As the years go by, the war in Syria has taken on more and more of the characteristics of a proxy war, where Iran’s ally Assad fights it out against Gulf State supported militants. However, the situation is now becoming even more complicated. Over the last year the US has become directly involved, though they’re currently only targeting the Islamic State. And over the last weeks increasing reports have come out that Russia is stepping up its support for Assad, sending more shipments arms, and even looking ready to start operating an airbase. So what are these two superpowers trying to achieve? And how are they going about it?
Russia has made its aim clear from the beginning – ensure Assad remains in power. This is for a few reasons. The first is that Russia has its only Mediterranean port in Syria, Tartus, and losing Assad would mean losing a useful base. The second is that having Assad overthrown by the Western supported Free Syrian Army, the strongest group at the beginning of the war, would have meant Syria turning away from Russia and towards the west. Finally, there is principle at stake as well. Russia sees Assad as a great example of why autocrats are a good thing, keeping sectarian divisions in check. They see Assad and order on one side, ‘terrorists’ and chaos on the other.
It is this diplomatic support – along with Iran’s military aid – that has allowed Assad to remain in power. The tragedy is though that much of the current violence could probably have been avoided if Assad had stepped down early in the conflict. This could have paved the way for some sort of power sharing solution between the parties, before the war dissolved into horrendous violence and numerous rebel groups. It’s also worth remembering that to this day Assad’s bombing is still the biggest killer of civilians. Russia’s support allows that to continue.
Up until now Russia has mainly limited its support to the diplomatic field, though with the addition of arms shipments and keeping Syrian jets flying. In recent weeks, however, evidence has come to light that suggests Russia is sending increasing numbers of troops to the Tartus base and expanding an airfield near the key city of Latakia. Some believe that Russia will use this base to support Assad’s war effort with air power, and the US is worried. If Russian fighters start flying missions in support of the government, it would be very easy for them to clash with US or allied jets. It also rules out ever having a no-fly zone over Syria, as who is going to shoot down Russians? This is as yet speculation, but Putin made clear today that he will continue to support the Syrian military. The next few weeks will bring more information
We can question the morality of the Russian support for Assad, but there’s no question that their support is at least unflinching and reliable.
Unlike Russia, America doesn’t have a clear ally in Syria. They’d like to see peace in Syria and a relatively democratic government, but where do you even start? They’ve been calling for Assad to go since the protests in Syria began, and were originally supporters of the Free Syrian Army. That was when everything was nice and simple. Now that the rebels have splintered into thousands of groups, the US is struggling. They know they want IS gone, but how should they treat the other Islamist rebels who fight Assad and IS? Who are truly extreme Islamists, and who are just getting through the war in any way they can? The Free Syrian Army has fallen apart, and the only groups making real ground beside IS are other Sunni Islamist rebels supported by the Gulf States. America is pretty sure it likes the Syrian Kurds, but their ally Turkey is not so sure, and the Kurds can’t bring peace to all Syria.
The airstrikes on IS may make for good press, but they’re never going to destroy the Islamic State. For one thing, who would move in to replace them? Besides forcing them to change some tactics, the strikes will only really have an effect on IS in certain areas of the conflict, for example in the Kurdish regions.
The other US effort is a program to train ‘trustworthy’ Syrian rebels who will then fight IS. Unfortunately this program seems like an absolute joke. As of July this year the US had found 60 Syrian rebels who they could train. Sixty. Even if they increase this, what happens once the ‘good’ rebels enter Syria?
- Who else will work with them? Are they allowed to collaborate with Islamist groups like al-Nusra? Will Syrians actually work with these American trained soldiers?
- Will the US provide close air support? Will US Special Forces then accompany the rebels to direct the strikes? If they don’t get support, will the US watch as they get wiped out?
- What happens when they come up against the Syrian Army? Is the US going to start a war against the Syrian government? If so, are they going to provide a path of bombs all the way to Damascus?
If the US government and the Pentagon have answers to all these questions, they’re not sharing them with us. While the US’s aims may be (somewhat) more beneficial for the Syrian people than Russia’s, there is almost nothing they can do to bring them about, and what they are doing isn’t helping.
The superpowers can play games over Syria all they like, but unless something significant happens to break the deadlock, the war is Syria is likely to continue for years and years to come.