FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria

Photo Source Surian Soosay | CC BY 2.0

A ceasefire seldom gets a good press. If it succeeds in ending violence or defusing a crisis, the media swiftly becomes bored and loses interest. But if the fighting goes on, then those who have called the ceasefire are condemned as heartless hypocrites who either never intended to bring the killing to an end or are culpably failing to do so.

Pundits are predictably sceptical about the agreement reached by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Monday to head off an imminent offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces directed against rebels in Idlib province. This is the last enclave of the armed opposition in western Syria which has lost its strongholds in Aleppo, Damascus and Daraa over the past two years.

Doubts about the accord are understandable because, if it is implemented, the anti-Assad groups in Idlib will be defanged militarily. They will see a demilitarised zone policed by Russia and Turkey eat into their territory, “radical terrorist groups” removed, and heavy weapons ranging from tanks to mortars withdrawn. The rebels will lose their control of the two main highways crossing Idlib and linking the government held cities of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama.

There is a striking note of imperial self-confidence about the document in which all sides in the Syrian civil war are instructed to come to heel. This may not happen quite as intended because it is difficult to see why fighters of al-Qaeda-type groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham should voluntarily give up such military leverage as they still possess. The Syrian government has said that it will comply with the agreement but may calculate that, in the not so long term, it will be able to slice up Idlib bit by bit as it did with other rebel enclaves.

Missile defence system in Latakia, Syria fires into the sky

What is most interesting about the agreement is less its details than what it tells us about the balance of forces in Syria, the region and even the world as a whole. Fragile it may be, but then that is true of all treaties which general Charles de Gaulle famously compared to “young girls and roses – they last as long as they last”. Implementation of the Putin-Erdogan agreement may be ragged and its benefits temporary, but it will serve a purpose if a few less Syrians in Idlib are blown apart.

The Syrian civil war long ago ceased to be a struggle fought out by local participants. Syria has become an arena where foreign states confront each other, fight proxy wars and put their strength and influence to the test.The most important international outcome of war so far is that it has enabled Russia to re-establish itself as a great power. Moscow helped Assad secure his rule after the popular uprising in 2011 and later ensured his ultimate victory by direct military intervention in 2015. A senior diplomat from an Arab country recalls that early on in the Syrian war, he asked a US general with a command in the region what was the difference between the crisis in Syria and the one that had just ended with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The general responded with a single word: “Russia.”

It is difficult to remember now, when Russia is being portrayed in the west as an aggressive predatory power threatening everybody, the extent which it was marginalised seven years ago when Nato was carrying out regime change in Libya.

Russia was in reality always stronger than it looked because it remained a nuclear superpower capable of destroying the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 just as it was before. It should be difficult to forget this gigantically important fact, but politicians and commentators continue to blithely recommend isolating Russia and pretend that it can be safely ignored.

The return of Russia as a great power was always inevitable but was accelerated by successful opportunism and crass errors by rival states. Assad in Syria was always stronger than he looked. Even at the nadir of his fortunes in July 2011, the British embassy in Damascus estimated that he had the backing of 30 to 40 per cent of the population according to The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which should be essential reading for anybody interested in Syria. Expert opinion failed to dent the conviction among international statesmen that Assad was bound to go. When the French ambassador Eric Chevallier expressed similar doubts about the imminence of regime change he received a stern rebuke from officials in Paris who told him: “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”

Such wishful thinking and flight from reality continues to this day. Miscalculations by Washington, Paris and London have provided Putin with ideal political terrain on which to reassert the power of the Russian state. The agreement signed by Russia and Turkey last Monday deciding the future of Idlib province is a token of how far Russia has come out on top in Syria. Putin is able to sign a bilateral agreement with Turkey, the second largest military power in Nato, without any reference to the US or other Nato members.

