Brisbane, October 10, 2015, (Alochonaa): Last week, after lengthy preparations which included strengthening defences around airbases and building up stockpiles of weapons in strategic places around the country, Russia finally launched its attack in Syria. Russian aims are simple – destroy Bashar al-Assad’s enemies and reinvigorate Russian regional influence. Russia’s moves should have surprised no one, yet NATO, the Western media and politicians appear to have taken it rather poorly. The West is still struggling to cope with the idea that Russia, China and several more minor dictatorships, North Korea and Iran included, don’t particularly care for Washington’s vision of international order and, more importantly, are becoming increasingly good at recognising NATO or American powerlessness.
Russia’s leadership understands that NATO will not lift a finger to stop Russian aircraft bombing terrorist targets in Syria, and that Western rhetoric about their opposition to Russia taking to the skies in support of Assad is simply the result of frustration by a group of leaders who can neither prevent nor approve of Russian foreign policy initiatives. Therefore, not only should we be unsurprised at the appearance of Russian airpower, we should expect the increased involvement of Russian special forces, artillery detachments and forward observers. With their own expensive air assets parking on Syrian airfields, Russian forces will be hypersensitive to ground threats and should be expected to be proactive in their defence, thereby blurring the lines between self-defence and attack. Of course, much hinges on how much money the Russians are willing to throw at Syria to protect Assad but as long as Russian aircraft remain parked in Syria there will be parallel temptations to reinforce their ground troops, both to protect their bases and to increase the effectiveness of their airstrikes.
Airstrikes: A Game Changer?
As soon as the airstrikes began there were many pundits who immediately pronounced that Russian intervention in Syria was the game changer Assad had been waiting for, and that the bombing will effectively save Assad’s regime. Whilst I agree that Assad will be breathing a little easier this week than last, the reports that Assad has been saved have been greatly exaggerated. There are several reasons for Assad to be pessimistic:
- ISIS has proven durable in the face of airstrikes by a US-led coalition for a very long time and there is no reason to suspect that Russian airstrikes on ISIS, Kurds, Al-Nusra or the alphabet soup of anti-Assad rebels must necessarily be more effective.
- Assad still needs a lot of money, weapons, ammunition, food, fuel and the basic building blocks of a real economy. Russian airstrikes do not alter the fact that his country is shattered and that he is in control of only a fraction of it. That said, with Western sanctions coming off Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal we can expect more money to flow from that source as the Iranian economy recovers.
- Assad and his close associates are still vulnerable to defections, insider attacks or a factional coup, and Russian intervention doesn’t change that.
The Long Game
Overall, Assad may hold on for some time yet or he could still be dead in a ditch in a week – such are the vagaries of civil wars and revolutions. However, we should recall that the vast majority of pundits predicted that Assad would be ousted by the rebels during the first year of the Arab Spring. As dictators toppled in Egypt and Libya, and defections mounted amongst the Syrian Army, most people, myself included, felt that Assad’s days would be over soon. How wrong we were.
The staying power of the Syrian Army, that part which did not defect from Assad early in the war, is simply stunning. The intensity of the fighting in some of Syria’s cities has rarely been matched in recent civil wars and the country is now awash with heavy weapons on all sides. It is worth remembering that ISIS even managed to overrun northern Iraq and seize massive quantities of weapons, including the occasional tank and artillery piece, and here, again, I and many others predicted that Assad would soon collapse as a result of this windfall to ISIS. Yet Assad’s troops have clung grimly to their enclaves and the sight of Russian planes tipping out precision munitions might be enough of a morale booster to see them through another depressing, exhausting year, especially given that their other options appear to be reduced to surrendering to the head chopping Islamists who have little time for regime holdouts.
Of course, Assad’s fate hangs on many things which are not up to him or his forces. For instance, should the Iraqi Army, or more specifically, the Shia militias which seem to have taken over Iraq, manage to push ISIS out of Iraq, will Iraqi forces stop there or be tempted to march into Syria to help Assad? Would Assad, or anyone else (read: Saudis or Americans) be able to stop them? And with Russia paving the way for pro-Assad intervention in Syria, will Iran be tempted to lend even more hands-on support to ensure their previous investments in Assad have not been wasted? No doubt there are unforeseen twists and turns left in this story.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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