A Turn for the Worse in Syria

The fluid and unfortunate civil war in Syria is becoming more complex almost daily. The insertion of Russian forces into the conflict augurs ill for any return to stability in the region and portends more suffering for the Syrian people. The Russians are intent on propping up the regime of Bashar Al Assad and protecting their only client in the Middle East. Their intervention is a clear signal that the Assad regime was in trouble. Despite their professions that they want to stop the advance of ISIS, one can be certain that they will also try to defeat other opposition forces that threaten the regime, particularly ones that may potentially be aligned with the United States. It is obvious that Putin knows that Obama is weak and he will take full advantage of this fact.

The Russians do have a reason to confront ISIS beyond the protection of the Assad regime. They are certainly concerned that continued success by ISIS could spill over into additional problems for them in Chechnya and the other Muslim areas they occupy in the Caucuses.

The fact that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah support the Russian military intervention comes as no surprise. The expansion of radical Sunni power represented by ISIS poses potential existential problems for Iran in the long term. The fact that Russia and Iran are able to make common cause in Syria at the expense of the United States is a bonus for both of them.

France has now entered the Syrian conflict as well. It conducted airstrikes against ISIS positions in Syria for the first time on the 26th of September. France is motivated in part by the refugee crisis sparked by the civil war. Europe cannot absorb 4 to 5 million Syrian refugees. In order to stop this crisis some stability must be restored in Syria. However, France will also want to have a seat at the table if Russian influence is now going to take the lead in any Syrian settlement. France has long term historical strategic ties with Russia and in the absence of American leadership will seek to influence the outcome in Syria by co-operating and if possible moderating Russian policy.

Turkey is now in a much more difficult position than it was before. Turkey has given limited support to ISIS in its fight against both the Assad regime and the Kurds. That Turkey has been seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime is not in question. It also supports ISIS attacks on the Syrian Kurdish force the YPG which is aligned with the Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, the PKK. Russian intervention is Syria will limit Turkey’s ability to use ISIS as a semi proxy against Assad although it should have limited effect on their conflict with the Kurds.

One interesting side effect of Russian intervention, to the extent that it is aimed at ISIS will be to act as a recruiting magnet for ISIS.  Many radical Muslims will see this as an opportunity to relive the glory of their victory over Soviet forces in Afghanistan. However, what will really spur recruiting is that many in the Muslim world believe that there is a conspiracy within Orthodox Christianity led by Russia and encompassing Armenia, Serbia and Greece to encircle and destroy Islam. This idea coupled with the presence of Russian crusaders ripe for beheading will attract even more recruits for ISIS. An estimated 30,000 fighters have joined ISIS since 2011.

So much of this mess stems from the total and utter abnegation of leadership by the United States under the Obama administration. It is increasingly clear that this administration has no policy in the Middle East. Either they are clueless or they are so bankrupt of ideas that they are happy to let the situation deteriorate and go from bad to worse. Since the Second World War the United States has been the country that much of the world has looked to for leadership. We have at times made mistakes but never have we just stood on the sidelines and merely looked on while the world burns.

It is a tragedy that the US leadership has put itself in the position where an autocrat such as Vladimir Putin can rightly mock us for our incompetence in training members of the so called Syrian opposition not to mention the fact that we have materially armed ISIS ourselves.