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M-East: My enemy’s enemy is my friend

  • Steven Gruzd
At the end of September, Russian warplanes began aerial bombing raids in Syria, adding to the already complex dynamics of the Syrian civil war, which has raged unabated since 2011. What prompted this intervention? What does it say about Russia’s place in the world? And what does this mean for Israel?
by STEVEN GRUZD | Oct 21, 2015

Historically, Russian-Syrian ties have been strong. Damascus has been Moscow’s long-time ally since the 1950s. Russia has a Mediterranean port at Tarsus in Syria, its last outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has remained a firm supporter of his Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Moscow has sold copious amounts of weapons to Damascus over the decades. Putin has also protected Assad in the UN Security Council, vetoing two Western-backed resolutions on Syria in 2011 and 2013.

These came in the aftermath of Resolution 1973, which in 2011 authorised a “no-fly zone” over Libya, ultimately causing “regime change” through the violent overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. Russia was determined not to allow this in Syria.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs said: “Since 2011, the narrative from the US and Europe has been that there can be no solution in Syria if Assad remains an actor. But Russia opposes regime change, especially for its friends.”

On all fronts, Assad’s regime was losing ground, and he directly requested Putin’s intervention, ostensibly to assist with the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls vast swathes of territory in Syria (and neighbouring Iraq).

Russia has portrayed its military intervention as that of a responsible global citizen, helping to rid the world of jihadists, and the only legitimate external involvement consented to by the Syrian government. While Russia said its aircraft were targeting ISIL, it was in fact also bombing a wide array of Assad’s enemies, including the al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army.

The US has been conducting bombing raids against ISIL for over a year, and arming local rebels, with few visible results. Sidiropoulos asserts that Russian intervention also “allows Moscow to highlight the weakness and ineffectiveness of America’s strategy in Syria”.

It was Putin, not US President Barack Obama, who engineered the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons after America failed to act when Syria used them against its own citizens.

Others see this as a chance for Moscow to display its military might for the cameras and combat its international isolation after annexing Crimea from Ukraine. If Assad falls, Russia stands to lose billions in arms contracts (Syria represents about 10 per cent of all its arms sales).

Russia is now flexing its muscles, trying to reassert itself as a great power after a retreat in the 1990s. It has been involved in several internal and external conflicts - putting down separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, a brief war with Georgia in 2008, and the Ukraine conflict in 2014 - 2015. Russia resents the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders with the inclusion of the Baltic States, and the growth of the European Union into Eastern Europe.

But is this another Cold War? Sidiropoulos doubts it. “Russia is economically weak from sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and the low oil price. China, not Russia, is the major rising power globally. And we lack the dramatic clash of ideologies witnessed after the Second World War.” But as a nuclear power with a UN Security Council veto and a formidable army, Russia remains a global player.

Larry Benjamin, lecturer in international relations at Wits, said: “Syria as a country has lost meaning. It’s like a feudal jigsaw puzzle. But Moscow, Washington, Damascus and Jerusalem do all have a common enemy in ISIL.” Conflicts sometimes make for strange bedfellows.

Russia has been a major arms supplier to Israel’s arch enemy, Iran, and to Iran’s clients Hezbollah and Hamas. However, in the complex world of contemporary global politics, Russia also retains strong and cordial ties with Israel. Israel is home to over a million Russian immigrants and Jewish oligarchs influence Russia’s Israel policy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Putin in Moscow before the Russian sorties in Syria, to discuss the military situation (and agree to keep out of each other’s way).

Although there is no formal peace treaty with Syria, its frontier with Israel has been relatively quiet since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. If Assad falls, the chaos that could replace him could destabilise the border with Syria and pose a significant threat to Israel.

Benjamin said: “Israel has been happy to let things happen in Syria. The conflict has kept Iran (and Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a 30-day war in 2006) occupied in Syria and strained relations between Hamas and Iran. It is best for Israel if Assad stays.

“The expectation that the Arab Spring would usher in liberal democratic secular regimes, respecting human rights, has proven to be totally misplaced. On balance, oppressive secular dictatorships for Israel’s neighbours are far preferable to radical Islamic ones. Israel fears that if Assad collapses, Jordan might be next, and that is a big nightmare for them. If Russia helps Assad survive, that suits Israel’s interests.”

With no solutions in Syria in sight, Israel’s neighbourhood will remain extremely unstable. Russia’s intervention is likely to further muddy the waters in this particular 

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