Russia began striking targets in Syria for the first time on Wednesday, hitting three Syrian provinces alongside Syrian government aircraft, a Syrian security source said. The strikes have hit several areas in central Homs and Hama and also in the government stronghold of Latakia.
The need to negotiate with leaders as unsavory as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is an unfortunate reality of diplomacy. But western leaders should be careful not to confuse that necessity with the idea promoted by Russia that the Syrian crisis can be resolved only if Assad stays in power. Nor should they believe that Assad’s ongoing rule is the only way to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state and protect Syria’s diverse communities.
“Implementing the agreement between Syria and Russia to counter international terrorism and eliminate the Islamic State group, and in cooperation with the (Syrian) air force, Russian planes today carried out several air strikes targeting [the Islamic State (IS) group],” Syrian state television reported.
Although Russia has stated that its purpose in conducting raids in Syria is to fight the IS, the areas which the Syrian state TV reported had been struck in Homs are mostly controlled by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, while those hit in Latakia are held by a coalition known as the Army of Conquest, which includes al-Nusra.
Vladimir Putin has long sought to portray Assad as a bulwark against the self-declared Islamic State. But far from a stabilising factor or a solution to the Isis threat to basic rights, Assad is a major reason for the rise of extremist groups in Syria. In the early days of Syria’s uprising, between July and October 2011, Assad released from prison a number of jihadists who had fought in Iraq, many of whom went on to play leading roles in militant Islamist groups. These releases were part of broader amnesties, but Assad kept in prison those who backed the peaceful uprising.
The areas targeted in Hama include places controlled mostly by Islamist and rebel groups, as well as those held by al-Nusra and groups that have pledged allegiance to IS.
After the strikes on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US opposed Russian strikes which a US official told AFP hit Syrian opposition forces, not Islamic State targets.
The raids came just hours after the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to gave Putin permission to use the country’s air force in Syria.
Head of the presidential administration Sergey Ivanov told media that no ground troops would be sent and that the operation would be limited to airstrikes.
Ending Assad’s systematic attacks on civilians is key to any realistic strategy for containing Isis, rebuilding the social fabric that is essential to countering extremism and preserving a functioning Syrian state. Given the animosity that these attacks generate, curbing them is probably also a prerequisite to any successful peace talks.
Unfortunately, Russia and Iran, the principal proponents of engaging with Assad, have generated no visible pressure to stop this slaughter. On the contrary, Russia has opposed stepped-up efforts at the UN security council to curb Assad’s use of barrel bombs.
It is time to stop closing our eyes to these horrific crimes. Halting Assad’s atrocities, as well as those by other groups, should be the first item on the agenda for any negotiation.
Over the past several years the Russian government has offered a nearly constant stream of warnings to Occcident about the perils of intervening in Syria’s civil war. Armed intervention would lead to the inevitable empowerment of radical forces and to the deepening of the — already vast — cleavages between the country’s various ethnic and religious groups.
The experience of Iraq and Libya, where Western interventions left power vacuums that were almost immediately filled by various kinds of gangsters and radical Islamists, shows the result of any military campaign, even one of limited air strikes, would inevitably lead to total anarchy.
Although intervention might seem like a solution, it would actually create an environment in which already dangerous radical Islamists would become even more dangerous.
Over the past several decades Occident has militarily intervened in numerous Arab countries, but lasting successes are virtually impossible to find. The disasters, meanwhile, are all too obvious.
However, it is important to think about precisely why a position of skepticism regarding the use of force is so justified.
Despite the fact that it is popularly conceived of as entirely different and distinct from diplomacy or politics, war is simply the continuation of a political conflict through violent means. Yes, the military’s uniforms and rigid hierarchy are quite different from what we expect to see in the political realm, but the sense of difference this creates is a false one.
The fundamental goals of any successful military campaign are inherently political in nature: the destruction of an unfriendly regime, the cessation of certain kinds of objectionable activity, or the imposition of control over a certain territory.
Looking at Syria, it is extremely hard to see how the use of organized violence by outside actors would actually address any of the country’s multitudinous political conflicts. This is particularly true of most important, violent, and bloody conflict in Syria today, that between the Sunni majority and the ruling Alawite minority.
As was the case in Iraq, where a de facto ethnic partitioning of the country occurred despite the presence of several hundred thousand American and allied troops, a conflict of this nature has a brutal internal logic to it, a logic that, for better or worse, is almost impervious to outside intervention.
Russia’s skepticism regarding the ability of outsiders to influence Syria was right, then, not because it was a Russian argument but because the preponderance of evidence suggests that it is the right one. This is important to remember as some voices, particularly those on the anti-Imperialist left, have done a very rapid about-face and reconsidered the merits of bombing Syria when they learned that the bombs to be dropped would be Russian and not American.
