At a meeting in Manchester last week I heard a Syrian refugee describe his plight and that of his family. It was heartbreaking. Essentially the same story could be told of millions, and their number increases daily.
The forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad are currently mounting an offensive against the country’s largest city, Aleppo. Tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing Aleppo province towards the border with Turkey, which is denying them entry. The carnage helped to put pay to peace talks briefly held in Geneva last week.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, “Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held ‘Azaz corridor’ that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo.
“The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin doesn’t support Assad unconditionally. The Financial Times newspaper reported recently that late last year Putin sent his head of military intelligence Igor Sergun to meet Assad. He told him he would have to stand down as part of an eventual peace settlement.
In a twist worthy of a John le Carre novel, Sergun’s death was announced at the beginning of January. Whatever the truth about this, Assad rejected his proposed removal. According to the Financial Times, “In his dealings with the Kremlin, Mr Assad has adopted a strategy of playing one foreign power off against another. His trump card on this occasion was Iran. Russia has been nervous of Tehran’s growing regional influence at the cost of its own leverage for months.”
Since then it seems that Putin has decided to make a virtue of necessity and use Russian airpower to tilt the balance in Assad’s favour.
The alliance between Russia and Syria dates back to the 1940s, and gives Russia access to increasingly important Middle East bases. Putin clearly wants to hang onto it.
Nevertheless, Sergun’s visit to Damascus underlines that, as Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre says, “for Putin, the intervention in Syria was never about keeping Assad in power, it is about getting the Americans to acknowledge Russia’s key role in settling this conflict.”
In other words, the Syrian people’s tragedy is that their country has become a battleground for a proxy war. This war is not simply between regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. It’s also between the United States and Russia, still the two great nuclear powers.
And Washington is playing the same game, not just in the Middle East. Last week the New York Times newspaper reported, “President Obama plans to substantially increase the deployment of heavy weapons, armoured vehicles and other equipment to Nato countries in Central and Eastern Europe, a move that administration officials said was aimed at deterring Russia from further aggression in the region.”
The administration proposes to more than quadruple its military budget for Europe to £2.4 billion. The deployment to countries such as Hungary, Romania, and the Baltic states would allow Nato to maintain a full armoured combat brigade in the area. This could breach a 1997 agreement between Nato and Russia not to maintain large troop numbers near each other’s borders.
Russia, hit hard economically by Western sanctions and oil price collapse, is too weak to mount the global challenge to the US it offered during the Cold War. But the pacification of Europe that took place during the 1990s seems to be going into reverse.
Meanwhile, the hot war is escalating in Syria. Foreign Policy predicts that the Assad offensive will strengthen both Isis and the Kurdish forces that already control significant areas along the Syrian-Turkish border. Further Kurdish successes might well provoke military intervention by Turkey.
Syria’s agony is far from over.