Russia And A New Phase In Syria

By Tim Marshall

The pace of events is quickening, the road is opening is for the fighting in Syria to get worse, and Russia has deliberately put itself in the driving seat.

Syria is where Russia’s concerns about Ukraine, the EU, and Turkey come together in an imperfect and toxic mix of brutal realpolitik.

Many western analysts have been getting it wrong on Russia for years now. They judge its foreign policy by their own standards. However, if you take the view that President Putin is an ultra nationalist, who cares only about power and achieving his aims by any means necessary, then his moves are easier to predict. If you understand that he is not merely, as so many profiles of him suggest, a tactician, but also a strategist then the moves make sense.

When the sun was shining on the Russian oil fields, he used the profits to rebuild the Russian military while his future opponents talked of the ‘peace dividend’ of the end of the Cold War.

Popular opinion says he ‘lost’ Ukraine, and that the public would not stand for it. But he ‘won’ Crimea and the port of Sebastopol and his ratings rocketed.

The EU thought he could not stand sanctions, forgetting that Putin is from a country which endured Stalingrad for ‘Mother Russia’, and that he agrees with his political ancestors who insisted ‘you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs’.

Last year the Obama administration smirked and said Russia’s entry into Syria proved it had forgotten the lesson of its Afghanistan experience. This not only forgot America’s own experience there, but failed to take into account that the Russian footprint in Syria remains small, or if compared to the USA’s at the height of its Afghan experience, tiny.

Having manoeuvred the pieces into place – Putin is now attempting a checkmate, but will settle for a draw.

His military has ensured President Assad cannot lose and therefore guarantees Russia a say in any peace deal. In recent weeks extra jets have been sent, and this week a Russian ship, the Zelenyy Dol, which can fire cruise missiles, arrived in the Mediterranean. Now, aided by Russian air cover and Iranian ground troops, Assad’s forces are advancing on Aleppo. 100,000 people have fled this month, that figure may double within weeks.

For Turkey, once again the object of Moscow’s attention, that means potentially another 200,000 refugees pressing on its border. It also means Syria’s Kurds rushing to fill the vacuum the rebel forces may leave behind and thus helping to create Turkey’s nightmare – a possible Kurdish statelet on its border. It is no coincidence that last week Russia allowed the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (DUP) to open an office in Moscow. Turkey now shells the DUP’s military wing, the YPG inside Syria. It is also mulling crossing the border, possibly supported by Saudi Arabia, and the UAE if the Americans agree to help. This is a move which could bring Turkey into an explosive confrontation with Russia. Turkey’s NATO allies in Europe and the USA are at last concentrating hard, asking themselves what will they do if Turkey asks for help, and should they step in now with concessions to Moscow to prevent the situation arising?

The Kremlin knows that another 200,000 refugees entering Turkey could turn into a extra 200,000 refugees trying to get to Europe at a time when the fences are going up across the Balkans, and the Greeks are proving themselves incapable of halting the flow. That in turn fuels Euro skepticism, and the Russians would like nothing better than a Europe which fell apart and thus offered no unified bloc against them either economically or politically.

Which brings us back to Ukraine. Putin seems to be gambling that he can push things in Syria far enough to gain concessions not just there, but also on sanctions, and on the level of NATO forces in Eastern Europe. What he doesn’t want to do is start a major multi nation war. The threat of an accidental escalation is growing. The Iranians have said they also are prepared to defend Syria airspace. Their arch rivals, the Saudis, may have denied already sending war planes to Turkey, but they have confirmed they intend to do so.ObamaBC

Two years ago President Obama dismissed Russia as ‘a regional power acting out of weakness’. Even if that was true, which it is not, it would only mean that Putin plays chess better than Obama. Especially when he’s concentrating.

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12 Comments on "Russia And A New Phase In Syria"

  1. Tim,

    Reading between the lines, I understand that you are suggesting that there has been a complete and utter failure in obtaining foreign policy objectives by the USA, EU and the West in general.

    In a previous post I commented that there are parallels here to pre WW2 Europe. Putin only considers “Mother Russia”, Hitler wanted “lebensraum”; but the results are likely to be the same.

  2. Another sober and accurate analysis. Obama’s lack of leadership and complacency here has been criminal, a no-fly zone across the entire country should have been imposed by force the second Assad gassed his people. A move that would have checked Iranian and Russian ambitions and allowed for a more concentrated focus on his removal and IS destruction, surely preventing much of the subsequent suffering and destruction. Instead the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to its current outrageous status.

    Better late than never however and the time for NATO and the west in general to act decisively is now. Erdogan’s growing despotism and kurdish paranoia needs reigned in post-haste. We must force him and the Kurds to ceasefire immediately and concentrate on IS or threaten to abandon both. NATO members need to take Putin seriously and do whatever’s necessary to check his aggression in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere and massively up our support for the ISF, the kurds and our other allies such as they are in Syria to annihilate IS.

  3. Last night I watched a fascinating documentary/drama titled ‘World War III – Inside the War Room. Granted, this programme concerned a fictional conflict in the Baltic states, but would anybody care to speculate what will happen if Russia begins a conflict with Turkey? Article V of the NATO treaty means that (in theory) the rest of NATO must come to Turkey’s aid.

