Cold War-style hostility in Syria?

Cold War-style hostility in Syria?

Russia has a very clear goal in Syria – to back Assad and keep him in power. Unlike the West – which clearly said that Assad has to go, yet did nothing to act on it – Putin has been providing military power and resources.

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By Kirthi Jayakumar

The news initially reported that Russia had sent a team of advisers to Syria. This need not be automatically alarming, except that the last time Russia sent its (purported) advisers to Afghanistan in the 1970s, they were actually troops that wound-up fighting a war – which ultimately became a proxy war at the height of the Cold War. In Syria, Russia’s advisers have entered along with its warships, which are now in Syria’s ports, and its aircraft – warplanes and helicopters. Russian soldiers have been spotted on the ground, and it is apparently constructing a military base. So far, though, there is no clarity with regards to the numbers.

Russia has a very clear goal in Syria – to back Assad and keep him in power. Unlike the West – which clearly said that Assad has to go, yet did nothing to act on it – Putin has been providing military power and resources. The combination of western inaction on its words and Putin’s overt encouragement for Assad has allowed the state of affairs in Syria to continue. Russia’s pursuit of the Assad government’s continuance is fuelled by plenty of vested interests, including the potential loss of its naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartous. This would deprive Russia of its lone foothold in the Middle East. Continuing with this stronghold on the one hand, and the US losing its own power in Syria is a victory for Russia. However, Assad is weakened, in that there cannot be a return to the original state of his grip on power. It is therefore possible that he would confine himself to the defences in his region of strongest support, Latakia.

The ulterior motive in all this is for Russia to gain one-upmanship over the West. For Syria, retaining Russian support is a way to stay strong and in power. This support works well in terms of military strength, and in terms of retaining a permanent member of the Security Council on its side, to guarantee a veto on delaying, blocking and even frustrating international efforts that can result in the removal of Assad.

But there is a limitation on the extent that Putin can support Assad – Russia’s economy is in turmoil. Oil prices are down. A deadlock continues in Eastern Ukraine. What Putin is willing to put on his association with Syria is not quantified yet, but this is a dangerous game with high stakes.  

In the process, Syria’s conflict, as it has done for a while, highlights some of the biggest drawbacks in global politics. The apparently imminent war is a cause for concern. The next – and this is no surprise, but is really only being buttressed significantly – is that there is a desperate need to overhaul the UN system as it exists. Russia and the US exercising their vetoes to culminate in deadlocks will only result in more bloodshed and unchecked violence escalating. Third, there is a return to the past, of sorts, in terms of the nature of conflict.

What Russia effectively has done so far in the Syrian context paves the way for a potential recurrence of Cold War-styled hostility. Syria may not be the site of a proxy war in the full blown sense just yet, but it is not long before the US finds reason to retaliate – perhaps actively or through a propped-up involvement.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

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