Policy Alert: Russian Airstrikes in Syria Provoke Reactions from Rising Powers
Russian airstrikes in Syria since September 30, portrayed by the Kremlin as an attack against the Islamic State (IS), have been met with widespread criticism. The United States has accused Russiaof targeting U.S.-backed rebel groups against the Assad regime and refused to cooperate with Moscow. European foreign ministers have called on Russia to end its attacks. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Russia, China, India, and Japan on Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Chinese commentary generally supported Russia’s role in Syria.
- “My personal opinion is that Russia assesses the situation in Syria very well and takes decisions in accordance with this assessment. The West should realize that Russia is capable of defending its interests and the interests of its allies abroad,” stated Wan Cheng Cai, research fellow at the World Affairs Research Center of Xinhua news agency.
- Zhao Jianming, associate professor of the Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences observed, “The division of the international community toward the IS stems from two prominent features of the terrorist group: terrorism is both a threat to everyone and also the most prominent opposition to Assad. The more successful Russia is in combating the IS, the more it proves the inaction or incompetence of the Western countries, particularly the US.”
- “Russia needs more prudence to launch military actions in Syria, and to strictly target the IS. Russia could not afford the price if it ‘accidentally’ bombed a hospital controlled by Syria’s rebels backed by some Western countries,” warned the Global Times.
- “Unless Moscow can convince the US-led West that it is helping fight the IS group rather than helping Assad combat the rebel Syrian forces, distrust between the two sides will only deepen,” predicted China Daily. “Whether Russia and the US-led international coalition can better coordinate their moves and cooperate against the IS group is also a question that needs to be answered.”
Russian media discussed how Russia’s involvement in Syria affects the balance of power and what sort of coordinated action should be taken to fight IS.
- Russia’s air strikes in Syria spell a U-turn in the global balance of power, according to former Defense Ministry official Leonid Ivashov. “We’ve just been witnesses to the demise of themonopolar world,” he stated in an interview. “There will soon be a long line of states eager to join the Russian coalition in the Middle East. The United States will eventually join it, too.”
- “Islamic countries should become key participants of coalition against the Islamic State terrorist organization,” according to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. “”We are ready to unite efforts in the fight against terrorism with all countries on the basis of international law.”
- “That the tonality of US and EU politicians’ statements regarding Russia’s participation in Middle Eastern affairs has changed for the better is a hard fact,” opined chairman of Russia’s Foreign and Defense Policy Council Fyodor Lukyanov. “Although the United States is adamant in its wish to see the regime of the Syria’s President Bashar Assad leave the political scene, US politicians have been saying in informal conversations Assad’s resignation today is not a high priority. This means that the process of developing coordinated decisions for struggle against the Islamic State is underway.”
- Sergey Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies stated that the negative responses by the United States and its partners in the international coalition are “an absolutely coordinated campaign aimed at forcing Russia to stop addressing world issues. The Middle East is the “world’s gasoline pump” that provides fuel for most advanced economies. Therefore, the purpose of the United States and its partners in the international coalition is to oust Russia from the Middle East, to upset its operation against the Islamic State in Syria and to tighten their grip on the region.”
Others focused on the future of Syria’s political system after a victory over the IS has been achieved, with Bashar Assad’s future as head of state figuring prominently in the discussion.
- Aleksandr Ignatenko, president of the Religion and Politics Institute, believes that “while the struggle against the radical Islamists continues, it might be possible for the ruling coalition and the opposition to meet for talks, conferences and round-table discussions, in other words, to continue the Geneva process with the aim to find a way out of the dead end.” “The probability is high the Syrian people will elect a different man, not Bashar Assad, as their president,” he predicted.
- Boris Dolgov, research fellow at the Oriental Studies Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, argued that Assad’s statement he would resign, if that helped settle the crisis in Syria was nothing but “rhetoric.” “Who is the man Assad will be able to hand power over to? There is no worthy personality on Syria’s political landscape at the moment. As for the Syrian opposition abroad…it represents nobody but itself and has no forces inside the country to rely on,” Dolgov told TASS.
Indian commentators discussed Russia’s motives behind its attacks and its rethinking of Western policies toward the Assad regime.
- Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, Coordinator of the National Security Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, posited that the Russian attack “marks a decisive shift back to Cold War-style zero sum games, high value-high risk standoffs.” Just like NATO’s intervention in the Ukraine crisis was designed to contain a bellicose Russia, Moscow has now changed the geopolitics in its favor by successfully deterring any NATO or Israeli attacks against Syrian government facilities, which are protected by Russian troops.
- Putin aims “to protect Moscow’s interests in western Syria and to put pressure on the regional powers to rein in their proxies,” namely Ahrar as-Sham (Turkey) and Jaish al-Islam (Saudi Arabia), opined Vijay Prashad, the Chief Editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi. He “is aiming to use its military presence to drive a diplomatic process amongst Syria’s regional adversaries – Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”
- Sandhya Jain, a political analyst and independent researcher, argued that the Russian military intervention “has given a leash of life” to the Assad regime and “has forced Washington to reconsider regime change as the cornerstone of its foreign policy architecture” in Syria.
- T. J. S. George, a prominent writer and political columnist, criticized U.S. policies of training rebel groups against Assad as “counterproductive,” while submitting that “Putin’s intervention was successful enough to make the U.S. concede that perhaps Assad could be allowed to stay on as an interim measure while the IS threat was tackled as the immediate priority.”
- Rudroneel Ghosh, a journalist for The Times of India agreed, “Russia is right when it says that the Assad regime must remain for the time being. Washington’s refusal to work with Assad – who’s the legitimate head of the Syrian government – is what led to this mess in the first place.”
- “The strategy should be for the West to abandon the maximal agenda of ousting Assad and replace it with one in which he shares power with Sunnis (and Kurds, never mind Turkey’s objections),” argued The Economic Times. “This is the only way to rope in Iran and isolate the Islamic State, which poses a real threat of radicalization at home for Russia – and India, too.”
- Sanjiv Shankaran, another journalist for TOI, expressed a dissenting view, rejecting the idea that Assad is “a bulwark against IS and the sole representative of Syria’s Alawites” and claiming that he “is neither the first nor only line of defense.”
Japanese media critiqued Russia’s actions and urged Moscow to cooperate with the West in Syria.
- The Sankei Shimbun criticized Russia’s action as an opportunistic move to exploit the chaos in the Middle East and to increase its influence in the region, arguing that Moscow must stop its airstrikes and cooperate with Western powers on the war against IS.
- The Yomiuri Shimbun, while condemning the Russian airstrikes, argued that Obama’s Syrian strategy “has reached a deadlock” and that negotiations with Assad “might be unavoidable.” “Pressing ahead with diplomacy that curbs any increase in the strength of ISIL while also anticipating a transition to a new regime – this will be a difficult process, but unless the United States and Russia, the two major powers, act in concert, the situation in Syria will not improve.”
- Masayuki Yamauchi, Professor of History at Meiji University, Tokyo, opined that Russia’s intervention aims not only to keep the Assad regime in place but also to keep a check on Iran’s potentially increasing influence in the region, as Tehran has provided Syria with $26 billion for its defense and is now expected to rise as a regional power in light of the lifting of Western economic sanctions following the nuclear deal in July.