Sticking with Assad: Russia has a risky Syria policy | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 01.10.2016
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Sticking with Assad: Russia has a risky Syria policy

Russia has spent the past year openly fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops. The decision to do so is a risky one.

For over five years now - but especially since Russia launched its airstrikes in 2015 - many world leaders have asked why the country continues to stand by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Theories abound, but none of those really explains Russia's massive engagement and its willingness to eat the monetary, military and diplomatic costs.

One theory is that President Vladimir Putin wants to maintain Syria's port of Tartus as Russia's only direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Another is that Putin wants to show that he is willing to counter all civil society uprisings and revolts and that by supporting Assad he is sending signals to opposition movements in Russia. Or maybe Putin is striving for political stability in the Middle East in order to prevent extremists from spreading to Russia and neighboring countries.

The prevailing theory, however, is that Putin wants to prove that Russia is a superpower just like the United States. "Russia wants Syria as a symbol, as a country that does not exist in reality," the political analyst and essay writer Salam Kila wrote in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. He added that the political objectives cited by Russian officials, especially the desire to preserve Syria as a nation, no longer have meaning. "Is there still a strong and stable Syrian state that can hope to exist in the future?" Kila asks. He is certain that it does not exist.

'All the atrocities'

A year ago, Russia began its airstrikes on Syria. The attacks targeted everyone who was labeled a "terrorist" by the governments of Russia and Syria. Of course, the Assad regime includes the opposition in this definition, and Putin seems to be OK with that. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the airstrikes have killed almost 9,500 people - including at least 3,800 civilians, 900 of whom were children. The Britain-based NGO observatory is linked to the opposition, and Syrian information networks consider its reporting reliable.

Russia's open entry into the war was harshly criticized by officials from the United States and EU - including German leaders. "Anyone one who drops bunker-busting bombs on residential buildings is committing war crimes," Omid Nouripour, of the Greens, told the  public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Nouripour also accused Russia and the Assad regime of ruthlesslness in their fight for the eastern part of Aleppo. "The air space over the city is clearly in the hands of these two forces," Nouripour told Deutschlandfunk. "And they are dropping bombs on residential areas. They are doing it in a manner that has not been seen among all the atrocities in the past five and half years."

Unclear US orientation

In an interview with BBC's Russia desk, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended the strikes - including the recent resumption of attacks on rebel positions after a failed ceasefire. He said Russia had been forced to do so because US forces had also broken the truce and were not able to distinguish between moderate and extremist rebels. Lavrov said there had been many ceasefires. "The Nusra Front used each of these breaks to procure more fighters, ammunition and weapons from abroad," he said

Lavrov criticized the United States for its "floundering" policy. He believes that US officials have lost control of events. And the BBC itself reports that "the US has no real alternative to Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to deal with the Russians. There is no credible 'plan B.'"

It remains unclear what will come of Russia's approach. Philip Gordon, an analyst at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, writes that, even if Assad were to recapture Aleppo, he would not have the power to rule the whole of the country after five years of war and the deaths of 100,000 of his troops. And, he added, Russia would not be safe from retaliation.

Russia's Syria strategy is risky. If it does not go according to plan, there may not even be a symbolic triumph.