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Syrian End Game

What does Russian involvement mean for Syria?

Most Probable Reason:  To obtain a place at the negotiating table on Syria. Putin will prop up Assad to improve his hand.  The No-Fly Zone would have led to regime change which Russia strongly feared.

Short-Term Market Impact:  Increased volatility for markets.  This is increase the political risk premium for oil, thus expect volatile oil markets and for prices to move up. Also, the Turkish markets and currency should be more volatile and weaker.

First of all, the proactive move by the Russians has turned the table on the opposition – US, Turkey, S. Arabia, UK, France, etc. In contrast, this move bolsters the Shia alliance group – Asad, Iran, and Hezbollah.

For Russia, the move was very important since they have their only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea at Tartus, Syria.  In addition, they have an airbase in Latakia.  Thus, Syria represents the only foothold that the Russians have in the Middle East.  The risk was the Asad was on loosing ground and this could eventually lead to the Russians loosing these their bases.

This reaction from the Russians was a result of the recent No-Fly Zone Agreement, in which Turkey and Jordan played a key role.  In short, the purpose was to end the Assad Regime of bombing in the North and South of Syria.  For Turkey, the primary benefit would have been to weaken Kurdish influence in the North of Syria.  The real goal however was something different.  It was not stated, but the No-Fly Zone Agreement would probably lead to regime change and Russia could not take a chance on this happening.

Thus, the Russian intervention was primarily done to make the No-Fly Zone Agreement unworkable.  To ensure this, 4 SU-30 (fighter jets for shooting down other jets) along with sending the Cruiser Naval Ship Moskva with 64  S-300 ship to air missiles (these make the F-16 vulnerable) were sent as a message to the US and the allies.  On top of this, 24 SU-24 Fencer and SU-25 Frogfoot Jets were sent.  Recently cruise missiles were used to strike targets in Syria.  Most of the targets are the moderate Islamic groups fighting the Assad Regime. These are the same groups backed by the US.

Russian is helped in this by divisions both between the Europeans and the other main players.  For example, the Italians think Russia has an important role and this needs to be accepted.  The UK thinks it would be dangerous to replace Assad since their is a power vacuum.  Thus they are leaning towards having Assad play a role in the transitional government.  The US is putting pressure on the Russians to persuade Assad to stop dropping bombs which further provides support for ISIS.  The dysfunctional Iraqi government, which is heavily influenced by Iran, supports the Russians.  Saudi Arabia is open to one of the following options: a transitional government or military action against Assad.  Turkey is totally opposed to Assad and wants him removed from power.

In short, this is very a very difficult situation.  On the one hand, the Russians and the Shia group are right since if Assad goes, it seems highly likely that Syria will collapse even more since there is no alternative to fill the power vacuum.  This would lead to an expansion of ISIS.  On the other hand, support for Assad is no longer a credible option for the Sunni majority in the country.  Thus, a final agreement will be difficult to forge.

Further complicating the matter is the Kurdish opposition which controls Northern Syria.  In short, they are seeking autonomy which is strongly opposed by Turkey.  That is the reason why the Turkish air raids targeted mostly Kurdish positions.  In addition, Turkey fears the Syrian Kurds more than the hardline opposition groups (Islamists).

The Sunni opposition groups fall into two general categories – moderate and hardline.  The Saudis and other Gulf states back the hardline groups (as does Turkey to some extent due to fearing the Kurdish intentions more).  The US, Jordan and Western allies (UK, France, etc.) back the moderates.  Recently, the moderates have become under air attack from the Russians.  Mainly because the moderate forces are against the Assad Regime and also because moderate forces control territory closest to the Assad regime. Finally, it is a mistake to think of these groups, both moderate and hardline, as coherent.  Within the two general categories, their are a myriad of ideologies. Thus, the terms moderate and hardline should be viewed critically and not in a ‘black and right’ or ‘right or wrong’ point of view, but more as grey.

Support for the different groups fighting in Syria has many complex layers and even varies among allies.  For example, both the Turkey and Saudi Arabia, allies of the US, support different groups from the US and from each other.  The US supports the Kurds and moderate groups while opposing Assad, Iran, ISIS and hardliners.  The Saudis support the hardliners as does Turkey to some extent.  Turkey is against the Kurds, but both the US and Saudis support them. In addition, a regional layer of animosity exists between the Saudis and Iran for influence in the form of a proxy war in Syria.

Dangers in the medium to long-term could include a wider Middle East conflict, terrorism exported to Central Asia (Russia and China) and to Turkey.  This means that there is a Chinese interest in containing a wider conflict in the Middle East for economic reasons.

Additional motives for Russia are to shame the US and West, keep Assad in power long enough to play major role in final negotiations on Syria, protect the Tartus Naval Base, and for domestic political reasons (Crimea adventure is fading, thus Syrian one needed).

In short, the Syrian End Game is to push for a deal that benefits Russian interests.