December 18, 2015

Putin’s Game of Thrones in the Middle East

Russian Defence Ministry's Press and Information Department/TASS
SYRIA. NOVEMBER 26, 2015. A Russian S-400 air defense missile system being installed at the Hmeymim airbase. Video screen grab.
SYRIA. NOVEMBER 26, 2015. A Russian S-400 air defense missile system being installed at the Hmeymim airbase. Video screen grab.

The Kremlin is trying to play the role of historic saviour to Europe.

Introductory notes

The term “hybrid warfare” was taken into use in connection with the events in Ukraine in 2014/15, Moscow’s interventions on Ukrainian territory1 and the annexation of Crimea2; however, the term itself is not as new as many may believe. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been discussed a lot lately and studies have even been published—Russian information and hybrid warfare is mentioned a lot when talking about the events in Ukraine.3
But now, the present events in the Middle East leave the conflict in Ukraine in the background, and attention is drawn to Syria and Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which marks a success for the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, whose intention probably was to draw attention away from Ukraine.
In any case, to return to the concept of hybrid warfare, several other hybrid phenomena and concepts amply used by Moscow should be discussed; for example, the Kremlin’s new hybrid ideology and propaganda, which the Kremlin has applied in its interests in other places, including Europe, the Middle East and broadly around the globe. It should be noted here that the Kremlin uses various elements or “inventions” from different eras—ranging from the beginning of the Kievan Rus’ in the 8th to 9th century until today, including a great number of the basic ideas and most important elements of Stalinist ideology, Bolshevist dogmas and Soviet propaganda mechanisms, but also ideas related to Tsarist Russia and Orthodoxy, narratives from World War II and others. At the same time, the propaganda methods from the Third Reich also used by the Nazis are not frowned upon either. Even the social networking portals (Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte, etc.) have become the tools of the modern Russian propaganda machine. The latter is a flexible and constantly changing organism with an extremely wide and diverse spectrum of weaponry.4 Unfortunately, Russian propaganda has had an influence not only on Russia and other countries with large Russian-speaking populations, but also on some populations in certain European countries.5
In order to gain success on the international arena (where the reputation of Russia has been damaged to a great extent due to the conflict in Ukraine), Russia utilises a great variety of measures, including cyber attacks, information operations, psychological manipulation6, electronic warfare, and political, economic and military intervention, and even diplomacy.
But why Syria? Why did Russia choose Syria?
Russia has had long-term historical interests in Syria, and the game of thrones organised by Moscow in Syria is especially noteworthy. It is related indirectly, and not only indirectly, to Ukraine and the events there, even due to the fact that the Russian soldiers who fought in Ukraine are now fighting in Syria and the Russian fleet located in the Crimea is directly related to the Tartus naval base, which has been a part of the Black Sea Fleet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet are located on the Crimean Peninsula in the city of Sevastopol.7 When the Syrian Civil War started, the Russian staff of the Tartus naval base consisted of only a few people; now it includes more than 1,700.8 This also shows the importance of Tartus to Russia.

