Cyrille BRET – 4th October 2015
In Syria, President Putin is neither an anti-ISIS crusader nor the protector of Europe against mass migrations and terrorism. Despite all his prophetic speeches on Christian values au Western civilisation, he’s a hardcore Realpolitiker with a matter-of-fact defensive agenda: protecting the Tartus naval facility, preserving an important customer and benefiting from the Iranian come back. He’s an expert in « diplomatic marketing » trying to sell a military solution for the Syrian crisis. But the Europeans don’t have to buy it.
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The Russian anti-ISIS crusade and the Kremlin’s “diplomatic marketing”
The EU and the US are deeply concerned and truly taken aback by the Russian direct (re)involvement in the Syrian war: the airstrikes on Homs and Hama, the enlargement of the Latakia military airport, the arrival of at least 200 infantry staff, the shipment of dozens of armored vehicles and attack heavy helicopters as well as the settlement of brand new barracks in order to accommodate at least new 1 000 staff: all those initiatives can trigger a new arms race between Shiites and Sunnis in the region, refuel a war that has already caused 250 000 death and 4 million refugees, crush the rebel movements and thus revive the Al-Assad regime.
What are the true reasons of the Russian intervention?
Is it meant to protect Europe and the West against ISIS attacks and jihadist terrorism, as the Russian president declared on 28th September in the UN? Is it aimed at supporting an already ailing dictatorship, as many European diplomats think? Those official goals are probably high on the Russian agenda. In any case, they highlight, once again, that the Russian Federation president has got a real talent for “diplomatic marketing”: he tries to be branded a “peace maker” at a time of relative international isolation.
. However, the UN speech should not overshadow the long term and actual agenda of Russia in Syria. Far from being the “anti-ISIS crusade” as it is currently branded in the Russian media, the Russian operation has a much less ideological and much more pragmatic agenda.
From Donetsk to Tartus via Sebastopol: one crisis, one strategy
Frist, the Russian operation is meant to protect an essential Russia military facility in Syria against the progression of ISIS, Al-Nosra and other Islamic rebel movements westwards to the Mediterranean Sea: the “naval support point” of Tartus had been conceded to the USSR in 1971 by treaty and later overhauled by Russia from 2009 on.
That infrastructure might seem modest from a material point of view: it comprises only two floating docks that can accommodate only medium size warships and no frigate or aircraft carrier. It is nonetheless a vital facility from the strategic point of view. It allows the Black Sea Fleet ships to make a stop without going back to Sebastopol, Crimea, through the Turkish Straits. In front of the US 6th Fleet and whatever the relations with Turkey are, Tartus ensures a permanent aeronaval Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, at a reasonable cost.
From the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 to the current operation in Syria via the naval treaty with Cyprus in February 2015, Russia is pursuing a defensive and long term objective: protect its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. The Ukrainian crisis and the Syrian operations are deeply intertwined: what is at stake here and there is the conservation of the last elements or the Soviet/Russian Empire.
Avoid the repetition of the Libyan commercial fiasco
The Russian operations are also aimed at helping the Russian economy.
In Syria, Russia wants to support an important customer of its military industrial complex at a time when its economy enters recession (the GDP shrinked by 4,2% during the 2nd semester in 2015). Since 1956, Syria is an historical customer of the Russian industrial and military complex. On average, the Syrian orders account for 10% of the Russian defense exports over the last decade.
At a time when the Al-Assad regime is threatened both by the rebels and the US led coalition, Russia wants to avoid the repetition of the 2011 Libyan scenario: the internal upheaval and the international operation against Gaddafi, deprived Russia from one of its biggest customers. Today, Russia is fighting to preserve its market share and its rank of 2nd largest defense exporter in the world.
Arms shipments to Syria show to the regional and global security markets that Russia always fulfills its arms contracts (as opposed to France, for example) and reinforce the status of alternative supplier of high tech equipements. At a time when Russian exports to Iran are resuming with the SS-300 PMU-1 missiles, it is valuable advertisement for Rosoboronexport, the State Defence Export Russian Agency.
Russian domestic politics on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea
The Syrian operation plays an important role in the internal Russian political debate. Of course, as it is often noted, it is meant to bolster nationalistic pride to compensate for the economic troubles Russia is experiencing. It also has the advantage of attracting the 2 000 Russian Jihadists outside of Russia and to divert their activities from terrorist attacks in the Russian cities. And it underlines, once again the statesmanship of the Russian President.
But more than anything else, the Russian anti-jihadist crusade in Syria is meant to further Putin’s internal campaign in favor of Christian orthodoxy (41% of the Russian Federation population) against Islam (15% of the population). In Syria, Moscow is doing Russian politics and sends a message to the Russian Muslims: “keep quiet”.
The Moscow-Tehran axis and the new Middle East
Lastly, in Syria, Russia wants to strengthen its ties with Iran, which plays a prominent role on the ground with its special force involvement. Rather than protecting the zombie Al-Assad regime, Moscow wants to take part in the recent strategic come back of Iran by supporting its Shiite allies in the region.
Of course, Russia can draw additional benefits from the operation: at a time when Europe is grappling with the refugees wave, Russia can appear to be actively tackling the root causes of the migrant crisis. In a situation where the US president is suffering from the “lame duck” curse, the Russian president is staging himself as the statesman of the hour. But actually the Moscow-Tehran axis is carrying out its first official joint operation with Iraq against Sunni Islam in the region: the target is Saudi Arabia as well as ISIS. The reshaping of the Middle East is at hand.