Russia has begun conducting air strikes in Syria, but the West should not stop them. Assad’s removal is no longer possible.
The last month has seen Vladimir Putin’s Russia begin a campaign of airstrikes in Syria. Aiming to prop up President Assad’s crumbling regime, this involvement goes far beyond the materiel and logistical support previously offered by Moscow to help their ally in the region. Unlike the US-led coalition however, Putin’s forces are attacking all opposition groups, leading to condemnation from President Obama and the other principle proponents of regime change in Syria. Nonetheless, the increasing involvement of Russia should be welcomed, if only as a way of ridding the Middle East of Isis.
Before condemning Russia’s apparent indiscriminate bombing of all opposition groups – including those who reject Isis – we in the West must accept one key idea: the democrats cannot win. The Free Syrian Army is a shadow of its former self, banished as it is to the north-west of the country in a strip by the Turkish border, whilst the Kurdish forces are only interested in defending their homelands – and are themselves under attack from our allies the Turks. Increasingly, the choice is becoming simple: secular, Russian influenced Syrian dictatorship or the expansionist, semi-genocidal consequences of an Isis victory.
Within this bleak dichotomy, Assad is rapidly becoming the lesser of two evils. If there was any justice, he and his commanders would be brought to trial for barrel bombing civilians and the use of chemical weapons; but the reality is that Isis are worse, and only a defeat on the ground will wipe them out. Repression will see yet more people die, more families sent fleeing; but the only alternatives are war without end or a fully-fledged jihadi state, free to threaten allies such as Iraq and Israel – simply unthinkable.
Equally, further escalation of Russian involvement would not be the end of the world. Airstrikes alone solve nothing; if Putin wants a strong Syria under Russian tutelage, he will soon have to realise that ground troops will be needed to retake territory, as Assad’s forces grow more exhausted and depleted daily. As the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan showed the world during the 1980s, there is no surer way to topple a regime than a long, expensive conflict against an implacable foe fighting on their own soil. Defeat there bankrupted the USSR and helped to undermine the regime with a wave of dissent. If Putin wants Assad to regain power, he will have to expend significant amounts of blood and treasure that he can ill-afford – tipping the worldwide balance of power back into the West’s favour.
Talks between Russia, France and Germany this week also showed how Syria and Ukraine’s civil wars are linked. This can also be turned to our advantage. If we accept that we cannot oust Assad, then the outline of a Russia/Nato agreement becomes clear. By dropping our demands for regime change in Syria and tacitly supported a Russian drive to reinstall their puppet to his throne, we could demand in return a quiet Russian withdrawal of men and weapons from Ukraine. Already, the militia and mercenaries sent by Putin to bolster the sepratists in Europe have been earmarked for a possible transfer to Asia. A diplomatic de-escalation of tensions is in everyone’s favour, and such bargain is mutually beneficial.
Two notes of caution need to be struck. By accepting Assad will stay, we would abandon thousands of moderate Syrian rebels to be crushed between the rock of the regime and the hard place of Isis. Although hard to swallow, there is nothing we can do for them. They have lost, their support polarised between the secularism of Assad and the Sunni extremism of Isis. Equally, the prospect of Nato and Russian forces in such close contact is concerning. To prevent clashes, we should focus our forces on Iraq’s defence, protecting our ally as Russia protects its own. At best, we will see Isis crushed and a return to the status quo; a wobbly, semi-democratic Iraq aligned with the USA and Europe, bordering a brutal but secular Russian satellite content to remain within its own frontiers. If we discourage Moscow – such as by further sanctions for their attacks on non-Isis rebels – we will only help the extremists and further widen the growing gulf between Russia and the West.
In the Syrian conflict, there are no good guys left. Only Assad, heavily supported by Russian planes and ground forces will ever rid Syria of Isis. Committed to a long, hard war in the Middle East versus determined opposition, Putin will be far less of a threat to Europe; and the prize for his expensive and bloody victory would simply be the recovery of control lost in Syria since 2011. To get Turkey involved in the fight against Isis, we sold the Kurds downriver and allowed Ankara to resume its bloody campaign of repression. To defeat Isis utterly, we may have to sacrifice the moderate opposition in Syria to the designs of Putin and Assad. In return, we may be able to wring concessions over Ukraine, or watch as Russia bankrupts itself in a long fight to reinstate central authority in Syria. We stand to gain either way; our piddling, mewling campaign of airstrikes will never oust Isis or Assad. This war will not end with the whimpering of our limited efforts – it requires the Russian bear to roar again and blow Isis away.