Interests and Goals of Russia in the Middle East

Therefore, what are the interests of Russia in Syria and more broadly in the Middle East? What is it that Putin’s regime wishes to accomplish and what has it already accomplished? Nobody knows what will really happen and the Kremlin’s real plans and incentives remain unknown; we may only guess what the Kremlin may want. Vladimir Putin probably has several ambitions and goals he wishes to achieve in Syria with his gambit.
His goals are both domestic; that is, related to the situation in Russia, and international—first and foremost regionally, but also globally. Putin probably wants to make a breakthrough in relations with the West by solving the problem of ISIS, restore the status quo from 2013, and return to the politics of great powers so that the West would accept Russia as an equal partner again.
Russia wants to have a more important role in the Middle East, to become the most powerful player in the region and to show that after the US left Iraq, Moscow, not Washington, became the new boss. The Shia tandem, which includes Syria, partly controlled by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Shia Alawite family, and the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran, are allies with Russia, as is Azerbaijan, where the majority of Moslems are Shia. As we can see, Russia has placed its bets on the Shia. The latter constitute more than 60% of Iraq’s population. Putin is probably trying to control the Shia forces in the Middle East—this is the reason why Russia develops cooperation with Shia Iran and supports al-Assad, who is an Alawite (Shia), and his family. However, extending its sphere of influence over Shia areas and elsewhere in the Middle East is not the Kremlin’s only dream.
In summary, Putin’s Syrian gambit has already achieved or is about to achieve the following:
1. Russian intervention in Syria has left the conflict in Ukraine to the background and Ukraine is no longer discussed that much. This is useful to Putin’s regime.
2. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has survived mostly thanks to Russian arms and diplomacy. It is known that the regime of al-Assad is one of the few long-term partners of Russia. It is no secret that the Kremlin is trying to save its ally—the regime of Bashar al-Assad—and that is why Moscow has sent him lots of weapons, military counsellors, Russian military equipment, including aircraft and armoured vehicles, and increased its military presence. The majority of the Syrian weapons originate from the former Soviet Union or present Russian Federation. Syria has purchased weapons from Russia for sums amounting to several billions of dollars. These weapons reach Syria through the port in Tartus, which is the seat of the naval base that is of utmost strategic importance to Russia, as this is Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean Sea. This is the only base outside the territory of the former Soviet Union which has a favourable location and allows Russia to control the Eastern Mediterranean region, and among other things, reminds NATO of Russia’s presence as the Russian naval base in Tartus is in close proximity to NATO—the important NATO state Turkey is only approximately 150 km from Tartus. This is why Syria is also important to Russia.
Tartus has been important for Russia for decades. Tartus is directly linked to the Black Sea Fleet naval headquarters in Sevastopol, which the Russian naval base in Tartus is directly subordinate to. According to an agreement between the Soviet Union and Syria, a Soviet naval base was already established in the port of Tartus in 1971. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Black Sea Fleet, whose headquarters were located in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, was sent to the base in Tartus. Preserving the base in Tartus will ensure Russian presence on the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, the Black Sea Fleet is directly related to Syria, as are Russia’s interests in the Mediterranean region. The warm relationships between Syria and Russia already began during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s—especially after the Ba’ath Party rose to power in 1963, which marks the beginning of the political, military and economic cooperation between Syria and the Soviet Union. One important aspect of this cooperation has always been weapons trade, but also oil and gas industry cooperation and so on. Another reason why Russia suddenly started to act decisively in Syria by increasing the number of its troops and extent of its support to al-Assad is that a difficult situation for al-Assad started to worsen. The al-Assad regime is one of the few long-term partners for Russia that they can trust and who in turn counts on Russia. Russia supports Assad’s regime and does not approve of Assad leaving, this has been pointed out several times by the Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov.9
Putin is brutally using his satrap and customer al-Assad, a marionette whose strings Moscow has been pulling for years. Moscow offers protection to its customer and in turn asks for loyalty, obedience and gratitude—this is a very old technique already known in Ancient Rome using the relationship between patrons and clients (during Medieval Times, lords and vassals). In this sense, Syria is one of the few allies of Russia – an obedient dog who barks at those pointed out by the master, in this case, Moscow. Al-Assad has no other option because without support from Russia, his difficult and fragile situation would be many times worse. Moscow is trying to play its Syrian card and to profit by becoming a large-scale player or even the leading power in the Middle East; this has already been successful to some extent. All this is useful to Moscow, Tehran, and China to some extent.
