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Proxy war in Syria starts race to Al-Raqqa

Vladimir Putin does not need anyone to tell him that his plan in Syria is wrong, a formula for disaster or that it is delaying any possible political solution. Nor does he need anyone to tell him that the war he began will not achieve the goal of ending terrorism; rather it may increase its dangers. He knows all of that, and perhaps he also realises the strategic consequences for Syria, and even Iraq, but he only cares about the gamble he is taking with the US, and he has a feeling that there is something he could win out of it.

Russia’s “Caesar” kept in mind that his American-European opponents do not want to be dragged into a military escalation in Syria. To make sure of that, the preliminary contact was in Turkey, which sent a message to NATO; the answer came back saying that NATO is concerned with protecting Turkey, which means it is not concerned with sponsoring or protecting any role it has in Syria. Thus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in order to stay away from danger, had no other option but to remind his country of its friendship with Syria. However, Putin cannot bet on an indefinite absence of US and Western options.

That was the first test of the escalation in Syria; to enable Putin from getting a timely and partial neutralisation of Turkey. Timely, because the confrontation is still in its early stage, and partial because it will not prevent Ankara from continuing to provide military support to fighting groups in Syria. Nevertheless, Moscow’s allies in Tehran and Damascus consider this neutralisation to be important and able to be built upon. The head of Iran’s Shura Council, for example, believes that the two recent bomb attacks in Ankara “were part of the crisis that is overwhelming the region”. While Turks suspect that there are external parties trying to put Turkey and its security in the middle of that crisis, their information and doubts are now divided equally between accusations against Daesh and the involvement of the Kurdish PKK in an Iran-Assad role. Remarkably, there is harmony between the operations of the PKK and Daesh which cannot only mean their exploitation of security gaps, but also suggests that there is a side that plans and moves, and has long-term goals.

In any case, Tehran and Damascus no longer think that it’s enough to market the Russian intervention as a factor that can end things in favour of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime; they have also started talking about changing the features of the region and its map. So the mullahs’ plans are being revived after a few months during which Iran had to look like a responsible country that deserves a nuclear agreement to be signed; a stage that witnessed defeats for the regime in Syria and obstacles that limited the participation of the “People’s Crowd” militias in the war against Daesh in Iraq while the US insisted on a role for the tribes in the liberation of Anbar and Mosul. Into this mix came the war in Yemen which set back Iranian ambitions for regional influence. Although Tehran had agreed to Iraq’s ex-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s request for US intervention to tackle the spread of Daesh, it did not succeed in directing such intervention or turning it into an opportunity for itself. It was enough that it was used as an incentive for the US throughout the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions.

While the Americans and Iranians displayed a lot of natural-looking normalisation, Tehran and Moscow were discussing plans for the post-nuclear agreement stage, particularly raising the level of the Russian intervention and changing the rules of war against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Once Ali Khamenei made sure that Russian operations had already started against Syrian opposition groups, the Iranian leader once again prohibited any communication with the Americans outside the implementation of the nuclear agreement.

Within the limits of what is known about the Russian operations, so far they are tied closely to the wishes of the Assad and Iranian regimes. On the other hand, there have been more analyses and predictions of Russian failure, while announcements claim that the US arming of certain Syrian opposition groups indicates a serious revision in the response to the Russian intervention. There are some signs which show a rapid change in the make-up of the allies of opposition groups reflecting the recommendations of countries offering support but which need time to determine international options, particularly America’s, and to formulate future moves.

The results of Russian air support and disproportionate amounts of weapons will soon be obvious, even if they do not lead to a military resolution of the conflict. While this trend weakens the alleged seriousness of Russia in the fight against Daesh, and makes its claims look more like propaganda, it strengthens the position of Iran and the Assad regime, which both seek to weaken the opposition. Their targets over the past two weeks have shown that their prime target is the Free Syria Army, identified as the main threat to their hegemony.

In return, it seems that the Americans want to speed up the land war against Daesh and start a campaign against it in Al-Raqqa before Assad and the Iranians get there. In the context of arming Syrian opposition groups, we started to hear about the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition, which is said to be armed mainly by the Americans to fight Daesh, particularly in Al-Raqqa. Initial information shows that this group is linked to elements of the Free Syria Army trained by the CIA, but with conditions that are less strict than what the Pentagon calls for, and that it is now time to use these groups to stop the Russians and their allies from imposing their means of fighting terrorism. What’s new is that these groups have Arab fighters, and it is believed that the Russian airstrikes targeted their locations. Although this development reminds us of the scenarios facing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 35 years ago, the roles have changed. While Daesh continues to recruit followers and call for jihad, the US and its allies are cautious about mentioning any similarity with the “Mujahideen” who were used to combat the spread of communism in Afghanistan, which then slid towards extremism and terrorism.

The reality is that the Russian intervention has put this dilemma up for discussion. Moscow went even further when it got the Orthodox Church to describe what’s going on as a “holy war”, at a time when Arab and Islamic governments are working very hard to remove the religious cover behind which Daesh and similar groups are hiding. Thus Russia ignores the facts of the Syrian conflict and proves its conscious determination not only to provoke the religious dimension but also to explode a sectarian conflict through supporting the Iranian Shia alliance against the majority of Syrians who are Sunni. Russia also appears to have ignored warnings that their methods of fighting terrorism, if that is their real goal, will strengthen Daesh, either by restricting the opposition and making them join with the militant group or by giving them more reasons for extremism and starting a new stage of reckless jihad.

However, those who believe that the Russians went to Syria only to fight against terrorism are mistaken and there is no need for them to wait any longer to change their positions. The criticism of US strategy as ineffective is reasonable, but the Russian strategy is more worrying because it wants to end the Syrian conflict to the advantage of Assad and Iran, neither of whom mind coexisting with Daesh as long as Russia provides the means to contain its extremism. Nevertheless, far from going to Syria in the interests of Tehran and Damascus, it is more likely that Putin is using the war on terrorism and messing with it as a means to provoke the US and Europeans and lure them into negotiating with him regarding Ukraine and strategic security. So far they have refused to do so and do not mind a long term confrontation in Syria as long as they are not getting their soldiers involved. The Americans, like the Russians, are interested in using Daesh and benefitting from the fight against it in order to achieve other goals that have nothing to do with Syria.

Translated from Asharqalarabi, 15 October, 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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