As the West stalls, Russia Delves Deeper Into the Syrian Conflict
This week saw tense confrontations between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin as they came to discuss the conflict in Syria at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Both made speeches loaded with subtle criticisms reminiscent of some of the worst episodes of the Cold War (see the speeches here and here. Indeed, it has become clear that the United States and Russia now take fundamentally different views on both the current status of the conflict and what action should be taken in the future. At present, attempts to address this issue have served only to deepen divisions rather than to bring about a unified approach.
The main point of contention is over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The war in Syria began in opposition to his regime, but he now stands in control of the only force preventing ISIS from taking control of even more extensive areas of Syria. Assad himself said this week that failure to defeat ISIS ‘will destroy the Middle East’. However, Obama is adamant that Assad remains a part of the problem, not the solution, and called Putin’s tactics in Syria ‘a recipe for disaster’. On the other hand, Putin said this week that it would be a huge mistake not to work with Assad who, in his eyes, remains the leader of the ‘legitimate government’ of Syria and one of the few bulwarks against the spread of extremist terrorist groups. Putin also claimed that President Assad agrees with the possibility of ‘simultaneous political change’, meaning a gradual transition to democracy with Assad serving as the interim government. This approach is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the U.K., this week conceded that at the very least ‘there would need to be some sort of transition’ for Assad to exit from power.
The fact is that there are very few options if Assad is to be entirely excluded from negotiations. The US stance of supporting the “moderate” Syrian rebels has unquestionably failed. Even back in August 2012 the US Defense Intelligence Agency released a statement saying that ‘Salafists (Islamic fundamentalists), the Muslim Brotherhood, and ISIS are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’. All moderate factions have not only suffered resounding defeats but have also frequently had their Western-supplied arms stolen by more radical groups. It is estimated that at least USD 650 million of US supplies has been acquired by ISIS, including weapons, cars and battle tanks. Therefore, if the Assad regime is toppled now, there is very little hope for any stability or end to the slaughter that has been ongoing in Syria for four and a half years now. The US, unwilling to do a U-turn on its policy and work with Assad or to send in ground forces, has been left to carry out ineffectual air strikes against terrorist groups with apparently no plan of what to do if these groups are defeated.
The stalling of US action has continued since Obama’s demand for the removal of chemical weapons from Assad’s arsenal two years ago, while Putin is now exerting a huge influence in the area. This week Russia admitted that, on top of providing large amounts of technological and financial support to the Assad government, they have conducted airstrikes against targets other than ISIS, suggesting a more obvious attempt to gain victory for Assad. Furthermore, Putin has been trying to use Russia’s current position as President of the UN Security Council to bring countries together in support of combatting ISIS in a manner that works with Assad. Brazil and China have already hinted at support of this plan. It seems clear that if the West does not form new policy and take more significant action, it is possible that the Syrian conflict will unravel in a way that Putin desires, with Assad remaining in power and a victory for Russian diplomacy.
Overall, these issues leave the Syrian crisis in a state of great uncertainty. There is a distinct possibility that Assad will be able to continue his authoritarian rule at the end of the war, and no one seems to have an idea of what will happen if he does not. Most international rulers, like Obama, say they want the Syrian people to rule, but at present there is no visible way of how this might be put into practice. Meanwhile, as international powers bicker and stall, the death toll in Syria has surpassed 250,000 along with 4 million people made refugees. Some political figures, like Donald Trump, think Putin’s intervention in Syria could be beneficial, but no one could disagree that he is going about his intervention in a somewhat reckless manner, leaving much uncertain. The West must soon develop some sort of stronger idea of how to intervene or the people of Syria are faced with domination by Putin and Assad on one side and humanitarian disaster on the other.
It is very difficult to suggest what path President Obama and other Western leaders should take, but at present they have disappointingly come up with no effective ideas at all, as inefficient airstrikes rage on. Pressure is mounting as Senator John McCain said on October 4th that Obama’s lack of policy amounts to ‘an abdication of leadership’ and spoke of an emerging ‘proxy war’ with Russia . Arguably Obama’s tactic of few commitments will do more for his popularity than any sort of stronger engagement, but, in the midst of this international fiasco, the tragic torment of the Syrian people is interminably prolonged. Unless something is done soon, with or without the help of Putin and Assad, the bloodbath status of the conflict is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.
- Xan Northcott