At the recent Moscow Conference on International Security, participants analyzed how the success of Russia’s military intervention in Syria could become the basis for new types of counter-terrorism initiatives.
Residents of the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek are searched by police, Brussels, Belgium, 2015. Photo: Reuters
Even as fighting in Syria continues in the embattled city of Aleppo, there is hope that Russia and other key stakeholders in the region may achieve a long-term, workable peace solution for the country. Russian experts call for a broad-based coalition to fight global terrorism, but differences remain between Moscow and its Western partners on this issue.
That was one of the themes at the recent Moscow Conference on International Security, where Russian security officials and defense ministers from 19 countries met to discuss common security threats and priorities, especially those related to counter-terrorism.
The conference, hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defense, featured Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and other senior members of the Russian national security community, who shared their perceptions of Russian threats and priorities.
Also read: Russia Direct Report "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"
According to Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, whose team organized the conference to include more effective use of media and the Internet, some 700 delegates, from more than 80 countries, attended the event — including 52 official military delegations and 19 foreign defense ministers.
On balance, while the Russian speakers at the conference repeated past Russian criticisms of Western policies, this was expected, since they made the same points in previous years and the Russia-NATO relationship has not fundamentally changed since then.
However, they did constantly reaffirm the offer President Putin made at last September’s UN General Assembly meeting (and subsequently thereafter) to resume military dialogue as equal partners with the West and establish a broad international coalition against terrorism.
In his keynote at the conference, Shoigu repeated past criticisms of Western policies. He claimed that some countries (without mentioning the United States and its allies by name) tried to exploit their military advantages to coerce other members of international society into obeying their will. Shoigu also faulted the persistence of “bloc-style thinking” from the Cold War, seen in the persistence of efforts to establish global missile defenses and boost conventional strategic strike weapons.
He also warned that NATO’s backing for Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane meant that the alliance has become hostage to the most confrontational policy of its members. Other Russian speakers complained that NATO was militarizing Russia’s border and denying Russia’s offers of cooperation and calls for equal and indivisible security in Europe.
However, Europe was not the focus of the conference — international terrorism was. And here the Russian speakers provided more interesting insights and some hard data. Lieutenant General Sergey Rudskoy, the chief of the Main Operative Department of the Russian General Staff, provided new details about the Syrian campaign. He pointed out that the Russian Aerospace Force had conducted some 9,500 sorties so far and hit about 29,000 terrorist targets.
In the Ministry of Defense’s assessment, the Russian military intervention had broken the backbone of the insurgency — decisively disrupting the militants’ command structure and logistical-financial networks — and allowed the Syrian government to go on the offensive on all fronts, recapturing 11,000 square kilometers (approximately 4,250 square miles) and some 500 villages, many of which had been under terrorist occupation for years.
Rudskoy attributed the Russian military success to close cooperation between the Russian and Syrian militaries as well as with the various popular militias, who could use their superior local knowledge to guide airstrikes and provide other valuable military intelligence. He also claimed that the Russian pilots had so far avoided falling into the trap of attacking civilian targets, which would alienate the population, even though some sources fell for this tactic of the “information war.”
Of course, Western analysts are less sure about the absence of civilian casualties due to Russian bombing and would point to additional assistance provided by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, though their relative importance has seemed to decline since the Russian intervention in September.
In his presentation, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, repeated the argument that forced regime change in the Middle East, and the political manipulation of terrorists as proxy weapons (by the West), has led to the growth of regional terrorism there. He justified Russian military intervention as an effort to counter the further spread of regional terrorism as well as direct defense against the growing presence of radical Islamists from the former Soviet Union within the country.
Gerasimov claimed that only Russia had a legal right to intervene militarily in Syria since Moscow, unlike the members of the Western coalition, had received a formal invitation from the legal Syrian government to intervene. He also said that the current Russian military objectives were to promote the peace process, render humanitarian aid, and dispose of unexploded ordinance.
Many of the Middle Eastern speakers at the conference praised Russia’s positive contributions to fighting terrorism. For example, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehgan criticized the United States and its local allies for pursuing a double-standard (“and even a multiple-standard”) approach by supporting proxy terrorist forces that they can use to justify their intervention in the internal affairs of foreign countries.
According to Dehgan, “The world is exposed to insecurity, instability and escalation of fear of terrorist activities of Takfiri-Zionist trends which are supported by the U.S., the Zionist regime and some regional countries headed by the Saudi government.” Dehqan termed the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria a successful example of fighting terrorism and promoting regional stability. Other presenters made the same point more effectively, without the vitriol.
The Russian speakers rightly extolled their military success in Syria. The intervention has been surprisingly successful — almost a textbook example of the application of limited military power for attainable goals. With few Russian casualties, the Russian forces saved the Assad government from likely defeat last year and transformed Moscow into an indispensable player in the Syrian peace process.
However, Russia has the same challenge as everyone else in securing a major military victory or a lasting peace settlement due to the many internal and external actors that can veto a peace deal and the weakness of Moscow’s local allies.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.