By Tim Marshall.
Russia’s military escalation in Syria puts it at odds with every almost every state actor in the wider Middle East bar Iran. President Putin has chosen sides in the region’s Sunni/Shia divide.
Shia Iran, and Shia Hezbollah have been joined militarily by Russia to shore up the Syrian Alawite (Shia sect) led government. The Shia led government is prepared to allow Russian cruise missiles to fly over its territory. Putin must have known he would anger all the Sunni led governments before entering the fray so forcefully but decided the risk was worthwhile.
If they could make themselves heard above the roar of the Formula 1 engines, they will have realised how little they had to agree on. The meeting ended with some vanilla flavoured statements about cooperation in Syria, but there is little to co-operate about – they are on different sides.
Russia will continue its air strikes in support of a ground offensive by regime loyalists, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Gulf States will continue to arm and fund a variety of anti-government groups some of whom are now coming together in a show of unity hitherto lacking.
According to the reliable Stratfor website Putin wanted to ensure there were limits to the hardware the Gulf States will provide to their proxy armies. In particular he wanted to warn of severe consequences if they supply portable surface to air rockets capable of bringing down Russian jets. This warning will probably be heeded as the Americans take a similarly hostile view of the idea of various groups of varying shades of radical having surface to air missiles.
The tide began to turn against Assad earlier this year when large numbers of anti-tank weapons (TOW missiles) began to reach the rebels. With the regime beginning to crumble Putin stepped in. But while he can accept TOW missiles taking out regime tanks, he cannot accept Russian jets, containing Russian pilots suffering the same fate.
What the Russian leadership has done is another demonstration of the ‘Putin Doctrine’ – showing the world that Moscow stands by its ‘friends’ be they in South Ossetia, eastern Ukraine, or the Middle East.
Russia has ensured that Assad will probably now not be defeated militarily. Therefore if there is to be a diplomatic solution (which seems some way off) Russia will have bombed its way to place around the table. What Putin will want in return for delivering Assad to negotiations will be a relaxing of the sanctions on Moscow related to Ukraine. He’s playing diplomatic and military chess on a very wide board. He’s also playing with fire as the Gulf States are not about to back down in the foreseeable future.