Europe’s struggle to use soft power in coping with Syrian refugees appears to be playing into Russia’s hands as it torques up the hard power.
As Moscow increases its military forces in Syria, will that reduce or increase the flow of refugees?
President Putin recently justified Russia’s steadfast support of the Assad regime against enemies, saying: “[The refugees] escape the radicals first of all. If Russia had not supported Syria, [it] would have been worse off than Libya, with an even bigger flow of refugees.”
Syria is an important piece in Putin’s global strategy. How important can be measured by the resources he is investing.
Russia considers fighting the Islamic State militant group (ISIL) a priority, and while President Bashar al-Assad continues to represent an asset there, Moscow will guard his back.
Satellite photos show Russia developing facilities along Syria’s coast, prompting observations that Russia may be preparing to add troops to combat planes, helicopters and tanks.
Russia has a naval base on the Mediterranean — its only one there — the seaport of Tartus. This Soviet-era Material-Technical Support Point is an Assad stronghold. It dates from the Cold War — 1971, when Bashar al-Assad’s father held power.
Washington has been wary of Moscow’s support for the leader whom it holds responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrian, and the internal displacement of millions and flight into neighbouring countries and Europe.
The West has demanded Assad’s removal from power practically since the start of the Civil War in 2011.
Putin can rely on Iran’s interest in keeping Assad, to maintain the regional power balance. Tehran is also invested in defeating ISIL, though with no troops or military advisers in Syria, according to the Deputy Foreign Minister.
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said: “Bashar al-Assad, a legitimate president of Syria, will be a part of a political resolution within any initiative.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry has called on Russia and Iran to be helpful in ending the conflict in Syria, while he sought to clarify the intentions of Moscow’s forces.
“If they are there to fight ISIL and only ISIL, that’s one possibility, and it’s something that we’ll obviously talk about in New York in the next few days. But if they are there to shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn’t have to negotiate, then I think it’s a problem.”
Washington believes Moscow’s support for Assad has attracted foreign fighters to the many factions battling in Syria.
Adding Russians would probably further complicate the cross-fire.