3. Russia has increased its military, political and diplomatic presence in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including Syria and Iraq and will continue to do so by increasing the number of Russian servicemen, volumes of military equipment and number of aircraft involved in the Syrian operation. Russia has already almost doubled the number of aircraft.10 By doing this Russia is trying to show the world that it is a great power and an influential player on the global scale who must be taken into account and who can solve problems successfully and promptly. The Kremlin is doing all it can to maintain its military presence in the Middle East region, wanting to solve the Syrian conflict and emphasising that the West is not capable of doing it. The Kremlin is trying to offer its own solution scenario by establishing an anti-terrorist coalition consisting of Russia, Iran and al-Assad’s government. If the US and the West agree with the plan, it means that Russia’s sphere of influence in the Middle East is recognised. That is why Russia’s armed forces started bombing ISIS oil trucks11, military bases and factories.
4. Russia has done everything to be indispensible to the West in solving the conflict in Syria, including to France in its battle with ISIS and Islamic terrorism. The effective and massive bombing of the ISIS capital Raqqa to punish and seek revenge for Paris was Russia’s “gesture of charity”. Even the bombs that were dropped on ISIS strongholds on 20 November had been inscribed with the words “This is for Paris!”. This made it possible to improve relations and even develop cooperation with France, and not only France. At least Moscow seems to be counting on this. Even Barack Obama has called Russia a constructive partner in solving the problem in Syria.12 Therefore, we cannot exclude the possibility of forming a Russian-French coalition for solving the problem of Syria and ISIS.13
5. In addition, Putin and his team want success on the domestic level—the economy of Russia is in a recession and this influences the budget of ordinary Russian citizens. The quality of life for Russian inhabitants is falling, which may result in displeasure and resentment with the regime, which is what Putin and his confreres fear. The so-called Novorossiya project seems to be closed now or at least forgotten for some time. Instead, the people of Russia need to be quickly provided with a new enticing idea or myth, which would attract Russians and draw their attention away from domestic problems and the war in Ukraine. For this purpose, the idea of a noble fight against evil, embodied by Islamic State, is perfect. This myth is primitive, yet eye-catching. The Russian propaganda machine is developing an image of Putin as the saviour of Western civilisation that has gotten into trouble. This idea is somewhat similar to the archaic Christian motif of Saint George’s fight with an evil dragon, where good, or the hero Saint George, triumphs over evil, or the dragon; but in the current version Putin wants to play the role of Saint George and the evil dragon is played by Islamic State, as the latter destroys churches and kills and tortures people, including Christians. It is Islamic State and its dangerous ideology that threatens the entire world. Putin wants to become the peacemaker not only of the Middle East but of the whole world, as Moscow claims that Russia is the only country fighting the evil embodied by Islamic State. This is a narrative full of propaganda. However, in the shadow of these myths, Putin is trying to strengthen his position at the domestic and international level.
6. The conflict in Syria has resulted in a mass of refugees flooding the European Union, which causes huge problems in Europe—lack of financial means for helping them, problems with their accommodation and so on. Funds that could have been used to fight Russian propaganda or raise Europe’s defence capability, developing the economy and so on, have now been spent on refugees. In addition, the European Union has been presented with a difficult choice—whether to continue the current tolerant multicultural policy and accept all refugees or not. This has resulted in an intra-EU information war, sharp conflict in society, in which some prefer to accept refugees and some oppose it. In addition, internal security risks are a lot higher everywhere in Europe, as some of the refugees (not all) have radical Islamic views; one may fear that some may be rather radical. There are certainly nice and reasonable people among the refugees, who suffer because of the war, but some of them come to Europe with another purpose—to spread radical Islamic views. Such radicals have already been noticed in Estonia.14
7. In addition, Russia needs the Middle East to affect oil prices, on which the well-being of Russia directly depends.
We can ask the following question: who will profit from the European Union accepting millions of refugees and spending money on them, while some of the refugees may have suspicious backgrounds?
Russia wins a lot from this situation: Islamic State and other similar Islamic terrorist organisations may be useful for Russia, as the European Union now has to feed thousands of refugees from Syria by spending astronomic funds from its budget.
In addition, the terrorist attacks in Paris have raised the fear of terrorism in the European Union, and Russia has started to fight ISIS forcefully, thus acting as a representative of Western civilisation and the protector and saviour of Christian values. Putin tries to sell such a propagandistic narrative not only to his own people but Europe and the entire world. The idea we are being forced to believe by Moscow is roughly the following: you, the West, are dissipated, weak and indecisive and you are afraid of Islamic State, you strangle us with your sanctions, yet we are your friends and we are very powerful, because: a) we are not afraid of anyone, not even ISIS; b) we are your friends and we came to help you to save you from Islamists and terrorists; and c) nobody, not even the US, besides us—Russia—is capable of fighting and destroying the danger of ISIS. We offer our helping hand and provide aid and support. Now we are waiting for your steps.


