The relationship between war and plunder is axiomatic; behind sermons of national interests and morality lie material gains. Such has been the story of mankind and such is the conundrum ‘in’ and ‘about’ Syria.
…her latest sea launched cruise missiles with the range of 1500 kilometres is another signal to the world community, especially to the USA, that Putin’s Russia is back in the game.
Modern day Syria, an artificial country created to serve the post war interests of imperial powers, lies in the throes of death, hanging on to life by infusion of life-saving stimulants. Wracked by four years of gory conflict, masked behind sectarian cleansing and bloodletting, lie interests of great powers; entry of Russian Military Forces, being the latest in this macabre dance of death and destruction. Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, bordering Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and the hotbeds of Lebanon and Palestine, not only is the spectre of Syria becoming another fount of terrorism frightening, but, even if that does not happen, its strategic location and its energy resources, provide all the elements for great power rivalry.
The fact that Russia was constrained to deploy ‘High Tech’ Electronic Warfare resources like the Krasukha-4 a highly sophisticated jamming system, to cloak Russia’s actions from a rag-a-tag terror outfit is testimony that this war is not being waged by ill-organised gun toting fundamentalists of the ISIS but by forces with direct support and active backing of ‘developed’ nations. Concurrently, the speed of the Russian build-up and employment of cutting edge electronic surveillance equipment, aircraft and use of high tech weaponry, including her latest sea launched cruise missiles with the range of 1500 kilometres is another signal to the world community, especially to the USA, that Putin’s Russia is back in the game.
The aim is not merely to uncover the interests of the various forces ‘in’ and ‘behind’ this conflict which has the potential to spill over to Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and possibly Jordan, but to highlight the dangerous reality that escalation of this conflict has ramifications beyond the region and is potentially dangerous for mankind – indeed, the battle space of Syria could well become an greater arena.
Billions have already been pumped in the war – both to control energy rich Iraq and Syria…
Why does Syria remains Important?
Syria has a great geographical advantage since it provides an important maritime conduit from the Middle East to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, and is also accessible from the Persian Gulf through Iraq. Hence, in a way, both neighbours need to be seen as one geo-strategic entry and therefore, in military terms as one theatre. At the same time, when seen individually as a nation, Syria has always been surrounded by powerful and antagonist nations, namely, Israel in the west and Turkey in the north; her future linked inexorably with the region – a desolate wasteland of great economic potential, split by an unbridgeable Shia-Sunni divide.
Russia Interests. Seen from Russia’s strategic perspective, acquiescing to a US led regime change in Syria and allowing a free run to the US led forces in neighbouring Iraq was an invitation to disaster – not only would this add to the susceptibility of her Eurasian underbelly, but this would also mean the demise of President Putin’s dream of resurrecting Russia to be capable to check USA’s global imperialism. In real terms, it is pertinent to highlight that Syria provides the only base available to Russia outside her waters (Tartus on the Mediterranean Coast) and though not active in the recent past, it remains vital for her to maintain control over her only link with the Black Sea – if she loses Tartus, her fleet could be bottled up in the Black Sea.
Syria therefore was the place for Russia to draw the line and though ostensibly, she is in Syria to fight the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS), the build up at the base at Latikia (close to Tartus) is a sign of things to come. It is also important to highlight that though Russia has struck targets across Syria, the concentration has been in the west; protection of her bases being paramount. At the same time, taking on around 2,500 Chechens, who are fighting alongside the ISIS may provide an opportunity for her to strike a blow to the movement back home. Either way, it appears that Russia takes her commitment to President Assad seriously and this is reflected in her largest overseas post-Cold War build-up.
Like Russia, China is also lending support to President Assad as she does not want American imperialism to prevail under the garb of Sunni domination.
The US Interests. For the US, gaining control over Syria – the gateway from the Middle East to Europe and Eurasia, and more importantly, control over the energy resources and pipelines has never been more important. Billions have already been pumped in the war – both to control energy rich Iraq and Syria, and in squeezing traditional enemies like Iran. In her strategic calculus, USA already wields adequate control over Sunni Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and the Sheikhdoms of the Arabian Peninsula by virtue of their dependence on the USA. This is not merely in terms of control over their financial assets in the US, but also in terms of protection against Zionist Israel. Since she already controls most of Iraq, it was only Syria that remained in the way. Thus, in the multi-faceted conflict, where the USA has been targeting the ISIS in Iraq, it is the same ISIS who is fighting for her against Assad. Not surprisingly, the ISIS has been gaining ground as their success provides the west the means to control Syria by proxy. In view of the interests of her regional (Sunni) allies, this comes as no surprise.
China. The response from China has been predictive but out of character. Admittedly, China has strategic interests in this part of the energy rich world. Yet, her reactions seem more strategic than economic. Like Russia, China is also lending support to President Assad as she does not want American imperialism to prevail under the garb of Sunni domination. At the same time, it is in her interest that Islamic fundamentalism should not get fillip as she herself has a large Muslim population which cannot be inured infinitely from another Arab Spring. While China’s stance of supporting Russia in Syria in diplomatic terms is in keeping with her past behaviour, yet her decision to partake in military operations, how-so-ever insignificant, comes as a surprise. Thus, in view of reports of the Chinese military build-up in the Mediterranean Sea, including her (only) aircraft carrier, Liaoning, and likely employment of J-15 Fighter Bombers, it would be significant to see what the next few days would bring in terms of China’s involvement. Having said that, China’s military posturing, that too beyond her waters, could well be a sign of things to come.
