Analysis by Jotam Confino
Putin is now experiencing the direct consequences of his Middle East adventure in Syria, this time on Russian soil. So far, the evidence of the St. Petersburg attack is pointing towards a radical Islamist from Kyrgyztan. With the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey and the bombing of a Russian airline over Sinai in 2015 still being fresh memories for Russians, Putin has to answer for the costly and widely condemned support of Bashar al-Assad. Only days after the St. Petersburg attack, a chemical attack killed more than 50 civilians in the Idlib province of Syria. Although the Assad regime and Russia denied any involvement, human rights groups and a wide range of countries, including the US, accused Assad of carrying out the attack.
Russia might not have been directly involved in the attack, but since it controls the airspace over northwestern Syria, all operations are coordinated with Russia. This means that Russia is indirectly responsible for the attack. The attack is a strong signal to the remaining rebels in Syria and to the international community. Assad will do whatever it takes to regain full control of Syria, especially after the Trump administration stated, “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality we have to accept”. Trump later called the chemical attack a consequence of Barack Obama’s “weakness and irresolution”.
Even though Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, called on Russia and Iran to make sure that another chemical attack will not happen, the political reality in Syria is becoming clearer day by day. An international intervention in the war is highly unlikely by now, even with Assad continuing to commit war crimes with the support of Russia.
Russia is expanding but will pay the price
Putin is slowly consolidating his position in the Middle East by having military bases in Syria and permission from Iran use its military bases on “case by case basis” to launch airstrikes in Syria. The permission is a significant move by the Iranian regime, due to its constitutional prohibition of foreign military bases in the Islamic Republic. Russia is also eyeing a possible influence in Libya, by supporting the Egyptian backed General Khalifa Haftar, who controls large parts of eastern Libya. The Russian Foreign Ministry also hosted representatives of the UN recognized government in Libya, which is a further indicator that Moscow is trying to become the major power that will either mediate a deal or support the side most likely to rule Libya. Either way, Putin’s Middle East adventure doesn’t stop in the Levant. For economic, security and political reasons, Putin sees Libya as intertwined with his overall project of the Middle East. It may have started out as a small-scale operation in support of Assad to test the US administration, but the absence of an international intervention to stop him made Putin dream bigger.
With a strategy that is all over the place, to say it the least, Putin could very well face the same problems that the US did when it occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. By supporting Assad and carpet-bombing Aleppo, among other cities, Russia is making itself a clear target of Sunni anger and revenge, which the bombing of the Russian airline and the attack in St. Petersburg illustrate. Just as the US experienced hatred and violence from its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, so will Syrian rebels, foreign fighters and civilians partly blame Russia for their misery. Not only will it put Russian lives in danger, the rebuilding of Syria under Assad will be extremely costly, and Russia will have to pay its share. The Russian economy is not exactly healthy, which average Russians have felt the past couple of years. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost the US trillions of the American taxpayers’ money, which ended up being failures. Putin will have to use all means to convince the Russians their money are well spent in Syria.
On a regional scale, Putin has so far managed to cooperate with Turkey, Assad, Hezbollah Iran, Israel and the Kurds. However, the war is not over yet and the actors are still trying to influence the outcome so it suits their national interests. In the end, someone will be greatly disappointed and most likely feel threatened by the outcome. If Putin fails to persuade Iran and Hezbollah that they need to steer clear of the Golan Heights, Israel will feel extremely threatened and could very well ignite a new regional war.
With Trump keen on making the ultimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Putin avoids a major headache that could bring him on yet another collision course with Iran and Israel. With a war in Syria that needs to be solved between a number of disagreeing actors and a nightmare in Libya waiting, Putin is in for daily headaches in the near future. The last thing he needs is a wave of terrorist attacks on Russian soil that will prove how fragile a major power can be when radical Islamists decide to punish an occupying force. It could, however, be the missing piece of the puzzle that will finally bring Trump and Putin together on a joint mission against terrorism, which will complete the romance between Washington and Moscow that everyone has been waiting for since Trump won the US election. Until then, Putin will have to finish what he started if he is serious about filling the superpower vacuum that the US left.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.