Since the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, no one has been more supportive of him and his ruling elite than Russia’s President Putin. The increased Russian presence was discreet at first, but gradually began to manifest itself in surprising ways. Plastered on buildings in central Damascus in December 2014 for the first time street I saw private adverts offering Russian lessons. Then I read in local newspapers that the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Damascus University had just opened a new department for Russian language and literature in response to rising demand.
“Analysis of the labour market,” announced Syria’s Minister for Higher Education, “indicates an urgent need for the Russian language.” Record numbers of students, it transpired, had applied to study Russian, indicating as the Minister explained the “strength of the relations between Syria and Russia, especially in the current social landscape.”
When I asked my Damascus friends and neighbours about this development, they laughed and joked: “Yes, we’re looking forward to the new lady Russian teachers. Russia is becoming the new foreign language in Syria now!”
Of course Russia’s relations with Syria go back a long way, to the early 1960s, when Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’athist comrades enjoyed steadfast support and military hardware from the Russians. The Syrian Armed Forces have for decades been supplied with Russian aircraft and tanks, and most top Assad regime military officials received training in Moscow. At university level there were many exchanges with Syrian students sent to study in Moscow while Russian professors were brought to Damascus to teach students in both arts and sciences.
Today Russia has long-term interests in coastal Syria, notably its naval base in Tartous and its oil-exploration rights in Syria’s territorial waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent months these interests have come under threat from rebel opposition groups making a series of gains at regime expense in Idlib province, posing the first real threat to the Lattakia region, Assad’s Alawite stronghold, where much of Syria’s displaced population is now concentrated. Russia is additionally concerned at the number of Chechens who have joined ISIS, fearing they may return to Russian soil and wreak havoc domestically in revenge-driven ‘blowback’.
The Russian airstrikes within Syria which started on 30 September 2015 have not come out of the blue. They will have been months in the planning, possibly as far back as May 2015, when ISIS first seized Palmyra in a lightning offensive, taking advantage of a strategic redeployment when the Syrian army withdrew from Palmyra in order to bolster manpower in Idlib province.
Although Palmyra, situated on its own in the middle of the desert, does not fall within Russia’s area of interests in Damascus and Syria’s western coastal regions, it will not have escaped the Russian strategists that recapturing Palmyra and returning it to Syrian regime control would be a massive PR coup before ISIS can destroy what remains of the archaeological site in what appear to be monthly staged explosions. In August it was the Temples of Baal Shamin and of Bel, in September the funerary towers and most recently on 5 October the Triumphal Arch.
It would also fit the Russian narrative of seeking to drive ISIS out of Syria and should be a relatively realistic goal, since ISIS has only had a little over four months to dig in, not long enough to put down strong roots in the small town of Tadmur adjacent to Palmyra. On top of the obvious international kudos Russia could gain from such a move, it would be an important strategic reclaiming of the regime’s oil and gas fields in the area, as well as protecting the regime’s nearby air bases. So far Russia is denying it has struck targets round Palmyra, despite initial Syrian reports to the contrary.
As Russia raises the stakes ever higher with surprise cruise missiles launched onto targets inside Syria from the Caspian Sea, after first gaining permission to fire over both Iranian and Iraqi airspace, the West watches helplessly from the sidelines. Putin is becoming Syria’s saviour.
Russia and the Syrian army appear to be coordinating their strategy with the clear aim of eliminating ISIS and other opposition groups. The West’s strategy remains in disarray. The US-led coalition has been completely upstaged, its year of expensive airstrikes achieving remarkably little to date. The addition of British air power to that equation will change nothing.
Meanwhile Russia’s strategy on Syria has been consistent from the start. Now it has caught the ball from its Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi team players and is running with it, ready to score a series of goals which is bound to terrify and demoralise the opposition groups and even send them fleeing the country to join the exodus to Europe.
As Goethe wrote centuries ago: “The right man is the one who seizes the moment. Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” Putin seems to suffer from no such difficulties. Meanwhile NATO the West continue their endless talking shops.