For Putin, the stakes run high in Syria

Men of war Russian President Putin confers with his generals and other big guns in preparation of the assault on the IS
Men of war Russian President Putin confers with his generals and other big guns in preparation of the assault on the IS

Syria is not just a lucrative weapons market for Russia. The only naval base of Russia in West Asia is located in Tartus, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean coast. During the Soviet era, this base used to be the anchor point for the Russian Navy in West Asian and North Africa. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been keeping some warships at the Tartus naval base and has also tried to modernise it since 2010. That year, news agency ria Novosti quoted the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy saying that this naval base could serve “as a base for guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers.”

The Tartus naval base is likely to be closed down in case a political group supported by Western countries seizes power in Damascus by ousting Assad. That, in turn, would adversely affect Russian strategic interests in the long run. There are reports that Moscow is planning to step up its military presence in Tartus to accomplish complete control over the port. The Russian Marine Doctrine, which was approved in July, stresses upon augmenting military presence in the Mediterranean Sea to which the Tartus port holds the key.

The third geopolitical issue that gives impetus to the greater Russian interest in Syria is energy. Two years ago, in the midst of the crisis, Russian private energy firm SoyuzNefteGaz signed an agreement with the Syrian government to develop its oil and gas fields. The deal could be understood in the context of a 2010 report by an US agency, which had predicted the presence of huge reserves of oil and gas in the coastal parts of the country.

Similarly, another Russian energy firm, Tatneft, is also involved in energy exploration in Syria. Both the firms spent millions of dollars in the hydrocarbon sector. The flare-up of violence in Syria as well as takeover by the IS will dent Russia’s energy interest.

According to a report authored by Mohammed El-Katiri and Laura El- Katiri and published last year by US think tank Strategic Studies Institute, titled Regionalizing East Mediterranean Gas: Energy Security, Stability and the US Role, “new found energy wealth may act as an incubator for future conflict” in the region. In that scenario, the interests of Russian energy firms, currently supported by Assad, are threatened not just by IS plunder but also Western energy conglomerates, which would benefit if the regime is overthrown. In other words, Assad’s defeat would have serious repercussions on Russia’s energy interests.

The fourth geopolitical dimension for Moscow is the growing IS influence and its ramifications on Russia’s internal security. Russia has been facing the problem of Islamic radicalism since two decades. The North Caucasus region comprising Dagestan, Chechnya and Tatarstan are the hotbed of Wahhabism-inspired radicalism. The emergence of the IS gave a boost to Wahhabi militants as they got a new ally with whom they share a lot of ideological similarities.

Alliances of this type are putting a strain on Russia’s internal security. On 18 June, Russian newspaper Pravda reported that Aleksandr Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, Russia’s anti-terrorist agency, had revealed that around 2,000 Russians had joined the IS in Syria. If the statement proves to be true, then it bodes ill for Russia’s internal security.

So, Moscow has a strong reason to support Assad. Moreover, IS poses a threat not only to Assad and Russia but also some European countries. The recent Paris attacks are an indicator of the extent of the threat.

It must have been with these geopolitical and geo-economic objectives in mind that towards the end of September, Moscow launched an all-out war to protect the Assad regime and destroy the IS. Cruise missiles fired from its naval flotilla in the Caspian Sea hit IS strongholds in Syria even as pro-Assad forces and Russian troops kept up the ground offensive.

The missile attack helped Russia achieve two major objectives: it inflicted heavy losses on the IS and, at the same time, protected its naval base at Tartus as well as its energy interest in the Mediterranean region. However, Russia’s Syria voyage drew much flak from different quarters, including US President Barack Obama, who called it a “quagmire”. Human rights activists, too, have alleged that the air strikes are killing innocent people.

This jihadi group is involved in a wide range of criminal activities — from stealing oil and selling it in the illegal market to kidnapping and massacres of innocents — contributing to the exodus of Syrians to Europe as refugees. With the Paris attacks, the IS took its brutality to a whole new terrain.

There have been several geopolitical developments since Russia intervened in Syria. Assad’s visit to Moscow; the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi aircraft by the Turkish military for “violating the Turkish airspace”; subsequent sanctions by Moscow on Ankarra and vice versa; NATO’s support to Turkey: these are some of the issues that are snowballing the Syrian domestic crisis into a international geopolitical crisis

Despite Western criticism of Russia’s intervention in Syria, it is a diplomatic victory for Moscow. China, too, has supported the Russian move. Both France and the UK are now joining the alliance against IS. Even the US, which is hostile to Russia’s stand on Syria, agrees that there is a need for “deconfliction” of the situation in Syria.