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.