Edward Spiers: Putin’s strategy is risky but may work

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AFTER recent near misses between US and Russian aircraft in the skies over Syria, the completion of the US-Russian Memorandum of Understanding about air safety is a highly welcome response to the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, which began with bombing sorties three weeks ago.

This dramatic intervention on September 30 followed indecisive meetings at the United Nations on the previous day where President Barack Obama continued his denunciation of President Bashar al-Assad as well as the forces of Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL), or as it prefers to call itself, Islamic State (IS). President Vladimir Putin simply professed his sustained support for the legitimate government entity in Syria that is fighting terrorism “face to face”.

Putin, who met Assad in Moscow for a summit that could have profound ramifications on Western foreign policy, has now intervened in a conflict that has already claimed the lives of 220,000 Syrians and displaced another 11 million.

Although he claims to be attacking IS forces, the aerial onslaught has mainly targeted rebel forces in the north-western provinces of Hama and Idlib, adjacent to the Latakia governorate, the coastal homeland of the Alawite sect loyal to Assad. Those fighting under the rebel coalition known as the Army of Conquest include an al-Qaida affiliate, the al-Nusra front, and the largest Islamist faction, Ahrar ash-Sham, as well as other groups including Chechen fighters.

Putin sees clear advantages from Russia’s intervention. Unlike the bombing campaigns of the US, France and Turkey in Syria, the Russian bombing is perfectly legal, as it has been requested by Syria’s internationally recognised authority.

In launching 26 cruise missile strikes from his flotilla in the Caspian Sea, Putin also had permission to overfly Iraq and Iran (and four of the missiles reportedly crashed in Iran).

Secondly, the Russian intervention is a strategically co-ordinated operation, whereby Russian aerial power is paving the way for a ground offensive by Assad’s forces, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias to recapture the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

Attacking villages along the highway both north of Homs and in Hama province, as well as pounding rebel positions in the Shal al-Ghab region, serves the direct interests of Russia, as some 5,000 to 10,000 Chechens have been supporting the Syrian rebels.

While IS terrorists might be the main threat to the UK and other Western states, the Chechens remain the main threat to Russia, and so Putin hopes to reduce the number who could return to ply their terrorist trade in the Caucasus.

Thirdly, the Syrian/Russian strategy has some operational coherence since clearing the rebel threat from the al-Ghab plain will facilitate a forward movement towards Syria’s second city of Aleppo. It will also reduce the Sunni threat to Latakia, where Russia retains a major naval base in Tartus and the use of aerial facilities in port of Latakia itself.

Mounting any air-ground operations against IS forces in the north-eastern province of Raqqa could not proceed while a major threat remained on the flanks, and the recapture of territory could prove crucial if the prospect of a ceasefire or political settlement arose.

Television, finally, enables Putin to reap the maximum advantages in respect of propaganda, with 72 per cent approval ratings for the bombing at home. He appears as a strong leader by contrast with Obama, demonstrates the capacities of Russian weaponry, and upholds his counter-terrorist credentials.

Yet the intervention carries risks whether of accidents, pilot error or malfunctioning weapons. Operations in the north, moreover, may depend upon operations further south, which have to secure the capital, Damascus, and cut the supply lines from Jordan and Saudi Arabia that sustain Sunni insurgents.

As so many aerial forces are now operating in Syrian air space, it is prudent to agree rules of engagement, however distasteful this may be for Western governments opposed to Assad’s regime.

Putin’s intervention then may be hazardous, costly, and serve purposes of which Western governments disapprove, but it has a logical coherence. It could affect the balance of advantage on the ground and demonstrates that foreign policy, if based upon national interest and realpolitik, may reap benefits over an approach that only supports those of whom one approves.

Edward Spiers is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Leeds.