Putin’s Syrian Policy: “We need to Fight the Terrorists: There is No Alternative.”


2016-11-07 By Richard Weitz

At this writing, a Russian naval battle group is assembling in the East Mediterranean off Syria’s coast. It includes Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is now making its first combat mission following years of repair and modernization.

The small carrier carries four Su-33 fighter jets, 10 MiG-29K/KUB ground-attack planes and a dozen Ka-52 attack helicopters; these planes are armed with various air-to-surface missiles.

Along with some smaller surface vessels, several submarines equipped with Kalibr long-range land cruise missiles accompany the Kutnetsov. The recently launched Admiral Grigorovich frigate, armed with the same land-attack missiles, will join the battle group from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The flotilla’s tactical mission is to provide maritime naval and air power in support of Assad’s ground offensive in the Aleppo city region and perhaps in the greater Damascus area and elsewhere.

The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Photograph: STR/AP
The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Photograph: STR/AP

Yet, the strategic goals of the deployment are more important, since the Russian Air Force and Caspian Sea Flotilla can already provide comparable air and naval missile strikes against targets in Syria.

These strategic goals include exhibiting Russia’s naval power to foreign observers, ideally to generate more foreign arms sales, strengthening Russia’s image as a naval power, and compel the United States and other Western governments to negotiate with Russia and Syria on other issues.

At the Valdai Conference, former Russian ambassador and regional expert Alexander Aksenyonok introduced the panel on the Middle East by calling the situation increasingly confusing and lamenting how entire civilizations in this region were being destroyed. Aksenyonok hoped that the imperative of cooperation would override the competitive geopolitical dynamics dividing Russia from its Western partners.

Other Russian speakers at Valdai claimed that the region’s instability, designed to appear as an internally driven reform process, is actually being geopolitically engineered by the West in support of a campaign to overthrow undesired regimes there.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin, and other Russian speakers maintained that the Western-led coups and the destabilization of existing regimes has created vacuums that terrorists, allegedly backed by the United States and its allies as instruments of regime change, rushed to fill.

In Putin’s words: “Attempts were made to train these terrorists and set them against al-Assad, because there were no other options and these groups were the most effective.

This continues today because these are the most effective fighting units and some think that it is possible to make use of them and then sort them out later. But this is an illusion. …

This is a very dangerous game and I address the players once again: The extremists in this case are more cunning, clever and stronger than you, and if you play these games with them, you will always lose.”

Bogdanov said this issue stymied Russia-U.S. cooperation in Syria. He related that, following U.S. criticism that the Russian Air Force was attacking both pro-Western insurgents and terrorists, the Russian military asked Washington for the location of the moderate forces. After months of back and forth, Moscow realized the problem was that the U.S.-backed forces were co-located with the extremist groups.

Given this situation, the Russian officials asked the Americans to separate the groups, which they agreed to do.

But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Washington had proven unable, or unwilling, to fulfill these pledges to Moscow.

In Putin’s assessment, “There were people in Washington ready to do everything possible to prevent these agreements from being implemented in practice.”

However, the Russians at the conference now viewed the West as experiencing a devastating blowback from terrorist attacks in many European cities. Bogdanov read from a long list of terrorist attacks in European and other countries. “Looking at the world as a whole,” Putin added, “there are some results in particular regions and locations, but there is no global result and the terrorist threat continues to grow.”

The Russian navy’s frigate, the Admiral Grigorovich, on its way to the Mediterranean. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
The Russian navy’s frigate, the Admiral Grigorovich, on its way to the Mediterranean. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters

The Russian officials also believed their countermeasures in Syria and elsewhere made the West understand that it could not isolate Russia in the region. For this reason, Putin, Lavrov, and other Russian representatives renewed their offer of some kind of grand bargain in which Moscow and the West would set aside their differences and form a global coalition against terrorism.

Donald Trump has endorsed, in principle the Russian proposal. However, Hillary Clinton’s advisers, including some at Valdai, insisted that the United States could never support Assad, that the Russian and Syrian forces were deliberately attacking pro-Western insurgents and civilians using saturation bombing, and that Moscow’s policies in Ukraine and other places also had to change.

Both the Iranian and Turkish speakers at Valdai supported the grand coalition idea. Mehdi Sanaei, the Iranian Ambassador to Russia, believed the Middle East’s instability reflected the general transformation from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Due to this transition, the United States either could not prevent regional instability or fanned it as a means of sustaining its primacy by dividing potential rivals.

He argued that the United States and its allies needed to reverse course, respect the national sovereignty of other countries, and cooperate with Russia and China to manage terrorism and other mutual threats.

Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış essentially apologized to the audience for the current Turkish government’s misguided policies towards the Syrian conflict. In his evaluation, Ankara mistakenly assumed Bashar Al Assad’s regime would soon fail. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, descended from the Muslim Brotherhood, saw an opportunity to establish a likeminded regime in Syria. Turkey therefore armed rebel groups to remove Assad despite growing evidence that extremists were assuming control of the insurgency.

According to Yakış, the Turkish government only recently changed its goals to now prioritize maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity by fighting the Kurdish militia in Syria, leaving the defeat of ISIS there to Russia and other foreign forces. Turkey’s recent Operation Euphrates Shield offensive sought to clear the Kurdish PYD (which he described as a re-formation of the outlawed Kurdish PKK terrorist group) away from Turkey’s border.

With a stretch of logical and overlooking divisive factors among them, Yakış argued that since preserving Syria’s territorial integrity has now become a shared goal among the United States, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government, there is now a “golden opportunity” for international cooperation regarding Syria.

The Russian speakers bristled at the Western criticism of the large number of civilian casualties caused by the Russian air campaign in Syria. They saw these complaints as hypocritical, given the numerous civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern war zones.

They also blamed the West for failing to fulfill the requirements for a ceasefire, namely the separation of civilians and moderates from the extremist Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda affiliated; now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), which at times the Russian speakers described as a more serious threat than ISIS, at least in Syria.

Putin made it clear that Russia would persist in its air strikes, which have been temporarily halted pending arrival of the flotilla, regardless of the civilian casualties:

“Do we leave the nest of terrorists in place there, or do we squeeze them out, doing our best to minimize and avoid civilian casualties? …

Look at Israel’s example. Israel never steps back but always fights to the end, and this is how it survives.

There is no alternative.

We need to fight.

If we keep retreating, we will always lose.”

The author would like to thank Lance Alred for his research assistance for this article.