Originally Published 2015-10-01 06:57:21 Published on Oct 01, 2015
Much of this month has witnessed a slow but steady build-up of Russian troops in Syria. The Russian move is of huge significance - militarily as well geopolitically - not by what it brings to the table, but by what it prevents the other protagonists from doing in that tragic conflict.
With Russian buildup in Syria, is Turkey a bigger loser?

Much of this month has witnessed a slow but steady build-up of Russian troops in Syria. The naval base of Tartus on the Mediterranean, once manned by less than a 100 Russian personnel, has now seen their numbers increase to around 1,700 troops, which includes combat aircraft.

By any stretch of imagination, 1,700 troops and less than two dozen aircraft do not portend either a major intervention or a significant escalation in foreign interference. After all, the Americans and the French have been carrying out strikes in Syria for close to two years now. Yet, the Russian move is of huge significance - militarily as well geopolitically - not by what it brings to the table, but by what it prevents the other protagonists from doing in that tragic conflict.

First, this move mirrors the actions that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation had taken on its eastern periphery following the Ukraine crisis. The Baltic states - Poland, Bulgaria and Romania - had already been extremely paranoid about Russian intentions since the end of the Cold War, effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was the trigger then, for the rest of Nato to take the concerns of these countries somewhat seriously and deploy a rapid action force across Nato’s eastern border. This force, that was to consist of US, German, French and other troops from the core western Nato countries, was meant to put these Western countries in the direct line of fire on the very first day - which is when the Russians decided to test Nato’s resolve. In effect, any border infractions like the ’kidnapping’ of an Estonian border guard, would lead, within minutes if not hours, to a direct shootout between Russian troops on the one hand and Western European and US troops on the other.

The rationale for this was that such actions would force a dangerously bellicose Russia to consider every step it took very carefully. They would completely rule out any Russian intervention in support of the huge Russian ethnic minorities in some of these states. Russia clearly took this lesson to heart and, unable to take on Nato on the mutual border, has resorted to the classic oblique attack - it is coming in through Syria.

With Russian troops protecting Syrian Government facilities and infrastructure, Nato or Israeli attacks on these targets are almost impossible. The consequences of a single Western or Israeli bomb killing a Russian soldier will open up a can of worms far bigger than any of these countries had bargained for. In effect, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled a Nato on Nato.

Perhaps, the biggest loser here will be Turkey. Having imposed a 50 kilometer deep no-fly-zone in northern Syria, while simultaneously negotiating a deal with Europe for visa-free travel of Turks to the Schengen region and tens of billions of dollars in return for stemming the tide of refugees into Europe, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ’strong hand’ in the Syria crisis has seemingly crumbled in a matter of days.

Today, Turkey is in no position to impose this no-fly/buffer-zone without risking either a full on confrontation with Russia or the machine gunning down of refugees at the border with the attendant public relations risks. In short, Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in Syria has ended, and it can no longer play a direct role. More importantly, its scope for manipulating the refugee crisis to its advantage has all, but ended.

The advantages for the Syrian Government today are enormous. First, it can operate confidently against the whole spectrum of rebels without fear of their patrons (the US, France, Turkey or Israel) launching conventional counter strikes. Second, it also means the role of terrorist proxies, like the Hezbollah, has increased enormously. Today, Iranian and Syrian commanders can order a complex set of terrorist actions against their neighbours with relative impunity.

The big losers in this case are both Turkey and Israel. In fact, Israel has been so spooked by Russian actions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for direct meetings with Mr Putin to come up with some kind of mechanism to "avoid misunderstandings". This is jargon for: How do I prevent my forces from killing yours?

There were, of course, other considerations for Russia as well. Chechnya is relatively quiet these days, but over 2,000 Russian citizens have joined the Islamic State, augmented by a further 3,000 people from former Soviet Central Asian states - particularly Uzbekistan. The Russian calculus here was three-fold. First, fight and attribute the enemy far from home so that domestic disruptions will be minimal. Second, expose Russian forces to the evolution of guerrilla tactics and enable them to collect intelligence on the Islamic State and other fighters so that they will not be caught by surprise in the future.

Finally, Russian action brings home to Nato, the high costs it will have to face in the future. In effect, the Russian message is: Thus far and no further. For the first time since 1991, Russia has drawn a red line outside its Slavic patrimony.

What are the lessons for India here? This Russian action now marks a decisive shift back to Cold War-style zero sum games, high value-high risk standoffs. These are essential for any great power to become a "great" power. What should be noted here is that Russia is a heavily sanctioned declining power with a gross domestic product less than half of India’s and a 10th of the population. Yet, it is able to affect major geopolitical changes at will far from its shores.

This is the kind of muscle that gets you a UN Security Council seat, not the kind of supine begging, based on "principles" and "representation", that we witnessed in New York this week. The all-weather excuse used to protect the incompetence of the Indian Administrative Service-Indian Foreign Service combine for the last 70 years - that India cannot overcome the "tyranny of geography" - has to end. If it doesn’t, we do not deserve a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

(The writer is a Programme Coordinator at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, September 29, 2015

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