Russian Intervention in Syria: Hard Lessons in the Levant

The situation in Syria could hardly get more desperate. But now, thanks to the actions of two powers intent on establishing their dominance within other nations, the conflict has become even more than an unsolved humanitarian disaster or a source of geopolitical challenge. Now the war could represent the coming together of two great foes of freedom and democracy; and this is almost entirely due to the free hand the Obama Administration has given to Iran and Russia.

The trampled red line two years ago has given Vladimir Putin a green light for military action within other countries; it’s now the ‘new normal’ for Russia to be in occupation of part of the territory of a European state and to be setting up a directly military colonial outpost on the Syrian coast. Russia already had a large stake in the survival of the Assad regime – which sees strategic expediency in barrel bombing civilian areas and has killed many times more people than ISIS likely ever will – but now those ties have been cemented in the promise of military support.

Russian tanks patrol the regime’s heartlands while Russian planes fly overheard. And this arrangement has nothing to do with fighting ISIS, the supposed foe. The same can be said for the increasingly open part Iran now plays in Syrian and Iraqi affairs. Like Russia, Iran also seeks to prop up Assad, but it does so at the same time as Iranian-backed Shia militias rampage across Iraq and while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, led by Qassem Soleimani, interfere with governments as far afield as Yemen. What the Iranians are looking for, to use an old phrase, is a version of ‘full spectrum dominance’, with a network of allies, puppet states and proxies scattered throughout the region.

Like the expanding Iranian imperium, the newly-arrived Russian combatants are not concerned with humanitarian matters; reducing the slaughter of innocents, stemming the refugee crisis, and even defeating ISIS – these hold little interest. Instead, Russian soldiers are now in theatre for one reason only: the preservation of the regime, which has become little more than a client state with many masters.

The Russians, who are tremendously skilled in propaganda of this sort, have already attempted to phrase their intervention in terms the rest of the world will swallow. Already, Russian men and materiel are in action, this time supporting a regime advance around Kuweris airbase in Aleppo with the help of Russian airstrikes. This represents a good start for Russian propaganda efforts: Kuweris is besieged by ISIS, so Russia can continue to claim this is a solely anti-ISIS intervention. It is a nice story, one tailored to win hearts and minds in a world in which the brutality of ISIS is omnipresent and the desire to defeat its ghastly caliphate is strong. But this could not be further from the truth.

The Obama Administration’s Syria strategy has been a comprehensive failure. Readers will not need to be reminded that the president himself wrote a cheque that he could not – and would not – cash when he declared a ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons by the regime. (He even suggested in a broadcast to the nation that chemical weapons use would be ‘a game changer’.) Now, however, despite the initial rush of conspiracy theories, many of which attempted to suggest that the Syrian people had gassed themselves, it is clear that both the regime and ISIS have used chemical weapons – sometimes against military opponents and sometimes against civilians – on many separate occasions. Yet the president seeks to abdicate his own responsibility; he would altogether prefer that the world forgets his bold promises.

Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum, and the collapse of the regime in Syria has left a tremendous hole in the dynamics of the region. Now other actors seek to fill the vacant space; Iran and Russia have been the most dynamic. Diplomatic rapprochement with Iran and a general unwillingness to confront Russia over its invasion of Ukraine have made this White House remarkably weak and reluctant to deal with both nations.

And more than that, it is not as if the West is simply guilty of inaction (inexcusable though that would be). We are effectively outsourcing to the Russians in Syria. The theory states that Russia will fight ISIS, as Putin articulated in his recent interview with Charlie Rose. But another fact of Russia’s Syria strategy came to light during the same exchange; it is also an essential goal of the Russian intervention to rescue the Assad regime, which means that Russian troops will soon become far more involved in Syria than the United States; and this can only spell disaster for what little strategic vision the White House can muster. Russia will attack non-ISIS insurgents – the only forces which have consistently defeated ISIS or halted its advance – opening further space for the Islamic State.

This grisly situation will be underlined by what comes next: Russia will then present Assad as the saviour, the only party willing and able to fight ISIS in a country devoid of other actors.  Shamefully, this is the same strategy Assad and his allies have pursued all along – but now it is on the verge of becoming possible.

With Russia and Iran and their proxies – including the remnants of Assad’s regime and Hezbollah – cooperating, the laxity of the Obama Administration is on full display. Its lack of strategy and genuine unwillingness to act has led to our enemies actively coalescing, all the while claiming to be the only legitimate opponents of ISIS in the region. This claim is demonstrably false, yet – due in large part to US isolation and inaction – it could soon be the only show in town. And stories of a joint operations room bringing together these enemies of America abound. The veritable alliance of enemies is building up. With that in mind, and with no end to the Administration’s woeful Syria policy in sight, it is entirely possible that the Russian intervention in Syria could serve as the starting gun for something far more consequential – and greatly more sinister indeed.

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  1. Pingback: Past and Present: Writing About the Collapse of International Order | James Snell

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