With its infrastructure badly damaged, Syria may appear to be a fringe player in terms of oil production, yet it is the potential of disrupted oil supplies that would push up prices.
In a conflict that has already produced more casualties than the Iran-Iraq war of 1988 (around 230,000 as of June, 2015), and with eleven million refugees, Syria is a nation, ravaged by war – both in literal and economic terms.
In economic terms, the war, as was the case in neighbouring Iraq, is more about control over energy resources, more specifically about natural gas and over the pipelines that supply this vital resource. It is the extension of these pipelines through Syria that has been a significant factor in keeping the conflict going.
In terms of oil concessions alone, it is expected that over $ 150 Billion will be spent in outlay costs over the next decade, half of which are for US contractors; other beneficiaries being European, Russian and Chinese companies. Buttressing the revenues from oil and gas, a fair share of this money will be heading outside Iraq. As per a report published in the Guardian, Putin’s action in Syria is “about Russia’s international standing, but more importantly it is a long-term play for higher oil prices and, ultimately, a flow of oil dollars into Russia to strengthen his popularity at home.” This appears to be right as Russia’s economy has not only been reeling under the declining oil price; Putin’s personal stock in Russia is also under pressure.
At the same time, the reason for planned accelerated oil recovery from war torn Iraq is intended to keep the world market well supplied and ipso-facto keep prices low. This is part of a deliberate strategy targeted at the economic rise of Russia, as oil constitutes its main export. This strategy is not expected to change, as this remains a potent way to keep the Russians in check.
While there is no doubt that USA was caught on the back-foot by the Russian deployment…the moot question remains ‘was this a tactical victory or something that would provide major strategic gains’ for Russia?
With its infrastructure badly damaged, Syria may appear to be a fringe player in terms of oil production, yet it is the potential of disrupted oil supplies that would push up prices. However, this is unlikely to happen, at least in the immediate future, as both Russia and the west would like to keep the conflict capped in terms of its geographic scope and employment of forces.
At the same time, the conflict has not only provided a windfall for US and European Arms Dealers, but also for Russia as Syria imports over 4 Billion of arms from her alone. If the cost of war in neighbouring Iraq is added to the cost, including the multi-billion contracts for reconstruction and resurrection, the figure would be staggering.
Prognosis and Conclusion
As a learned analyst from across the Indo-Pak Radcliffe Line has concluded, in view of the plethora of perspectives, the war in Syria is indeed ‘messy’ – there are too many angles and economic interests involved – some regional but the ones that matter lie beyond the control of local forces. Significant questions in these early days of the changed paradigm in Syria are highlighted.
While there is no doubt that USA was caught on the back-foot by the Russian deployment and gaining operational initiative may have provided an advantage to Russia, the moot question remains ‘was this a tactical victory or something that would provide major strategic gains’ for Russia? In a way, this would be answered as actions unfold in the near future.
At the macro level are questions of how much Russia would be prepared to extend in terms of deployment and her involvement; issues like mission creep are already being talked about. Conversely, the million dollar question Washington faces is what’s next for the Middle East. Clearly, her ploy to keep Assad’s Syria destabilised through proxy forces has been exposed and she needs to regain the initiative.
…there is the fear that this multi-cornered conflict that has graduated to a kinetic war in Syria – a war that is being waged without battle lines or boundaries, could spiral out of control.
While Moscow would prefer a swift operation to neutralise USA’s game plan to keep the Middle East destabilised, Washington would prefer continuation of the conflict through her proxies to wear out Russia. If this strategy is adopted, as it is expected to unfold, this would require upping the ante and adding to the economic pressure on Russia by keeping the price of oil low – Russia’s main source of revenue.
The oil price war being waged through the machinations of Saudi Arabia and has been hurting Russia for over a year may see the addition of a new dimension. Despite her financial reserves, Saudi Arabia has been forced into undertaking emergency austerity measures as the war in Yemen is taking an economic toll. If the Yemen conflict remains unmanageable, this may force a rethink on the part of Riyadh on the issue of price, which in turn would favour Russia.
Undoubtedly, there is brinkmanship involved and at the same time, there is the fear that this multi-cornered conflict that has graduated to a kinetic war in Syria – a war that is being waged without battle lines or boundaries, could spiral out of control. Despite the fact that all the major powers may appear to be on the same side, the situation could change rapidly. In view of her own interests – India’s stance therefore needs to be nuanced but with built-in flexibility.
 The Krasukha-4 is a broadband multifunctional jamming station that is based on a BAZ-6910-022 four-axle-chassis and is able to neutralise low-Earth orbit (LEO) spy satellites such as the US Lacrosse/Onyx series, airborne surveillance radars and radar-guided ordinance at ranges between 150 km-300 km.
 As per the 1980 friendship treaty with Syria, Moscow had the option to take over operational control of the Latakia air base.
See earlier articles by the author on the subject posted on Indian Defence Review:
c) Games Nations Play: the Middle-East Conflict-a Game of gas pipelines
 Kramer Andrew E, US Companies get slice of Iraq’s Oil Pie, New York Times, 14 June, 2011
 Temerko Alexander, Putin’s Syria strikes are a long-term play for higher oil prices, Guardian, 10 October, 2015