Russia’s Intervention in Syria

October 7, 2015

Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, particularly the targets chosen, have added further confusion to an already complicated picture.

Since March this year, with the Islamic State (ISIL) controlling half of Syrian territory and the “Army of Conquest” consolidating its gains in the Idlib province and getting closer to Latakia, the Assad regime appeared to be on the retreat. The “Army of Conquest” is a coalition of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and a few others. Reportedly, the Army of Conquest cooperates with some moderate rebel groups and is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Ankara strongly denies such support.

On 12 May 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Kerry held a joint press conference in Sochi. While expressing his views on Syria Mr. Lavrov said that he and Mr. Kerry “agreed that ISIL’s activities, as well as the activities of Jabhat al-Nusra are very dangerous…”

In an interview published in Turkish daily Hurriyet on 22 May 2015, US Special Representative for Syria, Daniel Rubinstein clearly stated that for Washington, al- Nusra is a terrorist organization, the Syria section of al-Qaida. He advised caution to all America’s friends in their support to the Syrian opposition. (Indeed, the US has designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization on May 15, 2014.)
On September 29, 2015 President Putin gave an interview to TV channels CBS and PBS. He said the following to his interviewer Charlie Rose: “… you are talking about the Syrian army fighting against its people. But take a look at those who control 60 percent of Syrian territory. Where is that civilized opposition? 60 percent of Syria is controlled either by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra or other terrorist organizations, organizations that have been recognized as terrorist by the United States, as well as other countries and the UN. It is them and not anyone else who have control over 60 percent of Syrian territory…”

The foregoing gives the impression that the US and her regional allies on the one hand and Russia on the other have some sort of a disagreement as to who is the “moderate” or the “healthy” opposition, who is a “terrorist” and if there is another category in between.

Russia says it is worried of ISIS ideology spreading and terrorists returning to Russia and her Asian neighbors. This is a valid concern and needs to be understood.

Some analysts believe that these strikes are aimed at raising Russia’s status to a global power. All that needs to be said in this respect is that Russia is already a global power. Others express the view that Russia, through her military action in Syria, is going alienate the Sunni world and make many enemies. This seems to be wishful thinking for two reasons: Firstly, the Russians are putting the emphasis on fighting terrorism and taking care to maintain dialogue with regional countries. Secondly, the Sunni world does not constitute a monolithic bloc; it is a group of countries with diverse interests forming constantly shifting alliances according to the needs of the day. They bear considerable responsibility in failing to contain the conflict in Syria.

Through her intervention in Syria Russia is essentially trying to underline an opinion shared by many countries and disputed by a few: “There is not going to be a military solution to the Syria conflict.” Once they believe that they have created a position of relative strength for the regime, Russians are more likely to put the emphasis on a diplomatic/political solution. A show of force followed by a demonstration of peace-making capacity would serve Russia’s interests much better in the long term.

In the above-mentioned interview President Putin said: “I want you, your audience to finally realize that no one except for al-Assad’s army is fighting against ISIS or other terrorist organizations in Syria, no one else is fighting them on Syrian territory. Minor airstrikes, including those by the United States aircraft, do not resolve the issue in essence; in fact, they do not resolve it at all. The work should be conducted on the spot after these strikes and it should all be strictly coordinated. We need to understand what strikes are needed, where we need to strike and who will advance on the ground after these strikes.”

Mr. Putin is right to say that “minor airstrikes” cannot resolve much because they absolutely have to avoid civilian casualties which will only play in the hands of ISIL. The reference to “advance on the ground” is interesting when read together with latest reports about a US-supported land offensive against ISIL’s Raqqa stronghold. The US-led coalition and Russia would be well-advised to cooperate in exploring options to engage ISIL in ground combat. In spite of some difficulties an all-Arab force supported by others would be the best option.

In his press conference on October 2, 2015, President Obama said: “… in my discussions with President Putin, I was very clear that the only way to solve the problem in Syria is to have a political transition that is inclusive — that keeps the state intact, that keeps the military intact, that maintains cohesion, but that is inclusive — and the only way to accomplish that is for Mr. Assad to transition, because you cannot rehabilitate him in the eyes of Syrians. This is not a judgment I’m making; it is a judgment that the overwhelming majority of Syrians make…”

President Putin has a different approach. He believes that it is only up to the Syrian people living in Syria to determine who, how and based on what principles should rule their country, and that any external advice would be “absolutely inappropriate, harmful and against international law”.

Despite such diametrically opposing views diplomacy should be given an opportunity to seek common ground. The critical point here is ensuring a certain parallelism between the fight against ISIL and efforts targeting a political solution. A situation like in Ukraine with an influx of Russian volunteers will serve no one’s interest. Hopefully, “deconfliction” talks on military operations in the area would pave the way to meaningful dialogue on ending the conflict. The greatest challenge in Syria will be preventing a revanchist post-war political culture since this would mean open-ended warfare.

Where does Turkey stand in the face of all this? The Justice and Development Party (JDP) Government has looked at the Syrian conflict from the prism of ideology rather than national interest. By “national interest” I do not mean the narrow and selfish interests of a country sometimes detrimental to her neighbors and others. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict to the point of becoming part of the problem has served no one’s interest. Keeping a distance and trying to promote peace within Syria and beyond would have served not only Turkey’s interests but those of the region as well. There were opportunities when Turkey could change course. But the JDP Government single-mindedly and obstinately continued to sail towards the center of the storm. Now with nearly two million Syrian refugees whom the Europeans are desperate to keep in Turkey, insecure borders, lost trade, lost relationships, lost internal peace and growing risks of a new confrontation we are almost there.

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