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Putin, Syria

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Putin, Syria and Pandora’s box

Russia plans to hit the “Islamic State” (IS) hard, but will it have the desired effect? Fiona Clark looks at some of the challenges at home and in Syria and what could be a Pandora’s box for the Russian bear.
President Vladimir Putin seems to have learnt some verbal self-control since he came to power 15 years ago. Back in 1999, Chechen terrorists allegedly set off bombs in Moscow apartment blocks killing around 300 people. The bombings sparked the second Chechen war and led the newly installed Russian president to utter something along the lines of “we’ll follow terrorists everywhere. We’ll corner them and blast them out, even in the shit-house.” This time around his rhetoric is a little more reserved but the message is the same: “We will find them anywhere and punish them.”

While the US has previously said Russia’s bombings in Syria are making the situation worse by causing more refugees to flee as they target other anti-Assad strongholds as well as IS, the tragic events in Paris may change that and be the catalyst that sees Russia take on a leading role in the battle against the terrorist organization. France and Russia have said they’ll cooperate and share intelligence and the UK is discussing its involvement with Prime Minister David Cameron saying the UK can cooperate with Russia. But the US is still holding back. President Barack Obama held an impromptu meeting with Putin in Antalya at the G-20 meeting last Sunday but as yet there’s been no significant change in the US’s stance on Russia’s tactics.

Sticking point

One sticking point is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the fact that Russia isn’t putting his removal at the top of the priority list. Russia must be feeling confident though. Putin said the events in Paris meant the US response must evolve while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded all players in the region that defeating terrorism must be the priority. He added that Assad will have to play some kind of meaningful role in the future of the country.

“All the forecasts made by our colleagues in the West and some other parties that the people would rise up and oust him never came true. This means one thing: Assad represents the interests of a significant part of Syrian society. So no peaceful solution can be found without his participation,” Lavrov said on Thursday in an interview with Radio Russia.

With the US House of Representatives voting to restrict refugees entering the country and an IS video threatening strikes on US territory, Russia’s line that Assad is the lesser of two evils may prevail.

Russia has confirmed that the downing of its plane was an act of terrorism, although it has not been confirmed by investigators in Egypt. In response it’s launched a fresh wave of bombings that have taken out a column of oil tankers and hit more than 30 IS targets. And its barrage is unlikely to let up as it joins with the French to intensify the campaign.

But initially Russians themselves didn’t appear to be united about the action. While many laid flowers outside the French embassy in Moscow, social media was awash with comments asking why no one overlaid their Facebook pictures with the Russian flag when the plane went down. Anger at the Charlie Hebdo cartoon that depicted Russians falling out of the sky was also a factor. But once the president expressed his condolences the grumbles abated.

Long-term plan

Now that IS has incurred the wrath of Russia it may pay a heavy price. But what happens to the people of Syria as the bombs drop? Steps will have to be put in place to protect civilians and give them safe haven. At home security will have to be on high alert permanently to deal with the potential of backlash terrorist attacks, and plans to help counter the appeal of fighting for IS need to be discussed. Russia hasn’t even mentioned this so far despite having a possible 4,000 Russian citizens involved with the group in Syria at the moment.

And what about the long term? Russia may well have succeeded in flattening dissent by razing Chechnya to the ground some 15 years ago and installing a puppet regime to run the republic, but it won’t be that simple in Syria. There are multiple foreign interests and multiple local factions to deal with and rebuilding a country takes a lot more than just throwing cash at it. Somewhere there needs to be some discussion on the bigger picture – not just the reaction to the immediate threat.

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