact of the solution will not materialize in any significant way if the Iranian and Hezbollah forces remain in Syria.
The problem of Mr. Putin’s approach is that it address certain sides of how the crisis appears to us or how it is described by the warring parties in the world of narratives and speeches. The Russian leader did not deal with the real essence of the crisis, not because he does not understand it, but because his strategic calculus takes him where he is heading right now.
Two questions deserve to be raised here:
* From where will Mr. Putin get the necessary ground forces to fight ISIL?
If we do not assume that ISIL could suddenly raise the olive branch, it will continue to expand until it comes face to face with the Russian troops in the west of Syria and the allies of these forces. Is that a solution at all?
* How does Mr. Putin see the impact of a political solution signed between Assad and some irrelevant and ineffective opposition on the actual configuration of the crisis? In other words, if the pressing aspect of the manifestation of this crisis is military, how is it possible that some urban intellectuals in Syrian cities can really make a difference on this acute aspect of this crisis?
Mr. Putin will bleed in Syria. Badly. And the world will end up with a bigger Jihadi problem. Can anyone please tell us who is winning in this mad mess? It would not work Mr. Putin. Handling the crisis should be collective and international, and it should deal with the two tracks-the Syrian and the regional. If you do not, you are simply creating a bigger problem, not only to yourself, but to everyone else. Everyone.