There can be no better example of Russia’s increasingly complex role in the endgame to Syria’s brutal civil war than Monday’s shooting down of a Russian plane by Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles operated by the Syrian military.
With the conflict showing every sign that seven years of horrendous blood-letting is drawing to a close, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is seeking to position himself as the true victor. Not content with achieving his initial aim of saving the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, the Russian leader is seeking to dictate the terms of the conflict’s resolution.
Thus Putin has been very much the driving force behind the agreement negotiated with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The two leaders agreed to establish a “demilitarised zone” between Syrian rebels and government forces in the northern city of Idlib, thereby averting the potential bloodbath many observers had predicted as the Syrian regime and their Russian backers sought to destroy the last remaining pockets of rebel resistance.
Sochi was the scene of another one of Putin’s dubious diplomatic triumphs, as it was there that he had ordered the illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea as the 2014 Winter Olympics drew to a close. The shooting down of a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 transport aircraft with the loss of all 15 people on board will, though, take some of the gloss off Putin’s latest attempt at statesmanship, especially as the disaster was caused by the crass incompetence of the Syrian military. Moreover, the circumstances in which the aircraft was shot down provide a graphic illustration of the perplexing complexity of the battlespace in the Syrian conflict, where distinguishing friend from foe is increasingly becoming a daily challenge.
Having initially blamed the Israelis for the attack, the Kremlin was then forced to concede that the aircraft had in fact been shot down by Syrian forces. To add insult to injury, Pentagon sources said the plane was hit by a Russian-made S-200 anti-aircraft missile that Moscow sold to the Al Assad government several years ago.
The real concern for the Russians, however, should be the intense military activity that was taking place before the aircraft was shot down. Syrian air defences were on high alert after four Israeli F-16s attacked a Syrian military base near Latakia that the Israelis claim was being used by the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah to build missiles. It now looks as if the Syrians shot down the Russian aircraft believing it to be an Israeli warplane.
As a spokesman for the Israeli forces remarked caustically after the event, the Russian warplane was hit by “extensive and inaccurate” Syrian fire, which happened because the Syrian forces “did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air”.
One of the enduring features of the Syrian conflict has been the unwelcome involvement — at least from the West’s perspective — of other major regional players. Apart from Russia, Iran has been the other big backer of the Al Assad regime, to the extent that Moscow and Tehran have forged a close partnership. While this marriage of convenience has worked well in terms of keeping Al Assad in power, the Russians and Iranians do not necessarily see eye to eye when it comes to their respective ambitions for post-conflict Syria.
Putin’s approach has always been based on the Kremlin’s desire to maintain the military presence it has enjoyed in Syria which dates back to the Cold War. The Iranians, by contrast, have a more ambitious plan, and believe that, in return for the heavy losses they and their Hezbollah allies have suffered in Syria, their reward should be to build a network of new military bases that enhances their ability to threaten Israel.
The Kremlin, though, has no interest in confronting Israel. On the contrary, Putin enjoys cordial relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the extent that, on several occasions in recent months, the Russians have given their tacit approval for air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. Furthermore, Tel Aviv has made it abundantly clear that it will not allow Iran and its Hezbollah proxies to establish a new network of offensive positions in Syria, and Israel’s uncompromising position could spell trouble for Putin’s love-in with the ayatollahs.
The tensions caused by Israel’s determination to prevent Syria from becoming another Lebanon, a base from which Iran can threaten the security of population centres, have already resulted in the accidental shooting down of a Russian aircraft.
And Putin’s claim to be the victor in the Syrian conflict, by keeping the Al Assad regime in power, could prove short-lived if his erstwhile allies in Tehran succeed in provoking a new regional war.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Con Coughlin is a defence editor and noted foreign affairs columnist.