From U.S. President Obama’s perspective, the U.S. administration previously assumed that its two rivals Russia and Iran would let go of Bashar al-Assad and initiate a “transitional phase” that will eventually lead to a “democratic, secular and pluralistic Syria”.
Nowadays, American officials openly speculate that the Russian President Vladimir Putin will “fail” to achieve his goals and will be dragged into the “Syrian quagmire”. But what if Putin accomplishes his goals in Syria where Obama failed? What if Putin indeed becomes “the protector of the minorities, savior of the government institutions, guarantor of solutions, and the one who would prepare Syria for unity”? What if his influence expands from Syria into the whole Middle East? What if Putin uses the “Syrian card” in his confrontation with Europe and the U.S. against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis, international isolation and sanctions?
Putin has used every means in his hands – including political and diplomatic leverage as well as Russia’s veto power at the U.N. Security Council – to prevent the replay of Russia’s “dual experiences” in Libya and Iraq. In contrast, Putin is now resorting to military actions including transforming a small port into a military base independent from the Syrian regime’s control, building a fortress in Lattakia, setting up military command centers and communications network that are closed to even Syrians and other regional partners. Russia now has a chokehold on the Syrian regime and its social base; dozens of its advanced aircraft rule most of the skies of Syria and perplexes its rivals and allies alike.
At this point, Syria and the surrounding region face two possibilities:
The first scenario is “the regime or the ISIS”. In this scenario, the Russian warbirds will have struck every section of the opposition without distinguishing between Ahrar Ash-sham, Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Hur, the Nusra Front, ISIS, the Army of Conquest, the Levant Front, and other Islamist factions – all of them will be equally targeted. Russians embrace the Syrian regime’s view that “anyone who raises his weapon against the state is a terrorist, except those who return to the nation.”
The Syrian regime, however, would be pressured to abandon its practice of randomly dropping explosive barrels in order to open the skies to targeted air strikes by Russian jets. The Russians will rely on a scorched-earth policy following the example of Gruziya, flattening the areas that will later be invaded by the regime forces. Battles and raids conducted by Russians will provide cover for the regime forces, militias aligned with Iran, and Hezbollah.
The Russians will provide air cover to the “Shia Crescent” in Syria and its neighbors to dominate the regime-controlled area from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast, and make friends with those who raise weapons under the Russian command. At the same time, Russia will leave the remaining areas of Syria in chaos and ISIS – which is a potent mix of the worldview of Syrian officials, the Algerian model, and Iran’s style of waiting out for the right timing. According to this scenario, the Russians will wipe out the gray zone between the regime and the ISIS, produce a “secular” territory for Assad’s regime and leave the rest of the country in chaos.
This is what the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev implied when he said that the Russian operation in Syria is a “pre-emptive measure” to defend “Russia’s national interest.” This will be achieved by: killing thousands of Islamic extremists from Chechnya and other Islamic nations in Syria, China, and the post-Soviet states; by denying those extremists re-entry to their home countries; and by defending Russia’s ally Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Washington and its allies will draw a line between the “allies of the Kremlin” and the “allies of the White House” and provide no cover for those who strive to achieve democracy. There will be no use staging demonstrations and engaging in political activities as a new world order is forged and army generals march into presidential palaces.
The first scenario will assign no value to political solutions because it accepts of the official Syrian discourse, which gives absolute priority to combating terrorism by stemming the training, funding, and arming of terrorists. The Syrian regime will receive some window dressing by accommodating a few “enlightened” opposition figures and holding theatrical elections whose only purposes are to reproduce the regime itself and bestow it with legitimacy – at all costs. The regime will also employ military, political, and diplomatic means in Syria, the Middle East and at the U.N. to preserve the regime with all of its symbols and pillars intact.
Meantime, the regime will view the combatants from both secular and Islamic opposition forces as mere extensions of ISIS as many have thrown themselves to the embrace of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS will thus become a symbol of the Sunni faith and its members will commit themselves to a “holy war” against the other “holy war” sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church, transforming the Syrian war from a Sunni-Shia conflict into an Islamic-Christian conflict. Although Obama has refused to be dragged into a “proxy war”, he will increasingly find it difficult in the final year of his presidency to resist the willingness of other Middle Eastern states to support the opposition forces. Thus, Syria will become a theater of a regional conflict, and then an international conflict.
The Soviet-Afghan War will not repeat itself because Russia, the Middle East, and indeed the whole world have changed. The Russian army has no presence in Syria – as long as the head of the Chechen Republic is prepared to send thousands of his fighters to the Syrian front. Because Russia’s power is in decline, however, there may be some unforeseen consequences. Many Syrians will begin to view the Russian military as occupying forces and eventually regard “combating the occupation” as their “duty”, at which point Syrian fighters cooperate with each other, form a common front, and start a “war of liberation and unity”. In the meantime, regime loyalists will find it difficult to advocate Russian “colonialism”. History will teach Syrians that Russian MiGs are easier to fend off than the regime’s explosive barrels; the ideological gap between Syrians will narrow.
An American journalist close to the White House advised that Obama’s policy should be to let Putin “drown in the Syrian quagmire.” A U.S. official indicated that one of the policy recommendations to Obama was to leave Hezbollah and ISIS to fight each other in Syria: nowadays, Obama is leaving Russia and the ISIS to fight each other.
