The Syrian war is an obscenity, a brutal meat-grinder that consumes mainly the innocent.
The initial popular revolutionary impulse that dictator Bashar al-Assad tried to crush by brute force still weakly survives. But it is now subsumed by the rivalries of imperialist powers and their local clients and allies.
The fighting goes on because it is in these powers’ interests.
Russia’s intervention last year has proved to be a game-changer. It has propped up the Assad regime, which it is currently helping savagely to retake parts of the biggest city, Aleppo.
The interests of the rival powers interweave in complex ways.
Last November, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane. But, particularly since the failed Turkish coup in July, the two states have drawn closer. In late August, Turkish troops penetrated deep into Syrian territory.
The preoccupation of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to prevent the Kurdish nationalist forces that now control an enclave in Syria from linking up with their counterparts in Turkey.
According to the Financial Times newspaper, “Russia gave Turkey a free hand against Syrian Kurdish forces to whom it had offered temporary and opportunistic support.”
Meanwhile Turkey diverted its Syrian rebel allies away from defending Aleppo.
Russia’s abandonment of the Kurds underlines that it is an imperialist power, like the US. Russia’s aim in Syria seems primarily to force the West to abandon the sanctions imposed in retaliation for its intervention in Ukraine.
More generally it demands recognition of its role as a global power-broker. So far this isn’t working out too well. Since the breakdown of the short-lived Syrian ceasefire in September the West has been upping the rhetorical ante.
Western foreign ministers met in London last Saturday. Boris Johnson, trying to brush up his Churchillian image, told a House of Commons committee last week that they would discuss “the more kinetic options, the military options” on Syria.
This posturing means very little. A spokesperson for Theresa May said the British government has “no plans for military action”.
In any case, the only Western decisions about Syria that matter will be taken not in London, but in Washington.
As long as Barack Obama remains US president, there is very little likelihood of serious Western military intervention in the Syrian war.
Obama has made his extreme reluctance to return to the Middle East quagmire so clear it has weakened secretary of state John Kerry’s bargaining hand with Russia.
Obama’s military priority in the Middle East is the operation now under way to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Isis.
Hillary Clinton, who now looks set to succeed him, will almost certainly pursue a more belligerent global policy.
But both the US and Russia will still operate according to the same strategic calculus that governed the Cold War. In other words, they will try to avoid a direct clash that unleashes a nuclear war that would end civilisation.
Media sources have been talking up the prospect of such a clash. The intelligence website Stratfor says Russia is “locked in a multi-theatre confrontation” with the US. But the fact remains that Russia’s relative economic and military power is much less than that of the old Soviet Union.
Its best chance of increasing its global weight is by teaming up with China—and the two states have started holding join military exercises. But China’s rulers certainly don’t want a general war over Syria.
This doesn’t mean that what’s happening isn’t dangerous.
As in the case of the greatest crises of the Cold War, Berlin 1961 and Cuba 1962, there is a risk that a local conflict can escalate out of anyone’s control.
Johnson is apparently lobbying for a Western-imposed no-fly zone in Syria—a move that could, given the Russian military presence there, escalate in just this way.
This is one good reason why the US, Russia, and all the other outside powers should get out of Syria.