To end the Syrian quagmire
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.