    I suggest that the The threat of an accidental escalation is already here and suddenly I feel very uncomfortable about the months ahead.

  4. mahatmacoatmabag | 17th February 2016 at 9:14 am | Reply

    Posted by Tim Marshall on 17/02/16:
    “When the sun was shining on the Russian oil fields, he used the profits to rebuild the Russian military while his future opponents talked of the ‘peace dividend’ of the end of the Cold War.”

    Posted by mahatmacoatmabag | 15th February 2016 at 12:41 pm :
    http://www.thewhatandthewhy.com/lost-in-the-mire-10/#comment-4531
    “Thus we see in Russia’s case that when the Oil price was high over much of the last decade they spent their cash on a massive rearmament programme in preparation for overseas military adventures such as the Ukraine & now Syria.”

    S N A P !
    BTW I don’t know if Obama plays Chess but hank goodness he doesn’t ride bare chested on the Golf course.
    Have a nice day Tim .

  5. Putin is many things. One thing that he isn’t is stupid. He’ll skirt to the edge of the cliff in any and all areas. He’ll fight Turkey indirectly, never quite causing article 5 break. He doesn’t need to directly fight Turkey to continue his plans.

    The problem with making yourself follow inflexible hardline rules is that others can choose to play in the grey areas. So Turkey and Nato will be focusing on Article 5, and Putin will focus on the grey.

  6. When I was in Turkey no one there believed NATO would honour their commitment if Turkey was ever attacked, I would concur with them. If things escalate Turkey will get arms, intelligence and some air units ‘seconded’ to them but no more. They probably wouldn’t need any more, the Russian army is better armed and mostly better trained but it is also now too small to win a war with Turkey outright (don’t even consider their reserves), Turkey has 2nd rank equipment and a largely conscript army but has terrain and logistics on its side. If god forbid war was to break out I think as Tim says it would be by accident as it would be the beginning of the end for Putin and Erdogan. One lesson the US/EU may hopefully learn from all this is that next time you are considering backing a coup in Russia’s back yard, don’t bother.

  7. Putin and Erdogan. Not exactly what we want at the moment. Excellent piece, Tim.

  8. Once again we see a long term member of the mainstream media point the finger at Putin, claiming he’s looking for a fight with the West. Hardly surprising coming from a stalwart of Murdoch’s Sky News for a couple of decades.

    There’re very loud noises in the growing alternative media about bullshit like this. You’d do well to look at websites like The Canary or blogs by Eva Bartlett and John Pilger. The alternative view goes like this: Putin has expertly avoided confrontation and provocations by NATO, and the so-called civil war in Syria that started in a bid for democracy was in fact a manufactured excuse by western governments and their obedient media outlets to remove a regime they didn’t like. One that refused to kowtow to the rapacious corporate greed of the military-industrial-media complex owned by the likes of Tim Marshall’s former employer.

    What are fondly referred to by western journalists as ‘rebels’ are regarded by Syrians as terrorists. Media claims by the likes of the BBC of the shelling of ‘rebel neighbourhoods’ have been completely fictitious. This war is an extension of the Iraq war, terrorists opposing the Assad regime have been heavily equipped and funded by the Saudis, Israel and Turkey, and we are being deliberately led into what could easily turn out to be a major conflict that may include tactical nuclear strikes.

    Considering what an incredibly destructive force the United States and its obedient poodles have become over the last half century, it beggars belief that anyone could seriously say that Putin’s the problem. The US-Israel-Saudi axis is the problem, and we’re on the wrong side of history.

      • Tim,
        As soon as you see the phrase “military-industrial-media complex” in a comment I expect “Private Eye” references are way over the head of the writer.
        You’d be better off just writing: “yada yada yada”.

    • mahatmacoatmabag | 18th February 2016 at 3:35 pm | Reply

      Geoff, Israel is not involved in the conflict & is staying out of it except to strike at any transfer of weapons by Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which for Israel is a “Red Line”. People like yourself who always blame Israel ( ie. the Jews ) for all the worlds woes & are now doing their best to link Israel to Arab terrorism fail the basic test of credibility every time you post your half baked theories. ISIS is neither linked to Israel, the USA or even Saudi Arabia but does have links to Turkey & Qatar. As for the owner of this website, Tim Marshall, he is a “Liberal” but despite that I, a right winger, respect him as a man of integrity.

  9. As soon as someone starts being abusive saying “There’re very loud noises in the growing alternative media about bullshit like this” you know there is not going to follow a reasonable rational argument based on facts but on unproven conspiracy theories. Israel is helping Jordan combat the threat of IS and sees IS as a major threat to security in the region. If you seriously think the West, USA and Israel are the problem then you are on the wrong side of morality, decency, justice and freedom. John Pilger is well known for his rabid anti-Israel views so not surprised him and his ilk take a dim view of anything that the West does. It is the links that IS has to Turkey and Qatar that you should be condemning but your agenda is the demonization of Western values and seeking to blame one country Israel for problems it is confronting on it very borders. Israel is doing its best to stay out of the conflict it has enough problems with the likes of Hezbollah and Palestinian Terror on its streets. Shameful

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