What to do in such a situation? You should not believe in the sweet stories of the Kremlin and give in to the provocations of the Kremlin and follow Putin’s proposals as this will cost you very dearly in the future; you should not forget that Putin is a KGB Lieutenant Colonel whose methods are known to be criminal and KGB-like, and that Russia is an aggressor who invaded Georgia in 2008, annexed the Crimea in 2014 and started a war in Europe on the territory of a sovereign state—Ukraine. No such wars have been waged in Europe since World War II. Therefore, no concessions should be made to Moscow in the issues of Ukraine or sanctions, as this would be a huge strategic mistake.
If the Kremlin wishes to solve the question of ISIS and fight Islamists, it is welcome to do so; however, the author does not believe this is true and it may be possible that the Kremlin would like to involve everyone in a larger conflict in the Middle East, to cause more chaos and problems to fulfil its desires and achieve its clever plans.


Two False Reasons for Moscow’s Military Intervention

Kaarel Kaas, security expert
Russia’s decision to intervene in the Syrian Civil War has several reasons and motives; the nature of these is mostly political and strategic. However, there are two alleged reasons, which certainly do not belong to this list.
First: allegedly protecting the support site of the Russian navy in the port of Tartus. Second: allegedly wanting to retain market share in the weapons trade in the Middle East and preserve Syria as an important customer to the military industry of Russia. None of these considerations have motivated Moscow’s decision to, first, support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and second, to engage in direct combat activity with Russian military units.
Contrary to interpretations that can be found in the media here and there, Tartus has never been an important strategic naval base for Russia. Actually, the term naval base is misleading as the support site has never even been a base in the legal sense; as of 1971 the name of the support site is “Material-Technical Support Point No. 720” (in Russian: Пункт материально-технического обеспечения, ПМТО). In essence, this has been a primitive “petrol station”: one pier and a few warehouses in a section of the port of Tartus, which is also used by the Syrian Navy. Only three years ago, the staff of this support site consisted of four (literally four) permanent Russian marines and about a dozen private individuals, who were technical workers. The strategic importance of Tartus for Moscow has grown only since last autumn, after the Russian armed forces launched their operation in Syria. It is important to consider the cause and effect, and their sequence…
About the weapons trade and market shares… According to data from the Swedish research institute SIPRI, in 2000–2014 Russia exported weapons worth a total of 91.81 billion US dollars (this sum describes the real deliveries, not contracts entered into, the values have been presented in fixed prices valid in 1990). Trade with Syria amounted to only 1.45 billion dollars or less than 2%. And most probably the al-Assad regime has not actually paid for these deliveries; the weapons and equipment were given on credit. Therefore, the weapon deliveries to Syria are mostly a cost to Moscow, not a profit.

Tõnis Leht, Editor of the discussion portal
Indeed, the Russian intervention in Syria has a lot of motives. From the viewpoint of Estonia, one of the most interesting dimensions is related to Ukraine and the sanctions of the European Union. Today, Russia has succeeded in playing itself out of the isolation caused by the conflict in Ukraine, and its powerful intervention in Syria is one of the moves that has allowed Moscow to find its way back to the diplomatic arena with the Western countries.
Russia is trying to show itself as an essential and useful partner in solving the conflict in Syria. In reality, Russia is not a “useful partner” but an “inevitable factor”. The European countries want the conflict to end quickly to stop the avalanche of refugees and reduce the danger of terrorism. Russia’s activities have an influence on both of these factors but the impact need not be favourable to the European countries.
The current bombing campaign by the Russian Air Force is effectively increasing the number of refugees. Moscow’s support to al-Assad and its activities against the moderate rebels rather escalates the conflict and clears the playing field for ISIS.
At the same time, the refugee crisis and the Paris attacks have lent strength to the opinions that favour close cooperation with Russia. However, Moscow will not help the French president François Hollande in destroying ISIS just out of good will. Russia’s decisive operations against ISIS and giving up on al-Assad come at a price. For Europe, this price will include lifting sanctions related to Ukraine. Estonia may hope that our European partners are not willing to pay this price too easily. Unfortunately, we together with our Baltic neighbours and Poland are about to be left dangerously alone.