The second scenario posits that a new regime will emerge to stand against ISIS. In this scenario, Putin will be perceived as an “eternal protector of the minorities” as he successfully offers protection and security to the Alawites and other minorities. The Russian army is garrisoned on the Syrian soil and Russian jets dominate the skies. “Surgical strikes” are implemented near Alawite towns; air strikes against the Army of Conquest near Hama, Idleb, and Homs are under way; a number of strategic chokepoints are in Russian hands. The warring factions in Syria will reveal their true colors as loyalists of Russia gain the upper hand against loyalists of Iran inside the Syrian regime; as Syria’s dependence on Iran weakens; as the war is transformed from a Sunni-Shia conflict into a political conflict; as Russia scores symbolic victories against ISIS; and as militia leaders and the “National Defense Force” learn who really is in charge of all the military operations. The real differences between Ahrar Ash-sham, the Nusra Front, ISIS, Jaish al-Hur, and other Islamist factions will start to appear.
In this scenario, Putin understands that the Syria he had known since his KGB years in Berlin is different from the Syria he sees from the Kremlin; he realizes that a “new social contract” must emerge in the country with the help of a skillful weaver who would reformulate the very fabric of Syria. He therefore invests a significant amount of patience and determination in bringing all the parties to the center and strives to apply the following “principles” that he agreed upon with the U.S. and regional countries: “secular and unified Syria with its institutions, army, and security apparatuses intact”, “resumption of reforms”, and “restoration of Syria’s politico-economic structures”. Putin will also pursue his own agenda of “regime survival”, continuance of the regime’s institutions, and unity of Syria; his goal is now to create a “new Syria” instead of “Syria as a useful tool.” Russia will conduct surgical strikes around the regime’s strongholds only as tactical measures to draw de facto borders in Syria.
As the Syrian regime embraces the “Russian protection”, it finally becomes ready to engage in arbitration and partnership without the fear of being forced to divide its power. The opposition forces are no longer the regime’s gravediggers. Putin’s presence in Syria is a reality that propels every party to negotiations and is therefore not terminal. Six months after the regime is redeemed from collapse – as Western officials have indicated – Islamist factions cease to invade the Alawite territory. The regime moves onward with the “Geneva III” negotiations to implement the Geneva I declaration, which stipulated the formation of a transitional body consisting both of the regime and the opposition to create a “new Syria” on the basis of a “clear timetable”.
Russia’s previous position notwithstanding – i.e. “the transitional body should not include any members of the Assad regime, the army or the security services” – Moscow will move on to an arbitration process that includes three transitional councils comprising the representatives of the regime and the opposition: shared armed forces, a transitional government, and a national conference. The newborn regime will be able to restore legitimacy and international relations, and to enter into a partnership with the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units to confront ISIS. The West will “endorse” Putin by acknowledging that Assad should remain in the transitional phase; Germany specifically will endorse the need for “partnership” with the existing regime. Putin will have adopted the positions of the West and Syrians: partnership between the regime and the “enlightened” opposition; early parliamentary elections; reform of the constitution; and early presidential elections.
In the second scenario, Syrians will have become realistic in their aspirations and sovereignty. Many Syrians will accept the Russian sphere of influence as long as its alternative is an Iranian one. Russians, not Iranians, will fill the void created by America’s retreat from the Middle East. Many will endorse the restoration of a unified Syria instead of a partition. Decentralization, however, will no more be an abomination because local autonomy and the rule of local leaders will not sever the tie between Damascus and other regions.
Several countries will participate in rebuilding Syria, while some of them realize that Putin has fought a proxy war against extremists on their behalf. At the same time, what the Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Bashar al-Assad at the beginning of 2015 will finally weigh in: rebuilding Syria will require $350 billion. Both Russia and Iran are not capable of bearing such financial burden; therefore, any arbitration must be acceptable to the Arabian Gulf states footing the bill. One should interpret the visits by Emirati, Egyptian, and Jordanian leaders before the beginning of Russia’s military operations within this context. Putin’s bold military actions will become an inspiration because they gave priority to fighting the Iranian influence and the ISIS. The regime, facing some nuisance with Iran loyalists, will kick them out to Iran in preparation for a strategic relationship with Russia because America under Obama is no longer a reliable ally. Many regional countries and Arab states will accept the arbitration process, weakening the position of obstructionists; occasional bumps and challenges will not blow up the eventual outcome.
The European leadership will celebrate the “savior” Putin as his actions in Syria will diminish the inflow of refugees; Putin will be able to slip into the cracks between Europe and America created by the Ukrainian crisis. Syria will profit from the placement of strategic missiles against NATO; neighboring countries will celebrate the end of humanitarian chaos on their border and look forward to the reversal of the stream of refugees.
If Putin rushes to present his political vision, he will be able to realize what Obama neglected. Obama’s wish to build a “working relationship” with Moscow and Tehran to achieve a political transition can be realized. The “principles” agreed upon by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in New York will finally have a meaning: “a secular, pluralistic and unified Syria.” Putin will have achieved the agreement he reached with Obama, in his own “style”. He will also have given a gift to Obama in his last year of presidency by opening an exit for him from the dilemma of “the chemical weapons problem” in 2013.
Those who speculated on Putin’s failure will be hugely disappointed; those who thought that Putin had no political plans matching his military actions will be surprised. Instead, they will be witnessing a Tsar reigning over Syria and the Middle East – a Tsar who is not sinking in a quagmire, but is inheriting the American sphere of influence in the region. Others will witness the arbitration process running on track as Putin planned. Thousands of Syrians will board airplanes to return to their country; meanwhile, regime figures will be boarding an airplane to escape Syria, paying the price of generously allowing the “Russian bear” to enter their turf. Stonewalling will become more difficult for government officials. Every party will accept the “Russian legacy” as reality in Syria.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.