Russia’s military intervention in Syria has confirmed the most basic reality of the war—outside powers increasingly dominate Syria’s fate.
The war in Syria emerged from a genuine popular revolution, which swept the country in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a sectarian civil war in order to save itself. That strategy worked, but at a high price. Assad has to date preserved his regime, but he’s lost control of large swathes of the country.
Moreover, during his father Hafez al-Assad’s reign between 1971 and 2000 the regime strove to maintain independence from the superpowers and Israel.
Now the superpowers are there—the US bombing Isis, Russia apparently targeting a wide range of anti-Assad groups. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are backing assorted Sunni jihadis and Iran’s Islamic Republican regime and ally, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah, are propping up Assad.
Even Isis, which now controls much of eastern Syria, is fundamentally an Iraqi movement.
Syria’s disintegration is a major reason the war continues. The rival outside powers are busy pursuing their own political objectives—most fundamentally either the removal or the preservation of the Assad regime. Short of success, they are not interested in ending the war.
Sections of the left are sympathetic to the Russian intervention. This attitude reveals a peculiar form of blindness, which perceives only the West as imperialism.
It fails to acknowledge that Russia too is an imperialist power pursuing its own economic and geopolitical interests.
It looks as if Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to intervene in Syria because Assad’s military position was becoming weaker.
If Assad were to fall, Russia would lose its main ally in the Middle East. It would also lose a valuable bargaining chip in pushing the US and the European Union to end the sanctions they imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
Russia deploying fighters and the powerfully armed cruiser Moskva has scuppered Western plans to impose a no-fly zone on Assad. Putin bitterly regrets allowing Nato to use such a zone in Libya in 2011 to tip the balance against deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Patrick Cockburn in The Independent newspaper offers a sophisticated defence of the Russian intervention. He writes, “Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines … It can keep Assad in power in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing power regionally.”
The logic of this argument is that propping up Assad might force the US and its allies to agree to partition Syria. But there’s no sign that US president Barack Obama is interested.
He made an extraordinary comment after Russia started bombing. He said, “We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be bad strategy on our part.”
Bad strategy? Isn’t there something more fundamentally dangerous about the militaries of what are still the two great nuclear superpowers rubbing up against each other in Syria?
Last year Obama famously admitted he didn’t have a strategy for dealing with Isis. He still doesn’t. Everyone knows bombing won’t defeat Isis.
The Pentagon has a “train-and-equip” programme aimed at turning “moderate” Syrian rebels into an effective fighting force. Last week it was partly suspended after some of the most recent trainees handed over weapons and trucks to Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaida affiliate in Syria.
The most fundamental flaw in the idea of partitioning Syria is that the greatest victor in the struggle for territory has been Isis. Yet even if the US and the other powers were willing to negotiate with it, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Isis would play ball.
And there’s not much prospect of the US or Russia, which is also relying on air power, militarily defeating Isis.
So the terrible meat-grinder will, alas, continue.