Helga Kalm, Junior Research Fellow at ICDS
Vladimir Sazonov explains in this issue of Diplomaatia why Russia decided to intervene in the conflict in Syria. However, the Russian role in Syria should not be over estimated as Russia is only one of the forces there. Iran, Hezbollah, the Persian Gulf states headed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Western countries are equally important.
First and foremost, the Russian intervention has been a political manifesto directed at the Western countries. Putin is showing his domestic audience computer game-like videos of the precision bombing of ISIS, but the actual targets of the bombing are moderate rebels, and sometimes, accidentally, hospitals, ambulances and other civilian structures. The forces sent to Syria by Putin are not sufficient to turn the scales decisively in favour of al-Assad. Especially now as Saudi Arabia and the US have responded by increasing their support to the moderate rebels and the Kurds.
The most dangerous impact that could have emerged from the Russian intervention has already been realised. NATO member Turkey has shot down a Russian jet, which allegedly wandered into Turkish airspace. So far Turkey and Russia have been on very good terms and despite dissenting opinions in certain fields, their economic relations have been very good. As a result, Russia has advised its citizens to avoid travelling to Turkey and has established sanctions on the import of foodstuffs. The Turkish prime minister has claimed that Turkey cannot apologise for defending its borders.
Fortunately, tensions have been kept under control and no military escalation followed. At the same time, rumour has it that Russia is planning to considerably increase its military presence in Syria, which means that similar clashes between NATO and Russia may recur and a future escalation seems inevitable.
Photograph: After a Russian jet was shot down by Turkey, Russia has brought anti-aircraft weapons to Syria. This photograph depicts the anti-aircraft system S-400 at the Khmeimim air base.
1 See, for example: C. Howard, R. Puhkov, Brothers Armed. Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine. East View Press, Minneapolis, USA, 2014.
2 See also: H. Mölder, V. Sazonov, R. Värk, Krimmi liitmise ajaloolised, poliitilised ja õiguslikud tagamaad. I part – Akadeemia 12/2014, 2148–2161; H. Mölder, V. Sazonov, R. Värk, Krimmi liitmise ajaloolised, poliitilised ja õiguslikud tagamaad. II part – Akadeemia 1/2015, 1–28.
3 Д. Маркус, Гибридная война Путина – головная боль НАТО, BBC, 1.12.2014,…; vt ka J. Berzinš, Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defense Policy. – Policy Paper No. 2, April 2014, National Defence Academy of Latvia Center for Security and Strategic Research; J. Darczewska, The Anatomy of Russian Information Warfare the Crimean operation, a case study. Point of View. Number 42, May 2014, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia, Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; U. Franke, War by non-military means: Understanding Russian information warfare. Avdelningen för Försvarsanalys. Stockholm: Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, 2015.
4 See also: V. Sazonov, Mõningaid üldisemaid täheldusi Vene Föderatsiooni infosõjast Ukraina kriisi kontekstis. Maailma Vaade, 26, 2015; see also K. Müür, H. Mölder, V. Sazonov, P. Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt, Russian Information Operations against the Ukrainian State and Defence Forces: April-December 2014 in Online News. Journal of Baltic Security, 2, [to be published in 2016]; A. Pikulicka-Wilczewska, R. Sakwa (eds.), Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, Published by E-international Relations, Bristol, UK, 2015.
5 A. Rettman, Russian propaganda wins EU hearts and minds, 25 June, 2015… (23.11.2015)
6 See, for example: V. Veebel, From Psychological defence to Propaganda War, Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Riga, 2015… 7 See also: L. Mäepalu, Vene Föderatsiooni ja Süüria Araabia Vabariigi suhted Süüria kodusõja taustal. Supervisors: V. Sazonov, H. Mölder, Estonian National Defence College, final paper, Tartu 2014.

8 Разговор по прямому поводу. Россия и США стали больше обсуждать борьбу с терроризмом и будущее Сирии. 21.09.2015,
9 See: Lavrov: nõuda Assadi lahkumist on vastuvõetamatu – Postimees, 19 November .2015,…. 10 See: Venemaa kahekordistas lennukite arvu Süürias 69-ni – Postimees, 20 November 2015,… 11 See: Moskva: Vene lennukid hakkavad Süürias ISi naftaveokeid ründama – Postimees, 18 November 2015,…. 12 See: Obama nimetas Venemaas konstruktiivseks partneriks – Postimees, 18 November 2015,…. 13 See, for example: L. Velsker, Otseülekanne: kas Lähis-Idas on oodata Prantsuse-Vene koalitsiooni? – Postimees, 23 November 2015,…
14 See: H. Kuusk, Millest muslimid ei räägi. Radikaalne islam Tallinna mošees – Päevaleht, 27 May 2015,…; vt ka H. Mihelson, Islamiterrorismi toetamises süüdistatavad Eesti mehed astusid kohtu ette – Postimees, 23 November 2015,…


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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