As Russia ups its game in Syria – apparently supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with tanks, naval infantry and air defense systems – Vladimir Putin is deliberately putting the West in a very difficult position.
Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads over the conflict since its beginning. At its heart is not just spiraling geopolitical rivalry, but a deep-seated ideological division.
The result has been the 21st century’s answer to the 1930s Spanish Civil War between Fascists and Communists that presaged World War Two, a grinding, unending conflict fuelled by larger states that just wouldn’t compromise.
Ever since he rose to prominence in the late 1990s, Putin’s style of government – and his political pledge to the populace – has been relatively simple. Chaos – whether the conflict in Syria now, or the free-for-all and economic collapse that followed the end of the USSR – is dangerous and must be avoided.
That strategy, Putin has always made clear, takes strong leadership and a willingness to sometimes be brutal. It is an approach that, he and many Russians appear to believe, was successful in Chechnya and will now work against Islamic State.
The view from Washington – particularly the White House and State Department – could hardly be more different. Particularly since the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. government has argued that dictatorship and a lack of accountability is the problem in Syria. Given all those he has killed, the White House contends, Bashar al-Assad must go.
The problem, of course, is that Washington’s policy on Syria has been an unmitigated failure – a position that many current and former U.S. officials now concede. The rise of Islamic State was bad enough. Now, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are voting with their feet, fleeing the packed refugee camps of the Middle East and creating another new crisis in Europe.
Exactly how much the West is to blame for events in Syria is open to argument. Even as violence flared in late 2011, some Western diplomats were concluding that their nations had made matters worse. By encouraging anti-Assad protesters, particularly in the aftermath of the civil war in Libya, they felt the United States and its allies had created an unrealistic expectation that the West might intervene. Signaling that that was not going to happen, they felt, might have taken the edge off the protests much earlier and ultimately saved lives.
For others – particularly in the United States, itself a post-revolutionary country – such talk misses the point. It was Assad and those around him who chose to brutally crush dissent, they say. Assad’s survival in office cannot be endorsed. Even if a major military intervention against him is politically and perhaps practically unworkable, supporting a moderate opposition is the only real option.
The problem, of course, is that that approach hasn’t worked.
Islamic State has taken over much of the country. And while U.S.
and allied Arab jets and drones pound Islamic State positions, Assad’s forces are using much greater – and much more indiscriminate firepower – against other rebel groups.
For Moscow, the situation in Syria offers both opportunity and danger. Through dramatically stepping up their support for the government in Damascus, they can strengthen their geopolitical hold on their only real ally in the region. It’s yet another chance to embarrass the West.
Behind that, though, Russia is more worried by Islamic State than almost any outside nation. If Islamic State gets too much of a hold in the Middle East, Moscow fears, it could help reignite the conflicts in the Caucuses crushed more than a decade ago at such great human, financial and military cost.
For Putin, the ideal would be for Russia to play its part in a broad anti-Islamic State alliance. Under those circumstances, every power would play to its strengths. U.S.-led forces could launch strikes against Islamic State leaders and others. In Iraq, Russian military support – primarily in the form of equipment such as fighter jets – already fits in with support from Iran and Washington. In Syria, Moscow could give new backbone to government forces as those forces did the things Washington would rather not know about.
In Iraq, to some extent, this has already happened. Russian military supplies – particularly Su-25 Frogfoot jets – already bolster the Iraqi military alongside support from the United States and Iran. When it comes to Syria, however, any talk of a broader anti-Islamic State alliance has gone nowhere.
If anything, Washington has stepped up attempts to stymie Russian action, lobbying first Turkey and now Greece to deny Moscow military overflight rights.
But there are some awkward, awful truths. Such action might simply wind up prolonging the war. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Western states have had little or no long-term success with a counterinsurgency strategy based on targeted strikes and attempts to establish rule of law. Several other nations, however, have proved more effective with much more brutal tactics. Russia did it in Chechnya. Sri Lanka did it against the Tamil Tigers.
I covered the Sri Lanka war for Reuters. It was horrible.
The government used a strategy of overwhelming indiscriminate firepower backed by human rights abuses. But it’s hard to deny it worked and that the war is over.
Moscow seems to have concluded that in Syria, only the government has the capability and will to win.
It’s hard to imagine large numbers of Russian troops going on the offensive in Syria. But after Chechnya and now Ukraine, the Russian military has no shortage of specialists who understand the darker side of modern conflict. They could be embedded in a similar way to U.S. advisers in Iraq – but with much less of a tendency to urge restraint.
The West has little moral high ground here. In Yemen – before a withdrawal earlier this year – officials privately say Western special forces deliberately avoided embedding too closely with government troops to avoid being implicated in the inevitable human rights abuses. And in Iraq, Shi’ite militia loyal to the U.S.-backed government have committed so many atrocities that some regional experts say Sunni populations would often rather see Islamic State stay.
For now, the Obama administration is unlikely to switch its Syria policy during its final months in office. Nor is it likely that a President Hillary Clinton would switch policy radically from her time as Secretary of State to allow Assad to stay.
Given the ongoing confrontation in Ukraine – with U.S. advisers now working to train Ukrainian forces while Russian troops fight a few hundred miles away – the chances of doing a deal with Moscow may get even slimmer.
For several years, some Western officials have held out the prospect that Russia might sign off a deal whereby Assad leaves but those around him stay. Increasingly, though, officials in both Washington and Europe whisper that keeping him in place might be the simplest option. Earlier this month – shortly before the scale of Syrian migrant numbers prompted Germany to tear up the Schengen Agreement and re-establish border controls – German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded it was necessary to talk to Moscow about Syria. The Russians may be hoping for more slippage to come.
That would suit Putin fine. He has no interest in a precedent that authoritarian leaders should stand down just because they have been in power too long or killed too many.