By Andrestinos N Papadopoulos
FOLLOWING the request of the Syrian leadership, Russia’s President Putin decided to use his air force against “terrorist organisations” in Syria, and in particular against the Islamic State. A rough calculation of their strength would be that 35 per cent belong to the Islamic State, 35 per cent to Al-Nusra, 20 per cent to Ahrar al-Sham, whereas the Free Syrian Army and some pro-democracy groups represent the remaining 10 per cent.
In order to understand the dynamic involvement of Russia in Syria and the bombardment of terrorist targets, we should take into account the following: the military successes of ISIS against the only ally of Moscow in the region increased the fear that terrorism might be exported to Russia, since 2,000 jihadists come from Russia.
On the other hand, the reduced interest of the US in the region and the vacuum it generates constitute challenges for Russia. Analysts explain this development as resulting from being petrol self-sufficient, and a shift of interest to Asia with a view to containing China’s influence and the existence of American bases in the countries of the Gulf.
One might even venture to think that Russia’s involvement in Syria is the response to the involvement of the West in Ukraine, the embargo against Moscow and the presence of NATO in Poland and the Baltic states.
As stated, Russia’s intention is not to offer direct support to Assad, since now Moscow accepts his participation in a transitory government, but first to fight terrorism and create the prerequisites for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
For this purpose, Moscow proposed to the international community the establishment of an anti-terror front and expects a positive reaction from the West. In this connection, mention should be made that the Russian military established contacts with their US counterparts, with a view to selecting jihadist targets to be bombed.
As was expected, when a Russian warplane briefly violated Turkish air space, NATO reacted, urging Russia to “cease and desist” and Turkey not only protested, but also threatened Russia with reprisals.
President Tayyip Erdogan warned Russia there are other places Turkey could get natural gas from and other countries that could build the Akkuyu nuclear plant. One understands that Russia’s air strikes dealt a blow to Erdogan’s aspirations of seeing Assad removed from power, and that beyond the protests and threats, there is little Turkey can do. Shifting from one supplier or contractor to another is not straightforward. Concerning these threats, Moscow’s position is that Turkey is a neighbour with whom it wants to have good relations, believing that she will not do something to harm them.
Iran, a strong player in the region, is against terrorism, hence the despatch of military advisers to Syria and the support of Russia’s bombardments. In order to better organise the military operations, a headquarters was established in Iran in which the participants are Iran, Russia and Iraq. Concerning the resolution of the conflict, Tehran expects Assad to take into account the lawful demands of the opposition and accept an honourable compromise, while endeavouring to facilitate Syrian-Syrian negotiations. In this respect, President Rouhani stated that his government is ready to hold talks with the US on how to resolve the conflict in Syria, where the two countries back opposing sides.
Concluding, the climate is not yet ripe for negotiations and even if the Islamic State is defeated in Syria, the problem will remain in Iraq.
Dr Andrestinos N. Papadopoulos is Ambassador a.h.