Syria: Russia’s Afghanistan 2.0?

Russia’s airstrikes in Syria have dominated the news headlines. After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moderate speech at the United Nations, in which he called for broad cooperation, hardly anyone could expect that the next day would mark the launch of one of the most controversial operations since the no-fly zone over Libya.

The controversy lies in its coverage by the Russian side, the contradiction of Russian foreign policy and military doctrine, the goals declared, and the way the operation is being performed.

Cons

The coalition that Russia is forging - including Syria, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah - will exacerbate the Syria crisis and regional sectarian tensions. The threat becomes even more dangerous when considering the ongoing Yemen crisis, and valid Saudi concerns over the growing power of Iran following the nuclear deal. This will tarnish the image of Russia in most of the Sunni Muslim world.

The fact that Russia is forging its own coalition parallel to the U.S.-led one resolves the most difficult question of how to make rebel forces fight together against ISIS.

Maria Dubovikova

Moscow’s perception of "terrorists” in Syria is too broad. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is not its only target. Most of the Russian airstrikes are against rebel forces, thus relieving the pressure on the Syrian army.

This undermines the value of Russian declarations on Syria and on President Bashar al-Assad in particular, as the airstrikes look like an attempt to secure the regime on the ground. Moscow has hit odious forces such as Al-Nusra Front, but lumping all rebel forces together undermines Russia’s credibility and complicates the situation on the ground further.

Another problem is the absence of a timeframe for the offensive and a concrete goal. Ambiguity does not contribute to the effective performance of the operation. Moscow’s aim in Syria, as described by its representative to the EU, is to “eliminate the terrorist threat to the region and to the world community.”

As such, the operation could continue unsuccessfully for years, dragging Russia deeper into the conflict. Its economy is already weakened by Western sanctions and low oil prices. Furthermore, its offensive has made Russia a target for jihadists and other extremists. Their first attack is a matter of when, not if.

Pros

Russia has opened a Pandora’s box with unpredictable consequences. A positive outcome is possible. However, the risks are high and the gains not so obvious.

Maria Dubovikova

The fact that Russia is forging its own coalition parallel to the U.S.-led one resolves the most difficult question of how to make rebel and governmental forces fight together against ISIS. Also, Tehran-backed militias, or even direct Iranian involvement on the ground with Russian air cover, could be effective.

If Russia finally concentrates on ISIS positions, it could really contribute to the group’s destruction. To this end, cooperation with the international coalition is vital, at least on the level of data exchange and trust.

Russia has opened a Pandora’s box with unpredictable consequences. A positive outcome is possible, and much depends on the international community’s approach and dialogue with Russia on the matter. However, the risks are high and the gains not so obvious. Syria could become Russia’s Afghanistan 2.0.

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Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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