Russia began airstrikes in Syria today, ostensibly to combat the Islamic State (I.S.). In reality the strikes first hit U.S.-supported moderate rebels and the campaign is intended to buttress the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s upper house of parliament “voted” to approve an air operation against I.S. in Syria this morning. The operation, which allegedly won’t include ground forces, though there are 2,400 of them in Syria, began with Russian airstrikes in Zaafarana and Talbiseh in Homs Province, and Latamenah, Hama, where there are no I.S. targets.
Zaafarana is said by oppositionists to have been struck with thermobaric weapons with at least three civilian casualties, including children, and the Talbiseh strike is said to have killed up to fifty civilians. According to the Local Coordination Committees, Russia actually hit a total of five towns in Homs—the other three being Rastan, Makarmia, and Ghanto—which killed at least thirty-six people, including five children. The Ltamenah strike hit the headquarters of Tajamu al-A’aza, a U.S.-vetted moderate rebel group that has receive TOW anti-tank missiles.
It is notable that Russia chose not to attack Jaysh al-Fatah (JAF) as its first non-I.S. target. JAF includes Jabhat an-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. It doesn’t matter that JAF has no transnationalist ambitions and that al-Qaeda is only one part among many; this is an argument for Syria wonks. Politically, it would be extremely difficult in the West to condemn Russia for attacking JAF. But Russia went straight for Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded, American-supported, nationalist rebels. One explanation is that the FSA-branded rebels pose more of a threat to Assad than is usually recognized. Another explanation, not mutually exclusive with the former, is that Vladimir Putin does not want to give the U.S. any fig leaf: Putin intends to humiliate the United States and leave no room for doubt that this is a Russian victory at America’s expense.
The U.S. was informed about these strikes ahead of time through the Embassy in Baghdad, though Moscow claimed that I.S. was the only target. Russia had asked the U.S. to “avoid Syrian airspace,” i.e. get out and leave Russia in sole control of Syria’s airspace. The U.S. has apparently refused that request but will continue to “deconflict,” which is to say not get in Russia’s way. The U.S. opened this “deconfliction” channel with the Russians yesterday. The ostensible aim is to avoid mid-air collisions and other miscues, but this all looks on the ground like coordination against the revolution, and not unreasonably. Now the U.S. will be sharing airspace with both Assad’s and Russia’s air force, which the U.S. could easily deter (and ground) if it wanted to.
None of this is surprising. Russia has long referred to all opposition to Assad as “terrorist,” and using the language of the War on Terror has supplied weaponry, fuel, specialist intelligence capacity, and diplomatic support to Assad’s murder machine in the hopes of keeping the regime in place and defeating the insurgency.
The Obama administration effectively outsourced its Syria policy to Putin when it stepped down from the chemical weapons red line two years ago, and has meanwhile consolidated détente with Iran through the nuclear deal. It was not an accident that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, went to Moscow immediately after the nuclear accord was signed in July. It was at that time that Suleimani agreed to deploy hundreds more Revolutionary Guardsmen in Syria and Putin began preparations for this direct intervention, which started in late August.
President Obama wanted to draw down U.S. resources from the Middle East and his idea was to replace American hegemony with a concert system where the great powers would have balance; in reality an enemy coalition has taken advantage of his drawing back to impose its own hegemony, and to draw into a closer alliance specifically designed to counter American influence and interests.
The signing of the intelligence sharing agreement between Russia, Iran, Assad’s regime, and the Iraqi government on September 27 was another event for which not-shocked faces were needed. Assad’s regime has been reliant on Iran, notably the National Defence Forces, constructed and commanded by Iran, and the (largely Iraqi) foreign Shi’a jihadists, since the end of 2012, and Baghdad is also reliant on these Iranian proxy Shi’a militias for its security. In other words, this was an accord between Iran and Russia, which began direct collaboration on intelligence matters last autumn.
The arguments that Putin will help stabilize the situation by fighting I.S. or that Obama has cunningly let Putin walk into a quagmire are notable only because people are still making them. A Russian military colony on the doorstep of a NATO member (Turkey) and a major NATO ally (Israel) that puts Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah under the protection of its air defence systems and props up a regime that’s murdered 300,000 people and displaced eleven million more hardly seems like a recipe for stability. Some European politicians seem to have bought the idea that Putin can help stop the refugee flow, which is exactly wrong: those refugees are caused not by I.S. but by the Assad/Iran regime that Russia is supporting.
Moreover, even for those who believe I.S. and the Salafi-jihadists, not Assad/Iran, are the main problem in Syria, since Russia’s intervention began two groups have joined al-Qaeda and Russia—like Iran and Assad—has no real interest in defeating I.S., at least not yet. Russia, Iran, and Assad waged a massive media campaign from the start of the uprising to portray the revolution as a terrorist insurrection against which Assad was the only bulwark; they then worked tirelessly to make terrorists the only alternative to Assad by empowering the extremists within the insurgency. While Russia is bombing the moderate rebels, Russia’s intelligence services are sending fighters to I.S. from the Caucasus. Thus the Russian efforts to portray themselves as the guardian of the minorities, especially the Christians of the Levant—the Russian Orthodox Church declared Russia’s intervention a “holy war” earlier today, echoes of the religious themes that have accompanied the aggression in Ukraine—ring hollow.
Russia does not want to “fix” Syria, merely to ensure that Assad does not fall and to demonstrate that Putin, and not America, is the go-to man in Syria, which has much wider implications since Syria is the centre of the contest for regional order.
Putin wants the restoration of Russia’s great power status. Central to this is the effective destruction of NATO. To get there, Putin needs to establish that the West cannot constrain him and needs an international anti-Western coalition. To gain allies for this anti-NATO, Putin needs an alternative vision, and he has it: Moscow will never bother a regime about human rights and when the Kremlin backs an ally they actually mean it. In Syria, this has all come together: now Putin can use force in the Middle East—from which Moscow was expelled in the 1970s—at will, and unlike the U.S. with, say, Hosni Mubarak, Putin has gone to the mat for Assad. Other autocrats will be tempted.
None of this was inevitable, but nor was it accidental. This isn’t a result of negligence but of the conscious reorientation of policy by President Obama, which has undermined American allies and alliances, while strengthening adversaries and opening the chance for them to work together against the West. There was no reason for it to come to this, but reversing it is now going to be extremely difficult. A Russian outpost on the Mediterranean cannot be uprooted overnight, and Russia is positioned to reap the harvest of Obama’s failed foreign policy for years to come.