Rus­sian vic­tory in Syria

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Gwynne dyer is a in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries. Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago this month, the Rus­sian air force was sent in to save the tot­ter­ing Syr­ian regime of Bashar al-As­sad from col­lapse. The air was thick with West­ern pre­dic­tions that Moscow had made a dread­ful mis­take.

“These (Rus­sian) mil­i­tary ac­tions con­sti­tute a fur­ther es­ca­la­tion and will only fuel more rad­i­cal­iza­tion and ex­trem­ism,” said the United States, Bri­tain, France, Ger­many, Qatar, Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey in a joint state­ment three days af­ter the first Rus­sian bombs fell. The evil, stupid Rus­sians were back­ing As­sad, they were bomb­ing the wrong groups of fight­ers, they were bomb­ing civil­ians, and they would end up trapped in an end­less war.

Why didn’t the Rus­sians lis­ten to such ex­pert ad­vice, es­pe­cially from the United States, which has more ex­pe­ri­ence in los­ing wars in the Mus­lim world than any­body else? No­body likes to be pa­tron­ized, but the Rus­sians didn’t get into a slang­ing match about it. They just kept quiet and car­ried on do­ing what they were do­ing.

Two years later, they have won. “All the con­di­tions are in place for the fi­nal stage of de­feat­ing ISIS in Syria,” said Gen­eral Alexan­der Lapin, the com­man­der of the Rus­sian army in Syria, and that is the sim­ple truth. Only parts of the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deires-Zor re­main un­der ISIS con­trol, and both cities will fall be­fore the end of the year.

It’s a bit tricky in the east of Syria, where West­ern, mostly U.S. troops and their Kur­dish and Arab al­lies are still in the game, so Deir-es-Zor, at least, will prob­a­bly end up par­ti­tioned be­tween the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and the Amer­i­cans in the short run. But in the long run As­sad gets it all back.

All that re­mains to do is re­con­quer the big en­clave around Idlib in north­west­ern Syria that is ruled by the alQaeda af­fil­i­ate that used to be known as the Jab­hat al-Nusra. (It has taken to chang­ing its name ev­ery month or so in an at­tempt to dis­guise its ori­gins.) But the Rus­sian have promised to help As­sad re­con­quer that ter­ri­tory too.

“The op­er­a­tion to de­stroy the fight­ers of the Isis and Jab­hat al-Nusra ter­ror­ist groups on Syr­ian ter­ri­tory will con­tinue un­til their com­plete and guar­an­teed de­struc­tion,” promised Gen­eral Lapin last week. Tak­ing down al-Nusra will be a ma­jor en­ter­prise, but it is quite doable be­cause the Is­lamist out­fit’s for­mer sup­port­ers in Turkey and Saudi Ara­bia have aban­doned it.

In­deed, the Rus­sian and Ira­nian ef­fort to save As­sad has been so suc­cess­ful that what once seemed im­pos­si­ble is be­com­ing a re­al­ity: the whole coun­try will be re­u­nited un­der As­sad’s rule.

Much of the pop­u­la­tion that falls back un­der his con­trol will hate it, and it is far from clear what will hap­pen to the six mil­lion Syr­i­ans who fled abroad dur­ing the war. Most were anti-As­sad, and many will never go home. Los­ing a civil war is a bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, but one way or an­other ev­ery­one will have to come to terms with that fact.

How did the Rus­sians (and their Ira­nian al­lies, who pro­vided most of the fight­ing strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fum­bled un­suc­cess­fully with the is­sue since 2011? By be­ing cold­blooded re­al­ists, de­cid­ing which was the lesser evil (As­sad), and then sin­gle­mind­edly fo­cus­ing on a mil­i­tary vic­tory.

By 2015 it was ab­so­lutely clear that there were only two pos­si­ble vic­tors in the Syr­ian civil war: the bru­tal but sec­u­lar and rea­son­ably com­pe­tent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-cen­tury, or the vi­o­lent re­li­gious fa­nat­ics of Isis and al-Nusra.

So while the U.S., equally ap­palled by both par­ties, spent years try­ing to find or in­vent a third ‘mod­er­ate’ op­tion that never ex­isted, Rus­sia and Iran just went flat out to save As­sad. (The Syr­ian army was within months of col­lapse when the Rus­sians in­ter­vened in 2015.) They have suc­ceeded, and the U.S. will even­tu­ally have to pick up its mar­bles and go home.

And do bear in mind, as you con­tem­plate the Syr­ian tragedy, that there are de­grees of in­iq­uity. Nei­ther the Rus­sian nor the Ira­nian regime is a model of demo­cratic virtue, but Syria’s Ba’ath Party is a great deal nas­tier, and there have cer­tainly been times when its for­eign saviours have had to hold their noses.

So do not ex­clude the pos­si­bil­ity that the Rus­sians might pres­sure the Ba’athists to change their leader once the fight­ing stops. Send­ing Bashar alAs­sad into a safe and com­fort­able re­tire­ment at that point wouldn’t re­ally change any­thing in Syria, but it would put Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion in the war in a some­what bet­ter light.

And what did Moscow get in re­turn for its in­ter­ven­tion? First and fore­most, it pre­vented the emer­gence of an Is­lamist-ruled ter­ror­ist state quite close to Rus­sia’s own south­ern bor­ders. (The Rus­sian pop­u­la­tion is around one-tenth Mus­lim.) But it also demon­strated that it can be a very use­ful ally for other regimes that run into trou­ble. Un­like youknow-who.

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