If it is a bad idea for the Saudis, Americans, Turks, or Israelis to bomb Syria, then it is also a bad idea for the Russians to do so, and for exactly the same reasons. The laws of logic and evidence don’t suddenly stop applying to a foreign military because its officers speak Russian.
All of the evidence suggests that military intervention will accomplish nothing, and all of the arguments about the likely failure of Western intervention apply equally well to Russia. The bombs, tanks, fighter jets, and helicopter gunships now arriving in Latakia won’t be any more effective in solving Syria’s political problems because the writing on them is in Cyrillic, and the explosions from Russian airstrikes won’t succeed in magically repairing Syria’s fractured political institutions.
The Kremlin, of course, can pretend that its intervention in Syria gives it relevance and that it means it has returned to a position of power throughout the wider Middle East. It can pretend that its soldiers and sailors will restore the status quo and return Assad to a position of unquestioned supremacy. The Kremlin can pretend whatever it likes.
The reality, however, is that Russia is spending a substantial sum of its ever-scarcer resources on a mission that, by its very nature, is doomed to failure. The only hope, and it is unfortunately a faint one, is that the powers recognize this sooner rather than later.
The bombing is being carried out at the behest of the Syrian government. Russia says that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had asked Moscow to step in, with Russian state channel Russia Today saying this made the intervention legal under international law, unlike the US-led anti-Islamic State airstrikes that began last year.
Ivanov added that Putin had decided to ask to deploy Russian planes due to the large number of Russian and former USSR nationals who had chosen to join the Islamic State group and now posed a grave threat to Russian national security.
“This is not about reaching for some foreign policy goals, satisfying ambitions, which our Western partners regularly accuse us of. It’s only about the national interest of the Russian Federation,” the official said.
Putin had requested similar permission from the Federation Council to deploy military forces abroad ahead of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church has since voiced support for Moscow’s decision, calling it a “holy battle”.
“The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it,” the head of the Church’s public affairs department, Vsevolod Chaplin said, according to Interfax news agency.
The move, however, is likely to be seen as controversial internationally with some experts warning that Russian involvement would not help defeat IS but would likely lengthen the conflict which has raged since 2011. While Moscow has suggested that it will focus on hitting IS targets, many are concerned that Russian support could also be used to crush other opposition groups.
Russia has already provided 32 jets to Syria this month alone and has long been sending military advisors to Damascus in an attempt to prop up Assad, a long-term Russian ally.
The US, which has long opposed Assad and demanded that he must go, on Tuesday said it would open “lines of communication” with Russia to avoid “misjudgment and miscalculation” over the skies of Syria.
“This morning, [Defence] Secretary [Ashton] Carter directed his staff to open lines of communication with Russia on deconfliction,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters at a press briefing.
“The purpose of these deconfliction discussions will be to ensure that ongoing coalition air operations are not interrupted by any future Russian military activity, to ensure the safety of coalition air crews and to avoid misjudgment and miscalculation,” Cook said. But, US ally Saudi Arabia, which has long been one of the strongest Assad opponents, said that it would begin considering military action to oust him if he did not step down.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Tuesday that there could be “no future” for Assad regardless of what Russia or anyone else wants.
“There are two options for a settlement in Syria. One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council,” Jubeir said, describing this as the “preferred option”.
“The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. This could be a more lengthy process and a more destructive process, but the choice is entirely that of Bashar al-Assad.”
Russia’s announcement follows a reportedly heated meeting on Syria between US President Barack Obama and Putin at the UN this week.
The move to step up Moscow’s military engagement also comes as France announced that it would launched a probe into Assad’s government for carrying out crimes against humanity. Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into crimes happening between 2011 and 2013 on 15 September.
The French investigation is largely based on evidence from a former Syrian army photographer known by the codename Caesar, who defected and fled the country in 2013, bringing with him some 55,000 graphic photographs.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France had a “responsibility” to take action.
“Faced with these crimes that offend the human conscience, this bureaucracy of horror, faced with this denial of the values of humanity, it is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the assassins,” Fabius told us.
While Assad is unlikely to stand trial in a French court, the inquiry could add to political pressure on the Syrian leader in the midst of a diplomatic row between the West and Russia and Iran over his fate.
More than 240,000 people – many of them civilians – have been killed since an uprising against Assad’s rule began in 2011. While the West and its allies in the Gulf states and Turkey were quick to call for his overthrow, the opposition movement has since fractured, with the rise of groups like the Islamic State now overshadowing the fight against Assad.