Russia wants to use CSTO in Syria Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov photo: Anna Kumantsova | Kumantsova.livejournal.com
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or expansion of the military-political influence in the Middle East Moscow wishes to use in Syria members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which is the amorphous military block. On June 22, 2017, the Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma of Russia, former commander of the Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov said that Russia was negotiating with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to send troops to Syria monitoring the military situation (RIA Novosti, June 22).

According to the former general Mr. Shamanov, this issue is being worked out with the political and military leadership of the two Central Asian states but the decision has not yet been taken.

This statement indicates that Russian President Mr. Putin Vladimir is trying to expand the allied governments’ composition that could support Moscow's military actions in Syria. Today, only Iran is a staunch ally of Russia in the Middle East which plays one of the key roles in support of the political regime of Mr. al-Assad Bashar. It bears reminding that on the side of the pro-government forces of Syria, the elite "Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps", the pro-Lebanese Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the pro-government militia "Shabiha" are fighting under the slogan of fighting ISIS. Russian aviation covers the ground operations of the allies from the air. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights more than once accused the Russian military that they bombed not only the ISIS controlled territories, but also the territories controlled by the moderate Sunni armed opposition.

As you know, during the fourth international meeting on the settlement of the situation in Syria which was organized upon the initiative of Moscow representatives of the guarantor countries in Syria (Russia, Iran, Turkey) signed a memorandum on the creation of four zones of de-escalation in Syria (mid.ru, May 6) from 3 to 4 of May in Astana. These four zones included: 1) Idlib province and certain parts of the neighboring provinces (Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces); 2) certain parts in the north of the Homs province; 3) in eastern Ghouta; 4) certain parts of southern Syria (Deraa and Al-Quneitra provinces). The Memorandum also provided for sending the military guarantor countries to de-escalation zones to monitor the cease-fire regime. After that, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran confirmed that they were ready to send their military observers to Syria. According to preliminary data, Turkish military observers will be deployed in the province of Idlib, observers from Iran and Russia will be in the region of Damascus.

Following the results of the inter-Syrian talks in Astana, the Russian president's special representative for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said that participation of military observers and other countries is possible, but only on the basis of consensus and with the consent of all three guarantor countries (ria.ru, May 5). Iran and Turkey immediately agreed with Moscow's strong offer to expand the number of observer states. And now a new statement by the Russian parliamentarian V. Shamanov confirmed that Russia has begun to take diplomatic steps to expand the military observers in Syria.

On June 22, the representative of the President of Turkey Mr. Kalın İbrahim publicly announced that Russia proposes to deploy military observers of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in de-escalation zones in Syria (haberturk.com, June 22). The Turkish side expects that this issue will be included for discussion in the agenda of the fifth international meeting on the settlement of the inter-Syrian conflict which will be held in July in Astana. This shows that Russia is trying to strengthen its position in the Middle East through two former protectorates of Moscow. Moreover, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan consider Russia their strategic partner. During a recent meeting with Mr. Putin Kyrgyz President Mr. Atambayev noted that he did not think about the future of his country without Russia (sputnik.kg, June 20).

However, officials in Bishkek and Astana don't hurry to confirm words of the Russian and Turkish high-ranking officials. The president of Kyrgyzstan A. Atambaev has noted, "to send troops to Syria, first, the unanimous decision of all members of the CSTO is necessary; secondly, the resolution of the UN is necessary; thirdly, the parliament of the country has to agree; fourthly, if such question arises, Kyrgyzstan has to direct non-active armed forces, meaning persons interested from among professional soldiers, and officers who could accumulate experience there and earn money" (24.kg, June 24).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan also issued an official statement, "Astana is not negotiating with anybody to send servicemen of Kazakhstan to Syria. The question of how the security and effectiveness of the four zones of de-escalation in Syria will be ensured is currently in the competence of the guarantor countries of the Astana process which will discuss these and other issues during the next meeting on July 4th and 5th in the capital of Kazakhstan "(mfa.kz, June 23). In Astana's opinion, a crucially important condition for sending Kazakh peacekeepers to any hot spot in the world is the existence of a resolution and the mandate of the UN Security Council.

Thus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan refer to the issue of sending their troops to Syria very carefully. But we should expect that Russia will try to achieve its goal within the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF) of the CSTO. Today, the CSTO CRRF includes the 98th Guards Airborne Division and the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade of Russia, the 37th Air Assault Brigade and the Operational Battalion of Kazakhstan, and one battalion from Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. At the time of creation in 2009 CRRF numbered 20,000 troops (odkb-csto.org, June 2009).

However, Moscow's desire to obtain the military support of two CIS member states in the Middle East is a difficult task. First of all, the authorities of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan understand perfectly well that sending their troops to Syria and the possible death of servicemen in a "foreign war" can became more difficult for the internal political situation.

Secondly, if the two countries intend to send troops to Syria, they will have to get permission from the national parliaments, which is extremely unlikely especially for Kyrgyzstan in the run-up to the presidential elections in October 2017. Any such action may lead to the failure of a candidate from a pro-government party in elections. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan do not want to dirty themselves with the blood of their soldiers in Syria.

Thirdly, the religious factor plays an important role in this issue. It is known that Russia supports the Alawite Bashar Assad who belongs to the Shiite branch of Islam, while the armed opposition represents Sunnis. It is known that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are Sunnis, and the religious leaders of the two countries on the sidelines repeatedly expressed their discontent with Russia's military expansion into Syria (thediplomat.com, October 18, 2016). In case of sending troops, the authorities may lose the electoral support of Muslim believers.

Fourthly, because of the economic sanctions of the West in relation to Moscow, which is the main trade and economic partner of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the economy of the both countries has been seriously affected. In the context of the economic crisis for Astana and Bishkek sending troops to Syria will place an additional burden on the state budget, which they cannot afford.

So, in conclusion, it should be noted that Moscow's desire to enlist the support of its military policy in Syria from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is a PR campaign directed primarily to the West. Politicians of Western countries and the media have repeatedly accused Mr. Putin that the Russian military are participating in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad’s army. By inviting his "Central Asian vassals" to his side, the Russian Emperor Putin wants to give the world a clear and unambiguous message that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with. The further development of events will show whether Russia is able to create an international alliance in opposition to the US-led anti-terrorist coalition in the Middle East and whether the authorities of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are able to pass the test of the strength of their state independence.

Uran Botobekov

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam

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