The Russia adventure in Syria
The nexus between foreign policy and public opinion came out forcefully in the aftermath of the Russian military airstrikes in Syria between September last year and March this year. The military action was a demonstration of Russia's increasing influence in the Middle East and indeed the world after the Cold War. It was an adventure the Russia public enjoyed, not minding the tax payers money expended on it. They were particularly happy that their leader, Vladimir Putin, has brought them to reckoning in global politics again. The return of the troop back home was greeted with jubilation across Russia, a manifestation of the fact that the policy to send troop to Syria enjoyed positive public opinion at home. It is also a demonstration of a strong link between domestic and foreign policy.
The success of a foreign policy is largely measured by the rate of public acceptance it enjoys and the impact it makes. The Syrian action achieves both. It was well received by the Russian people and it brings a sense of renewed national pride, a fact acknowledged by the Economist magazine. The Syria mission is a remarkable foreign policy statement. It is a fact that Russia is regaining its military might again several years after the Cold War.
Before the Russians commenced their strategic strikes on targets in Syria, ISIS was in commanding control of many cities in Syria including Allepo and the ancient city of Palmyra. The Syrian military overstretched with pressure from ISIS and some factions of rebel fighters that were well funded by the United States and its Middle East allies was on the verge of capitulation.
The situation changed dramatically when the Russians started their strategic bombings. The Russian air force achieved great success which puts the Syrian army on the offensive again. The operation which was highly tactical and strategic targeted mainly arms and sources of funding available to both the militants and the terrorist organization operating in the country. They were downgraded both militarily and financially.
Before the arrival of the Russians in Syria, identifying with ISIS became so attractive that terrorist organizations in Nigeria and Mali were queuing up to declare their loyalty and affiliation to it. Boko Haram declared their support for ISIS and is believed to have enjoyed bountifully the patronage of the terrorist organization in the supply of arms and funding to wage war against the Nigerian state.
Prior to the decisive action of the Russian President, the US and its Arab allies were more concerned about the removal of President Bashar al Assad of Syria from office. They refused to see the damage that the success of terrorism and insurgency in Syria was doing to the Middle East and some African states.
The US claimed it was only supporting the Syrian rebels. But the fact is that it is difficult to distinguish between ISIS and the militants. Most of the rebels are fundamentalists like the terrorists. While the goal of the terrorists is to establish a caliphate in Syria, it is still unclear what the insurgents would do with Syria if Assad that is their immediate target is chased out or killed like Ghadafi of Libya.
The share number of the different groups involved in the insurgency in Syria provides inkling that what happened in Libya may be replicated again should Assad fall. The implication is better imagined. More so, the resort to violence by the groups as a means of achieving their goals has left tens of thousands dead leading to forceful migration of millions to safety.
Curiously, the successful operation of the Russian troupe which dealt a devastating blow not only to terrorism in Syria but to international terrorism has been under severe criticism of the United States, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies. But if for nothing, the Russian action in Syria has curtailed a bloody expansion of terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. The destruction of infrastructure and base of the terrorists has forced them to flee making the recapture of Aleppo and especially the city of Palmyra which has been in the control of terrorists since May last year possible in March.
One cannot undermine the role of diplomacy in conflict resolution, but it is clear that the variant of diplomacy the West and its allies in the Middle East are applying to the Syrian crisis cannot work. There are too many forces and interests at play here. For instance, while the militants and the government forces can pretend to respect cease fire agreement, the terrorists don’t, and they are by far a more formidable force than the rebels.
It is obvious that the outcome of the Russian air strikes assisted by Iranian volunteers helped Damascus to regain full control of the Syrian-Turkish border and to clear the terrorists out of the north-eastern areas of Syria. This has stopped the sale of Syrian oil to Turkey which has been a main source of funding for ISIS. It has weakened ISIS operation both in Syria and its support for affiliates in other African states. It is not a coincidence that the Nigeria military’s offensive against Boko Haram achieved significance success within this period.
The successful attack of Russian fighter-bombers on strategic terrorist positions in the provinces of Deraa, Latakia and Aleppo, which led to the restoration of the control of government forces over some transport corridors made the supply of militants with ammunition, fuel and food from Turkey impossible.
The attack and destruction of infrastructure used in the illicit oil business along the Syria-Turkey border is also expected to help against terrorism in Iraq and by extension impede international terrorism. It is effectively preventing the financing of armed groups and significantly reduced the smuggling of oil from Syrian and Iraq by terrorists. The bombing has led to a massive reduction in revenues of extremists from illegal oil by 35 to 45%. And now they are severely limited in their financial and economic opportunities.
An Iraqi leader, Akbal Abdel Hussein said "If earlier ISIS constantly captured new territories, it is now facing a real threat of its existence” referring to the Russian air strikes on the sources of ISIS finance.
A former British MI-6 intelligence officer, and an expert on the Middle East, Alistair Crooke observed that the Syrian army with the support of the Russian air force has never been closer to winning. He wrote in online edition of Huffington Post on February 9, this year that it is victory for Putin and Assad with the incursion made into Aleppo, the stronghold of the terrorists.
The strategy of blocking all routes between Turkey and Syria under the control of terrorists by Russia through air operation has proved very effective in many ways. Principally it has reduced the influence of Turkey in the crisis in Syria.
Turkey has been alleged to be aiding both militants and terrorists to remove Assad from office. It has also degraded the strength of ISIS by cutting out sources of finance and supply of arms and ammunition. This is why analysts like Alistair believe that the intervention by Russia did not put them in any quagmire but clear victory.
There are also speculations that Turkey is contemplating a direct military intervention in Syria with the assistance of its NATO allies. To Turkey, Syria’s revival will turn the crisis ridden country to a strong regional power, especially with the backing of Russia and Iran. Turkey is not disposed to anything that will make Assad remain in office. This desperation is capable of doing anything.
But it is not only Turkey that its ego has been badly bruised by the success of the Russian military action in Syria. The United States has been woken up to the reality of Russian considerable influence in the Middle East.
Russia’s action has sent signal across the globe that it has recovered from the Cold War defeat it suffered in the hands of the West in the late 80s. Russia does not only react to actions in the international arena now but also initiate actions. The Syrian air strike is one of them. It was a bold step that the West and its allies are unable to contend with.
The strategic initiative is paying off in the fight against terrorism. Putting an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history appears to be high on the list of Russia’s foreign policy objectives. It is an initiative that will guarantee Russia a pride of place in the global fight against terrorism. The danger terrorism poses to the world does not demand a politically correct reaction but a decisive action that will halt the carnage caused by terrorists across the globe.