What Russia has gained from massacring Syrians

What Russia has gained from massacring Syrians
Comment: By doing nothing to stop Moscow's genocidal approach to the Syrian war, the world has allowed Russia to gain far more than a military base, writes Imogen Lambert.
6 min read
07 Mar, 2018
By supporting Assad, Putin has gained global influence [AFP]
Many have commented that Russia's intervention in Syria seems rather drastic for what it has to gain, and that her military is at risk of over-reaching. 

As a botched encounter between US forces and Russian mercenaries led to scores of Russians being killed, some pointed out this seems rather a high price to pay merely for military bases in Tartous and Latakia, and the potential for oil and gas exploration.  

As Martin Chulev commented in The Guardian: "It is increasingly unclear just how Moscow will recoup its investment in the world's most complex and intractable conflict."

Russia's primary aim in Syria, however, has never been solely to safeguard their ports and oil interests, but to build a broader geopolitical strategy. This does not mean Russia entered Syria to tackle US-backed rebels, making the conflict a proxy war, as apologists for Russian imperialism claim, neither is it to simply protect a regional ally - although that was a short-term aim; Russia took the gamble that entering into Syria would propel them on to the world stage, following a period of repeated rounds of sanctions and diplomatic marginalisation. 

Following Russia's foray into Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow judged there would be little objection from the international community from getting stuck into Syria.

It would appear their gamble has paid off, hugely.
Russia has now returned to the ranks of global superpowers, replacing the US as the most important extra-regional player in the Middle East

Russia's entry into the Syrian war was far from inevitable; Moscow was previously clamouring for a role in Syria - attempting to host peace talks which opposition figures had the strength to reject as rebels made gains in 2015. 

Russia subsequently attempted to enlist Saudi Arabia to a fight against the Islamic State group - a deal that eventually fell through. It was President Barack Obama who relented and allowed an obsession with fighting IS to replace previous antagonism towards Assad.

A US-Russia deal to avoid direct confrontation made life easier for Putin, and while it was initially thought that Russia would confine its intervention to the coast and to safeguard Syria's capital, Russia's military is now retaking swathes of rebel held territory, killing hundreds and targeting civilian infrastructure in the process.

Russia has now returned to the ranks of global superpowers, replacing the US as the most important extra-regional player in the Middle East. While Israel was supporting the Georgian government in 2008, Russia in in Syria is now co-operating with her enemy Iran, and in turn dealing with rival Gulf states. 

While these states refuse to deal with each other, Russia is nuturing diplomatic relations with all, and is likely using control of Syrian airspace as a way to pressure and send messages to regional leaders as and when it suits them.

Russia has consigned the UN to further irrelevance. The UN's limited power has been demonstrated since its inception; Israel has consistently breached UN resolutions on illegal settlements, and the war on Iraq famously had no UN Security Council backing. 

Yet carrying out a blatant slaughter contrary to UN resolutions has further eroded its influence. Where Russia's pre-intervention attempts to host talks were laughable, now Russia's parallel negotiations in Astana carry more weight than the UN-backed Geneva peace talks.

Russia has also made ideological inroads. Many have examined how Alexander Dugin's neo-facist treatise published in 1997 lamented Russia's failed Westernisation experiment immediately following the collapse of the USSR. 

Dugin's urge that Russia counter NATO influence in Slavic heartlands, while also seeking alliances with non-aligned Middle East states, notably Iran, has been key to Russia's foreign policy objectives under Putin. 

However, these ramblings should not be seen as a conspiratorial plan or strategy; Dugin's prediction that the potential for Russian expansion into central Europe was ripe, and his dismissal of the UK as a satellite US state looks almost amusing following the opportunities Brexit and Trump have presented to Moscow.

Russia has only acted when other states have taken a back seat. It did not create the refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of Syrians had already been journeying to Europe, but exploited the situation to its advantage as a desire to end the conflict grew. 

In turn, their intervention exacerbated the crisis, further empowering the far-right in Europe, from Hungary to the UK. 

Dugin's vision was strikingly similar to the USSR in its expansionism, but shorn of any pretence of ideology; a Stalinism without Marx, nationalism based on an almost theological conception of sovereignty for its own sake, following its own impetus. 

This also serves to form alliances with states with similar conceptions of sovereignty, even though their internal dynamics may be starkly different. Russia distrusts Islamism in all its stripes, whether Sunni or Shia, and its motives in Syria are therefore different than Iran's sectarian-motivated ethnic cleansing - as others have pointed out, their co-operation in Syria appears to be morphing into competition.
A major bond between populist alt-right and alt-left movements is supporting Russian imperialism in Syria

Yet describing Russia's bond with Assad's Syria, Iran and even certain Gulf states, Azmi Bishara said: "There is a similarity... in their understanding of national sovereignty, how they understand their vital spheres and spheres of influence, and their right to play a role after the collapse of the bipolar world of two superpowers."

Such a vision of state sovereignty goes hand in hand with the populist movements sweeping the world, which emphasise a mythical "people's sovereignty", while a major bond between populist alt-right and alt-left movements is supporting Russian imperialism in Syria.  

These movements have in turn capitalised on popular nationalist sentiments in the US in the UK and widespread opposition towards humanitarian interventionism. 

"The dominant ideology in the world now is nationalism," George Soros said in a recent Financial Times interview.

"It's the EU that's the institution that's on the verge of a breakdown. And Russia is now the resurgent power, based on nationalism."

Ironically, isolationist sentiments present in nationalism are in direct contraction to the imperialism employed by Iran and Russia in Syria, and partly explain some domestic objection to their expansionist policies from both the public and pragmatic sections of their administrations, which may object to continuing Russian presence in the country. 

Additionally, as it came to light that Russia's previous support for Donald Trump turned to mobilising against him following his election, and with renewed US sanctions on Ukraine, it may be that the anti-Russia voices in the Republican party will yet become louder.

Russia has, meanwhile, gone from a would-be superpower, which the US and the EU were attempting to marginalise following the failed Ukraine venture, to having a level of influence in the Anglo-American world of which that even Dugin couldn't dream. 

The catalyst for this rise was their genocide in Syria. This was not a plan, or a conspiracy; it was Russia acting where the world did not, sowing the seeds of a new international fascism.  

Imogen Lambert is a Middle East-focused journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @InnogenLamb

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff