To end the Syr­ian quag­mire

Daily Trust - - OPINION -

Avi­o­lent new di­men­sion was re­cently added to the in­tractable four year old con­flict in Syria when Rus­sia in­ter­vened heav­ily with a se­ries of air strikes. The air strikes were quickly fol­lowed up by salvoes fired from Rus­sian war­ships based in the Caspian Sea. Rus­sia, along­side Iran, has been the main backer of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Basher al-As­sad’s regime dur­ing this con­flict, based on a strate­gic al­liance that dated back to Soviet times be­tween it and the regime of his late fa­ther, Hafez.

The di­rect Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion is the most im­por­tant new twist to this con­flict that has al­ready claimed the lives of over 250, 000 Syr­ian peo­ple, has re­sulted in over a mil­lion in­juries, has com­pletely de­stroyed nu­mer­ous Syr­ian cities and has dis­placed half of the coun­try’s peo­ple from their homes. Mil­lions of Syr­i­ans have fled to neigh­bour­ing Le­banon, Jor­dan, Iraq and Tur­key while hun­dreds of thou­sands have streamed into Europe, cre­at­ing the largest refugee cri­sis for Europe and the world since the Sec­ond World War.

Rus­sian de­fence of­fi­cials said the coun­try’s air force flew about 20 mis­sions from an air­base near Latakia on the first day of the at­tack on Septem­ber 30. Since then, Rus­sian air­craft have hit hun­dreds of tar­gets across Syria. While the Rus­sians say that they joined the war against IS which has been waged by the United States and its NATO and Arab al­lies for years now, ev­i­dence sug­gests that Rus­sian at­tacks were mostly tar­geted not at IS but at Western-backed “mod­er­ate rebels” fight­ing As­sad. These groups’ mil­i­tary forces, while weak com­pared to IS’, presently con­sti­tute a big­ger threat to the sur­vival of the As­sad regime be­cause they are the ones that are lay­ing a siege on the ar­eas it con­trols, in­clud­ing the cap­i­tal Damascus. Hence the Western sus­pi­cion that the Rus­sians are not re­ally af­ter IS but are in Syria to help the As­sad regime to ward off mil­i­tary pres­sure. Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin jus­ti­fied his in­ter­ven­tion in Syria by say­ing it is tar­geted not just at IS mil­i­tants but also at some Rus­sian cit­i­zens who are fight­ing along­side IS in Syria and Iraq. He said, “If they [mil­i­tants] suc­ceed in Syria, they will

re­turn to their home coun­tries, and they will come to Rus­sia too.”

Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­ian war ap­pears to have taken the Western pow­ers and their Arab al­lies by sur­prise. Their an­a­lysts are say­ing that Rus­sia lacks the lo­gis­ti­cal ca­pac­ity to sus­tain this cam­paign and they also point to its cur­rent eco­nomic prob­lems due to the fall in in­ter­na­tional oil prices. Western an­a­lysts have given all kinds of in­ter­pre­ta­tions to the Rus­sian ac­tions, from the charge that it was a last ditch ef­fort to save a col­laps­ing As­sad regime to another charge that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin wants to di­vert Western at­ten­tion from his ac­tions in Ukraine.

What­ever is Putin’s real rea­son, Rus­sia waded in at a time when the West and its Arab al­lies seem to have run out of op­tions in the Syr­ian imbroglio. While they were busy sup­port­ing the moves to oust As­sad, IS ap­peared on the scene and over­run most of Syria and Iraq. The Western­ers want to do away with both As­sad and IS but their airstrikes against IS have had lit­tle ef­fect and their main tools on the ground, the “mod­er­ate rebels” are too weak and frac­tious to have much ef­fect against ei­ther As­sad or IS.

What there­fore will the Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion do? In the short run it will lead to more vi­o­lence, more deaths, more de­struc­tion and more refugees. How­ever, we hope that in the medium term it will prove to the Western pow­ers and their Arab al­lies that their in­sis­tence on top­pling the As­sad regime is a pipe dream. They must there­fore seek a ne­go­ti­ated so­lu­tion at least be­tween As­sad and the “mod­er­ate” rebels. If IS could be brought on board, that will be fine. If not, then at least the pow­ers could make com­mon cause to de­feat IS and at last re­store peace and san­ity to Syria. We urge all sides to aban­don the fu­tile search for a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion and to seek a ne­go­ti­ated end to this ter­ri­ble hu­man tragedy.

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