The accord means that Turkey will increase its military stake in northern Syria, but it can only do so safely under license from Moscow. The priority for Turkey is to prevent the creation of a Kurdish statelet under US protection in Syria and for this it needs Russian cooperation. It was the withdrawal of the Russian air umbrella protecting the Kurdish enclave of Afrin earlier this year that enabled the Turkish army to invade and take it over.

As has happened with North Korea, President Trump’s instincts may be surer than vaunted expertise of the Washington foreign policy establishment and its foreign clones. They have not learned the most important lesson of the US-led intervention wars in Iraq and Syria which is that it is not in western interests to stir the pot in either country. Despite this, they argue for continued US military presence in northeast Syria on the grounds that this will weaken Assad and ensure that any victory he wins will be pyrrhic.

Everything that has happened since 2011 suggests the opposite: by trying to weaken Assad, western powers will force him to become more – not less – reliant on Moscow and Tehran. It ensures that more Syrians will die, be injured or become refugees and gives space for al-Qaeda clones to reemerge.

Russian dominance in the northern tier of the Middle East may be opportunistic but is being reinforced by another process. President Trump may not yet have started any wars, but the uncertainty of US policy means that many countries in the world now look for a reinsurance policy with Russia because they are no longer sure how far they can rely on the US. Putin may not always be able to juggle these different opportunities unexpectedly presented to him, but so far he has had surprising success.

 

More articles by:

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

February 21, 2019
Nick Pemberton
Israel, Venezuela and Nationalism In The Neoliberal Era
Chris Orlet
The Bill and Melinda Gates’ Fair Taxation Scaremongering Tour
Bruce E. Levine
“Heavy Drinking” and the NYT’s Offensive Obit on Herbert Fingarette
Lisi Krall
This Historical Moment Demands Transformation of Our Institutions. The Green New Deal Won’t Do That
Stephanie Savell
Mapping the American War on Terror: Now in 80 Countries
Daniel Warner
New York, New York: a Resounding Victory for New York Over Amazon
Russell Mokhiber
With Monsanto and Glyphosate on the Run AAAS Revokes Award to Scientists Whose Studies Led to Ban on Weedkiller in Sri Lanka and Other Countries
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Fake National Emergency Moves America Closer to an Autocracy
Alex Campbell
Tracing the Threads in Venezuela: Humanitarian Aid
Jonah Raskin
Mitchel Cohen Takes on Global and Local Goliaths: Profile of a Lifelong Multi-Movement Organizer
Binoy Kampmark
Size Matters: the Demise of the Airbus A380
Elliot Sperber
For Your Children (or: Dead Ahead)
February 20, 2019
Anthony DiMaggio
Withdrawal Pains and Syrian Civil War: An Analysis of U.S. Media Discourse
Charles Pierson
When Saudi Arabia Gets the Bomb
Doug Johnson Hatlem
“Electability” is Real (Unless Married with the Junk Science of Ideological Spectrum Analysis)
Kenneth Surin
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline: Another Boondoggle in Virginia
John Feffer
The Psychology of the Wall
Dean Baker
Modern Monetary Theory and Taxing the Rich
Russell Mokhiber
Citizens Arrested Calling Out Manchin on Rockwool
George Ochenski
Unconstitutional Power Grabs
Michael T. Klare
War With China? It’s Already Under Way
Thomas Knapp
The Real Emergency Isn’t About the Wall, It’s About the Separation of Powers
Manuel García, Jr.
Two Worlds
Daniel Warner
The Martin Ennals and Victorian Prize Winners Contrast with Australia’s Policies against Human Dignity
Norman Solomon
What the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign Means for Progressives
Dan Corjescu
2020 Vision: A Strategy of Courage
Matthew Johnson
Why Protest Trump When We Can Impeach Him?
William A. Cohn
Something New and Something Old: a Story Still Being Told
Bill Martin
The Fourth Hypothesis: the Present Juncture of the Trump Clarification and the Watershed Moment on the Washington Mall
February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail