The strategic shift caused in Syria through Russian involvement is self-evident. NATO’s project against Islamic Iran in Syria has collapsed but what are the ramifications beyond Syria? Does Moscow’s involvement in Syria signal a new proxy war between Russia and NATO especially in view of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian SU-24M plane over Syria on November 24? Before addressing this question it is important to note that unintended consequences in international relations are a regular phenomena.
In the noble Qur’an, Allah (swt) says,
“And [remember, O Muhammad], when those who denied Allah’s power presence plotted against you to restrain you or kill you or evict you [from Makkah]. But they plan, and Allah plans. And Allah is the best of planners” (8:30).
The mushriks of Makkah had planned to alter the course of history; instead the Hijrah took place. The US invaded Iraq in hopes of dominating the Muslim East; now it is in retreat. Israel invaded Lebanon to expand its influence and gain more territory but Hizbullah emerged. One can cite numerous examples from history where state entities plan one thing, and a different reality emerges.
Russia’s involvement in Syria is about Moscow’s strategy of gaining leverage over NATO. This is meant to keep NATO’s influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union to a minimum. Thus, Russia-NATO proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria are interlinked. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine announced on October 12 that during his visit to the UN in New York he “agreed with the US leadership on [the] supply of non-lethal weapons to Ukraine” and both houses of Congress (Senate and the House of Representatives) approved the multi-million dollar program. NATO’s concessions in Ukraine can lead to Russian concessions in Syria, but this will be a long drawn out political and bloody process, because concessions in these matters are won on battlefields and through intelligence intrigues.
This reality of international relations leads to a firm conclusion that Russia and NATO are already engaged in a proxy war. The first shots have already been fired through Turkey, a NATO member, by shooting down the Russian plane over Syrian territory. Further, the Western-backed “moderate” rebels killed one of the Russian pilots.
In the immediate aftermath of this clear act of aggression by NATO member Turkey, heated verbal exchanges have taken place. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of “serious consequences.” He called the attack a “stab in the back” and described Turkey as an “accomplice of terrorists.” Two other developments followed: the November 25 visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergio Lavrov to Turkey was cancelled and Putin ordered the deployment of S-400 missiles to the Hemeymeen air base in Latakia, Syria. The military also moved the navy missile cruiser Moskva closer to the shore to help protect Russian warplanes with its long-range Fort air defense system.
“It will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a meeting with military officials on November 25. He added that henceforth, fighter jets would escort Russian bombers on combat missions in Syria. The Russian defence minister also announced severance of all military ties with Turkey.
Given that Turkish and other NATO member countries’ planes routinely violate Syrian air space, there is increasing likelihood that Russia might take out one of these Turkish planes claiming to protect the skies of its ally Syria. Russian planes are operating in Syria at the request of the government; NATO countries have sought no such permission and are, therefore, technically in violation of international law.
On October 2, 2015, President Barack Obama had said that the United States would not enter into a proxy war with Russia over Moscow’s actions in Syria. He added that this “would be a failure of strategy on our [US government] part.” Has the November 24 Turkish attack superseded these statements?
Since 2013 US-made TOW antitank missiles and other weaponry have been arriving in Syria through a CIA, Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari vetting of certain militant gangs. It was only a matter of time before Russia suffered causalities in Syria. This has now happened through one of the US-backed gangs. They lynched one of the Russian pilots of the SU-24M plane (the second pilot was rescued by Syrian/Russian commandos).
How Moscow reacts now will depends on specifics. What will definitely add to further escalation of tensions is if the NATO regimes attempt to gain additional leverage over Russia in Syria through pressuring Moscow in the territories of the former Soviet Union. Taking into account the active participation of the takfiri fighters from the North Caucasus in Syria, unintended consequences can further escalate the NATO-Russia proxy war, if Moscow comes to view the takfiri activity in the North Caucasus as a deliberate “closing eyes” policy by NATO. Also, NATO allies, the incompetent Arabian regimes, might get too cocky and force Washington into a heated confrontation with Russia. If the conflict in Syria continues for longer than another year, NATO involvement in the former Soviet territories is highly probable.
Both sides will attempt to use Muslims as leverage and proxies. In this situation the primary goal of Islamic organizations is not to allow themselves to be used as sledgehammers for the conflicting sides in a realpolitik scenario, but to pursue their own strategic objectives.
In the 1980s, Islamic Iran through diligent diplomacy and sacrifices managed to avoid being dragged into a cold war and pursued an independent course. For example, Iran backed the Shuray-e Eatelaf (later it became Hizb-e Vahdat), a mainly Shi‘i Muslim resistance group against the Soviets in Afghanistan. At the same time it backed Hizbullah to counter Zionist aggression in Lebanon. All of this was done at a time when Iran itself was under attack from the Western-facilitated and backed aggression from Saddam Hussein. Today Islamic Iran is much more powerful than it was in the 1980s; therefore, it is quite likely to repeat its success of the 1980s if the NATO-Russia proxy war escalates. Other Islamic organizations can emulate Iran’s example but it would be prudent to do so in coordination with Tehran. This of course will be on a very limited basis, as unfortunately Saudi-fanned sectarianism has blinded many Islamic organizations.
Another major aspect of the NATO-Russia proxy war for Muslim states and socio-political entities is to avoid equating the current situation to the Cold War. The Russia of today is not the Soviet Union of yester-years and the US is not governed through the same mechanisms as it was during the Cold War. Also, the European Union (EU) is not interested in a US-Russia proxy war as it greatly depends on Russian energy products. Moscow’s ruling elite today see themselves as part of the Western crafted global order. They simply want to be treated with respect, in particular by having their strategic interests taken into account in the larger global picture.
Iranian-Russian relations will improve due to Moscow’s assistance in Syria but the US will attempt to create a rift by igniting competition between Tehran and Moscow in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. It will be an easy plot for Iran to avoid, but Tehran should not forget that Moscow backed almost every major anti-Iranian sanction against it. In fact, the best approach for Iran to test the seriousness of Russian cooperation would be to observe how Russia accommodates Iran’s legitimate strategic interests in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan Republic by opening a joint dialogue with the Islamic movement.
With all said and done, the phenomenon of unintended consequences will deliver its surprises in the ongoing tactical US-Russian proxy war. The world has become a lot more dangerous following Turkey’s attack on a Russian plane in Syria.