FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, although further internationalising the conflict, does however present opportunities, as well as complications. There are no simple solutions to this terrible war which has destroyed Syria. Out of a population of 22 million, four million Syrians are refugees abroad and seven million have been displaced inside the country.

I was recently in Kurdish-controlled north-east Syria, where the bomb-shattered ruins of Kobani look like pictures of Stalingrad after the battle. But equally significant is the fact that even in towns and villages from which Islamic State (Isis) has been driven, and where houses are largely undamaged, people are too terrified to return.

Syrians are right to be afraid. They know that what happens on the battlefield today may be reversed tomorrow. At this stage, the war is a toxic mix of half a dozen different confrontations and crises, involving players inside and outside the country. Intertwined struggles for power pit Assad against a popular uprising, Shia against Sunni, Kurd against Arab and Turk, Isis against everybody, Iran against Saudi Arabia and Russia against the US.

 

One of the many problems in ending, or even de-escalating these crises, is that these self-interested players are strong enough to fight their own corners, but too weak to ever checkmate their opponents. This is why the involvement of Moscow could have a positive impact: Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions and strongly influencing the behaviour of its allies and proxies.

Barack Obama said at a news conference after the Russian airstrikes that “we’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia”. But the US-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world. Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit. Crises did not fester in the way they do today, and Russians and Americans could see the dangers of them slipping wholly out of control and provoking an international crisis.

This global balance of power ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and for the Middle East and North Africa this has meant more wars. There are currently eight armed conflicts raging, including Pakistan and Nigeria (the figure jumps to nine if one includes South Sudan, where the renewal of fighting since 2013 has produced 1.5 million displaced people). Without a superpower rival, the US, and its allies such as the UK and France, largely ceased to care what happened in these places and, when they did intervene, as in Libya and Iraq, it was to instal feeble client regimes. The enthusiasm which David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy showed in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi contrasts with their indifference as Libya collapsed into criminalised anarchy.

Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control over a situation that long ago spun out of control. 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. It was always absurd for Washington and its allies to frame the problem as one of “Assad in or Assad out”, when an end to the Assad leadership would lead either to the disintegration of the Syrian state, as in Iraq and Libya, or would have limited impact because participants in the Syrian civil war would simply go on fighting.

 

The intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war in Syria and Iraq, but reading the text of President Obama’s press conference suggests only limited understanding of what is happening there. Syria is only one part of a general struggle between Shia and Sunni and, though there are far more Sunni than Shia in the world, this is not so in this region. Between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia and 30 million Sunni.

In political terms, the disparity is even greater because the militarily powerful Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria, though Sunni by religion, are more frightened of Isis and extreme Sunni Arab jihadis than they are of anybody else. Western powers thought Assad would go in 2011-12, and when he didn’t they failed to devise a new policy.

Peace cannot return to Syria and Iraq until Isis is defeated, and this is not happening. The US-led air campaign against Isis has not worked. The Islamic militants have not collapsed under the weight of airstrikes, but, across the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regions, either hold the same ground or are expanding. There is something ludicrous about the debate in Britain about whether or not to join in an air campaign in Syria without mentioning that it has so far demonstrably failed in its objectives.

Going into combat against Isis means supporting, or at least talking to, those powers already fighting the extreme jihadis. For instance, the most effective opponents of Isis in Syria are the Syrian Kurds. They want to advance west across the Euphrates and capture Isis’s last border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, said last week he would never accept such a “fait accompli”, but it remains unclear if the US will give air support to its Kurdish allies and put pressure on Turkey not to invade northern Syria.

The Russians and Iranians should be integrated as far as possible into any talks about the future of Syria. But there should be an immediate price for this: such as insisting that if Assad is going to stay for the moment, then his forces must stop shelling and using barrel bombs against opposition-held civilian  areas. Local ceasefires have usually only happened in Syria because one side or the other is on the edge of defeat. But wider ceasefires could be arranged if local proxies are pressured by their outside backers.

All these things more or less have to happen together. A problem is that the crises listed above have cross-infected each other. Regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies do have a strong measure of control over their local proxies. But these regional actors, caring nothing for the destruction of Syria and still dreaming of final victory, will only be forced into compromises by Washington and Moscow.

Russia and America need to be more fully engaged in Syria because, if they are not, the vacuum they leave will be filled by these regional powers with their sectarian and ethnic agendas. Britain could play a positive role here, but only if it stops taking part in “let’s pretend” games whereby hard-line jihadis are re-labelled as moderates.  As with the Northern Ireland peace negotiations in the 1990s, an end to the wars in Syria depends on persuading those involved that they cannot win, but they can survive and get part of what they want. The US and Russia may not be the superpowers they once were, but only they have the power to pursue such agreements.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail