January 7, 2016


Unfriended: How Russia's Syria quagmire is costing it Middle Eastern allies (Pavel K. Baev, January 7, 2016, Brookings)

[I]t has transpired by now that Russia's actions have been insufficient for changing the course of war. Hundreds of sorties have provided close air support to government forces, but the quality of Bashar Assad's troops is such that they cannot execute a successful offensive. Russia cannot curtail the intensity of its air campaign because its allies on the ground might panic and run, but the track record of technical failures and crashes in the air force is so dismal that a disaster at the crowded air base outside Latakia could strike any day. There is no chance of creating anything resembling a victory in Syria that could possibly cover up such a setback. [...]

Upon launching its bold intervention in Syria, the Russian leadership had some expertise on the friendly environment in the Tartus-Latakia area, but little understanding of the consequences of joining the motley Shiite alliance led by Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to explain to Putin that such an alliance was a bad idea, ramping up airstrikes against Hezbollah in order to make his argument more convincing. Still, he could not dissuade Moscow from delivering to Iran the long-contracted S-300 surface-to-air missiles, a weapon system that is disturbing to Israel and Saudi Arabia alike. This physical manifestation of Russia-Iran alliance-building has produced new tensions in the South Caucasus, which Turkey follows very closely. It also upsets many Muslims inside Russia (Tatarstan in particular), who fear the escalation with Turkey signals that tensions go beyond just a personal row between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Moscow now finds itself in a very awkward position in the region, particularly vis-à-vis Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions, which have sharply escalated after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on January 2. Over the past year, and particularly since Russia's Syrian intervention, Putin has networked extensively with the Saudi royal family and other Gulf leaders--but now these ties are coming undone because Russia is perceived as Iran's ally. Turkey has greater flexibility--and even mediating ability--in these sectarian and geopolitical conflicts, but Russia has become a part of the problem. Moscow could have cherished hopes that the Saudi-Iranian conflict would push the oil price up, but the market has not obliged. And in the tight Syrian-Turkish corner, even if Putin resists the temptation to break out of his current predicament by making a rash proactive move, it would only amount to sitting and waiting for bigger troubles to come.

Posted by at January 7, 2016 5:01 PM