President Putin’s Russia is behaving in a calculated, geopolitical way in Syria, which is indicative of Political Realism, and the move from an American dominated international order towards a one where America’s power and ambitions do not translate into preferred diplomatic outcomes.
Article by Oliver B. Steward, a Doctoral Candidate in International Security at the University of East Anglia.
Its foreign policy is based on protecting its only political ally in the Middle East, that of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, and as such as taken military action outside of its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Before Russian intervention, it seemed that Bashar al Assad was losing grip on power, with the rebels and ISIS winning battles against the regime. For Russia, this signalled that if Assad is defeated its only ally in region will be defeated, bringing about a geopolitical defeat for Putin, as it has a military presence there.
Traditionally post-Soviet Russia has acted in a restrained way, concentrating its power and presence within its periphery such as military actions in Ukraine and Georgia. More recently, however Russia has gone on the offensive and has linked its national security concerns with the rise of ISIS in Syria. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had to battle its own ‘War on Terror’ with Islamic Extremists in the breakaway Russian Republic of Chechnya.
It fought two major internal conflicts, costing many lives on both fronts leaving the capital of Chechnya, Grozny in ruins. Putin’s rise to power has coincided in a more assertive Russian foreign policy which has attempted to move away from an American dominated international order, and towards a world in which Russia has a major role.
Putin has capitalised on the West’s weakness to bring about a simple answer to the rise of ISIS, and has rewritten the rules of fighting Fundamentalist Islamist terrorism in the Middle East. While President Obama of the United States has been quoted previously as stating “We don’t have a strategy yet” to tackle ISIS, Putin has weighed into the political debate by offering both a prognosis and a solution.
Putin’s worldview is the rise of ISIS is a result of failed Western intervention in Syria, weakening the Assad regime which as a result has led to the rise of extremism and weakening sovereignty of states such as Iraq and Syria.
Russia’s recent action in Aleppo is the result of Western neglect to a growing humanitarian crisis, and capitalising on its impotency. While this may indeed by the case, its military buildup and direct military intervention raises security concerns for the West and the balance of power in the Middle East.
It has a potential to create further escalation in the conflict and bring in regional actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Russian excursions into Turkish airspace during the past year has already demonstrated how this situation has worrying potential to destabilise further. While we may not agree with Russian actions in Syria, it does raise questions for Western policy makers on how to interact with the Assad regime and bring about a political endgame in the fight against ISIS and wider counter-terrorism. These questions are yet to be answered.
However regardless of whether its answerable old Westphalian nation state has failed in the Middle East with the potential of more failed states causing more deaths innocent civilians. Syria is an example of a failing nation state. The failure for any form of meaningful ceasefire in 2016 led to absolute carnage in Aleppo with Russian bombs dropping in civilian areas aiding Bashar al Assad’s government forces. Now the city is in ruins, and will cost billions to rebuild.
The failure of Great power diplomacy has caused the legitimation of violence and that has in itself rendered any effort to reach a meaningful solution. Russia has got to be treated as an equal partner in security affairs and the United States has to enter partnership with Russia to bring about a cessation of hostilities. America must no longer treat Russia as a strategic competitor in the region in an effort to desecuritize the conflict.
This will ensure this proxy war mentality within world leaders when regarding Syria cease to be a social construct among the mind of key foreign policy elites and decision makers. This will set the normative agenda away from regional security contests between Great Powers and shift the geopolitical agenda to ending the conflict and ameliorating the human suffering.