Rafy Hay examines the situation in the Middle East after Putin’s intervention, and the possible consequences for the interested powers
Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria has elicited a whole spectrum of responses since its official announcement on 4th September 2015. From anger and opposition, to ambivalence and fatalism, support and acclaim, his friends and enemies have been quick to give their views. In a public relations coup, Barack Obama, staunchly opposed to both Putin and Assad, has been exposed as inactive and weak, and the Russian press are going wild.
On the ground though, what are the real effects of the intervention? To answer, we need to consider the question from different sides and what it means for each group?
Putin has, in a sweeping move, radically shifted the nature of Russia as a regional power. Positioning itself as one of the most active players in the Middle East, both militarily and diplomatically – no longer limited to arms dealing and vetoing on UN security council resolutions. Russia now takes over from America, at least in the public perception, as the central intervening power in this area. However, this new status brings other side-effects; Russia has exposed itself as a new ISIS target, hugely heightening its risk of domestic terrorism. Putin’s standing as an international statesman has taken a significant boost, along with domestic popularity, and he may already have cemented his legacy as a major figure in contemporary world history, as well as pop culture.
Syria is the theatre of Putin’s military action, and is obviously the most strongly affected. Before Putin’s involvement, Assad’s regime had been an international pariah and the target of America’s partnership with the rebels. Now overnight to being a viable government in the eyes of the West again. Assad is now back at the table, despite Obama and the EU’s objections (following the photos of the torture and atrocities committed by the regime that shocked Western audiences). For the rebels, Putin’s arrival might be the final nail in their coffin, as reports currently indicate that ISIS are not his only targets. All this flies in the face of the US, as Obama’s strategy of arming rebels and publicly condemning Assad has been dismantled in one fell swoop by Putin. For the Syrian people, it has become a question of the evils of Assad and the evils of ISIS, and in this nihilistic situation they have very little say.
For ISIS this might be the turn of the tide; they are already suffering losses, although we cannot give any sort of accurate figure for them but videos circulating on the web purport to show Russian airstrikes on ISIS positions, and we can only assume that this will continue for the foreseeable future and damage their standing in Syria. Putin’s strikes against Syrian rebels may be a gift for ISIS, but this is hard to quantify: rebels are fighting ISIS and Putin’s strikes may reduce their strength, but this might mean that Assad’s forces are less hindered in any attack they might make on ISIS. Due to the lack of any real data from ISIS, we don’t yet know the full impact of Putin’s assault on ISIS, but it will almost certainly be a significant blow for ISIS.
Putin’s intervention in Syria might be the first step to lightening the burden of the coalition of nations fighting ISIS in Iraq, although many of their allies, specifically non-government rebel groups in Syria, are apparent targets of Russian airstrikes. ISIS control of huge swathes of Iraq has further limited the power and standing of the government. This all adds up to a marginalisation of the Iraqi government in regional events. Whether Iraq can weather this reduction in autonomy and importance is still uncertain.
The USA and her allies
The US has been left on the back foot after this development in public opinion, in the UN Security Council, and in Syria itself. Assad is clearly ‘Putin’s guy’, and the US, having plumped for the nebulous rebel groups fighting him, has been left without much say in internal Syrian politics. This might be for the best (cf. Iran, Iraq, Vietnam), but it will anger both sides of the US political divide. Israel will not welcome Putin’s intervention either, since although Russia has good relations with Israel, many of Assad’s allies do not. Reports suggest Hizbollah and Iran – two powers fundamentally opposed to the Jewish state – will have some part to play in Putin’s intervention. Europe may fare slightly better out of the intervention, as it may help to lessen the forces facing the Combined Joint Task Force of Operation Inherent Resolve (the allied coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq). An end to ISIS and the turmoil in Syria would also start to slow the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe. Despite widespread humanitarian action and sentiment, this will be welcomed by most Europeans.
Russia had been Iran’s only point of contact with the West until the apparent thaw in US-Iranian relations earlier this year. If Iran is brought on board with a ‘Grand Coalition’, as Putin hinted at in his UN speech on 28 September, it may point to a further integration of international relations with the US and Europe for the Islamic Republic. Putin’s intervention may spur Iran into taking a leading role in Middle Eastern politics, and even, although this may be pie-in-the-sky thinking from me, into rapprochement with its neighbours and Israel. Iran’s rising importance will be influential in any case.
At this point the situation is still unclear, but over the next few weeks or months we may start to see the real effects of Putin’s intervention, both militarily against ISIS, and in international diplomacy. Assad has recently appeared in Moscow to talk with his strategic partner about the situation, and Putin’s ties with the Middle East seem ever stronger. The direction this war will take or, more importantly, how long the war will take is still unknown. What is certain is that this is a major development for the situation in Syria, even if this is not strictly a turning point, Russian involvement in Syria will be crucial to the final outcome of this conflict.
Featured image credits: Wikimedia Commons