October 22, 2015
Despite growing evidence of a build-up of military personnel and equipment around Latakia the scale of Russian military intervention in the Syrian conflict caught the West by surprise. Many analysts tend to see it as a new assertiveness on the part of Russia; President Putin flexing muscles, displaying power; Moscow striving to restore lost role in the Middle East; Russia trying to teach Americans a lesson. Some believe that the intervention aims at propping up the regime and if Putin had been eager for peace he would have exerted pressure on President Assad before the outbreak of full scale civil war. Others say this is an attempt to deflect attention from the Ukraine conflict and a mismanaged economy. A few want a robust reaction from the US and say that NATO being tested by Russia. Assad’s visit to Moscow will probably reinforce these assessments. There may be some truth in all that. But, a little more needs to be said to complete the picture.
Russia did not block the UN Security Council Resolution which allowed the West to intervene in Libya which, despite some progress on paper, has not yet eliminated the risk of turning into a failed state. The West believed that regime change in Syria was soon to follow. This did not happen. Yet failure to contain Syria’s internal conflict led to proxy wars. The West and its regional allies supported the opposition. Russia and Iran backed the Assad regime. In the meantime Baghdad’s inability to bring about internal peace allowed the Islamic State (ISIL) founded in Iraq in 2007 to emerge as a force to be reckoned with. All of this created confusion and prompted dark relationships, questionable alliances and secret deals.
In early June 2014 ISIL captured Mosul dealing a staggering blow to ten years of US investment to build a new Iraqi army. Later ISIL extended its reach to Syria and gained control over large swaths of territory in both countries. The US and her allies formed a coalition and launched an air campaign. But the coalition had two inherent weaknesses. Firstly, this was a coalition of convenience formed by countries with diverse interests, agendas and no common understanding as to who was the “moderate”, the “terrorist” and who stood in between. Secondly, the impact of the airstrikes on ISIL was bound to be limited since they had to minimize civilian casualties among Iraq’s disenchanted Sunni population. To put it briefly, the air campaign to degrade and defeat ISIL turned into a routine exercise. ISIL continued to hold its ground, expand and add new recruits to its ranks. This was not confined to Iraq and Syria. ISIL and its affiliates started making new inroads into places within and well beyond the region as we have bitterly come to understand in Turkey. The US-led coalition also failed to create a “moderate opposition” force capable of challenging if not taking down Assad. None of this is to say that President Obama was wrong not to intervene in Syria militarily. But overall failure to make any organized and steady progress towards some semblance of stability enabled externally supported “grey area” groups to make advances against the regime and this led to the Russian intervention.
One may ask the question what would have happened if Russia had not intervened. One answer could be “more of the same”. Another could be the eventual collapse of the regime only to be followed by a fresh round of battle between ISIL and other terrorist organizations for power. And a third could be, as the Russians seem to think, a complete takeover by ISIL. No one has yet been able to say that the moment Assad goes all those groups fighting in Syria will unite their efforts to form a modern, democratic, progressive and secular Syria. The Russian intervention, paradoxically, may make it clear once again that there is not going to be a military solution to the Syrian conflict.
The Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria experiences have unmistakably shown that rebuilding destroyed state institutions, disbanded armies and overcoming sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal differences through externally imposed roadmaps and programs is mission impossible. Nation-building requires the revival of the sense of unity and purpose under enlightened leadership. Such revival has to come from within. This was how Atatürk built Turkey’s modern republic on the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. He was also very much aware of the interdependence between our internal and external peace. This is why his motto was “peace at home, peace in the world”. Now we have neither and there is no prospect of such revival in today’s Middle East. Regional countries’ only accomplishment in the Syrian conflict has been to enhance the risks of region-wide fragmentation.
In a joint op-ed published on October 2, 2015 Richard Sokolsky and Perry Cammack said:
“The war of words between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves little optimism that the United States and Russia can soon cooperate to de-escalate the horrendous civil war in Syria. Their differences on the causes and nature of the conflict are profound, as are their prescriptions for resolving it… Neither country has the answer to Syria’s misery but if a solution to Syria is ultimately to be found, they are doomed to eventually work together.” (*)
This is indeed the only way to end the Syria conflict. Such an undertaking has to start with the US and Russia agreeing on the basic parameters on a double-track game plan of charting a roadmap for political transition in Syria as well as formulating a joint strategy to fight ISIL since the two are inseparable. Should they succeed in this endeavor and put into that strategy some muscle in the form of a ground force, the world may be pleasantly surprised to see a good number of ISIL fighters disappear in the sand even before any offensive is launched. And, at some stage the people of Syria have to take charge of their own destiny, free of external meddling.
Tuesday’s signing of a US-Russia agreement to minimize the risks of incidents in Syrian airspace could be a beginning. Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov have often spoken of their countries’ capacity to “make a difference” when they work together. The world has been waiting and waiting and waiting …
(*) “Parsing Putin on Syria”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2, 2015 (The article was originally published in the Arab Weekly.)