Global Affairs

US-Russia proxy war looms in Middle East

Moscow is not as isolated as most Western politicians claim, and it may well emerge stronger from its decision to launch air strikes in Syria

LONDON • "We're not going to make Syria a proxy war between the United States and Russia," US President Barack Obama told journalists over the weekend, as Russian jets continued their air strikes over the war-torn country.

But that statement can be interpreted only in one of two ways: Either that the United States doesn't care about Syria and is prepared to abandon it to Russia's sphere of influence, or that President Obama is simply unwilling to face today's strategic realities.

For the Middle East is heading precisely into the proxy war scenario which Mr Obama vows to avoid. And, notwithstanding American warnings, Russia may well emerge strengthened from this broader confrontation.

Russia's decision to launch air strikes should not have come as a surprise. Moscow's preparations for this offensive were already tracked by Western intelligence agencies from early August, when specially-dispatched Russian military personnel were detected working on the expansion of three airfields in areas controlled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The subsequent arrival of Russian fighter jets and helicopters, and, especially, the large quantities of logistical supplies which accompanied them should have removed any lingering doubts about Moscow's intentions. Still, Western governments failed to respond to these Russian preparations partly because they yet again underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin's risk-taking instincts, and partly because they didn't wish to admit that Mr Putin's moves were a direct outcome of the West's own disarray in the Middle East.

And, when the Russian air force did launch its air strikes, the US and its allies responded with weasel words. Russia's "military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation", complained the same governments which spent the past four years bombing everyone and everything in the region.

Presumably, Western bombs promote prosperity and brotherhood; it's only Russia's bombs which fuel violence.

Western governments also like to point out that Mr Putin has sent his jets into Syria not because he feels strong, but because he feels weak. And every Western leader is now warning Mr Putin that, if he continues with the bombing, Russia will be "sucked" into a "Middle East quagmire" of "Afghanistan proportions".

But that, too, is largely nonsense. For although it is true that one of the key reasons Russia intervened was the realisation that the Assad regime was on the brink of collapse, it is also clear that Russia's air strikes have already succeeded in increasing the Assad regime's chances of survival.

Mr Assad will never be able to regain control over his entire country, but he is almost certainly able to keep control over the capital of Damascus and part of the country dominated by the Alawite minority to which he belongs.

The Russians have also strengthened their own diplomatic position by proving that from now on, any decision on Syria cannot be taken without their involvement. Since the beginning of Russia's air strikes, Western leaders have fallen over themselves in their eagerness to phone Moscow with various appeals for cooperation.

So, although Mr Putin's argument that he is waging war in order to beef up the chances of peace may be bogus, they have already earned him plenty of diplomatic attention.

And there is little likelihood that, as things stand, Russia will be sucked into another Afghanistan, as Western critics claim. Military planners in Moscow are only too aware of the historic comparison; that's why they explicitly ruled out any Russian ground presence in Syria.

Unlike Afghanistan, the Russians have never said that they wanted to control all of the country, or that they are wedded to the Assad regime; instead, they have kept their war objectives flexible enough to be changed at will.

In effect, the Russians are merely copying the West's model of waging modern war: Spraying people with bombs from a safe distance, with the objective of producing the biggest bang at the lowest risk to Russian soldiers. This is a campaign which the Russians can sustain for years.

To be sure, the Russians do face some potential dangers. Their military bases - including Mr Putin's much-prized Tartus naval facility on Syria's Mediterranean coast - could end up being besieged by rebels, forcing the Russians into either a hasty and humiliating retreat or a bloody battle. Russia's estimated 30,000 citizens in Syria could also come under threat, presenting Mr Putin with another horrible military dilemma.

And there is some danger of an accidental military clash between Russian and Western military units operating over Syria.

But the chances of any of these incidents happening remain small, since the rebels inside Syria are too divided to confront Russian bases, while the West is anxious to avoid any accidental clash.

Besides, Mr Putin retains the flexibility of changing policies at the drop of a hat: If his Syria adventure gets too risky, he can always just stop his involvement, and Western governments will eagerly provide him with a justification for leaving Syria with Russia's head held high.

In short, therefore, the dangers inherent in Russia's involvement are nowhere near as great as Western governments suppose, but the potential advantages which Russia can derive are far greater than Western governments would like to admit.

By returning with military force in the region, Russia has acquired some Middle Eastern enemies. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are furious with Mr Putin, largely because Russia's intervention now complicates both these countries' strategic objectives in the region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday criticised Moscow's bombing campaign as "unacceptable" and "a grave mistake". But Turkey needs Russia more than Russia needs Turkey, and Mr Erdogan is only too aware that all the Russians need to do is to start supporting the Kurds in Syria to make Turkey's strategic situation a misery.

The Saudis have also been muted in their criticism, because they too hope for an accommodation with Russia.

And the Russians are already obliging: In comments over the weekend, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said his country was ready to "consult" Saudi Arabia about "stabilising" global oil markets, by which the Russians mean an increase in the price at which both the Saudis and the Russians would be able to sell their most significant commodity.

A similarly intricate strategic game is being conducted between Russia and Israel: The Jewish state doesn't relish Russia's military return to the region, but is already secretly dealing with the Russians over Syria, in return for Mr Putin's promise that Israel's security concerns will be taken into account.

Meanwhile Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, is actually supporting Russia's actions, notwithstanding the fact that Saudi Arabia is Egypt's top paymaster. The reality is that, although most Arabs don't like what Russia is doing in their region, they do admire the way Mr Putin seems able to pinprick the Americans; Russia is nowhere near as isolated as most Western politicians claim.

And, then, there is Russia's budding alliance with Iran. Most of the Russian military equipment currently in Syria has flown over Iranian territory, with Iran's evident knowledge and backing.

Russia and Iran are also cooperating on intelligence information. And although there is not much trust between the two nations, there is no question that Moscow has plenty of options to forge a closer alliance with Iran, should the West put too much pressure on Russia.

Mr Putin could decide to supply air defence systems to Iran, as he has already threatened to do. And he can also forge a closer relationship with the Shi'ite-dominated government in Iraq, another measure at which he has hinted.

In all, Syria's war is already a proxy confrontation between Russia and the West, in the same way that Ukraine has been from the start; the only alternative facing President Obama is whether to engage in this proxy game with Moscow now, or just ignore it, and end up being sucked into a bigger proxy battle with Russia later.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'US-Russia proxy war looms in Middle East'. Print Edition | Subscribe