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Monday, September 14, 2015

From the Donbas to Damascus: The Kremlin turns to Syria

President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that Russian troops have entered the devastated nation of Syria to bolster the position of the brutal but tenacious dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Assad clings to power in Syria, but after four years of civil war, his position has been weakened considerably.

The Russian troops in Syria are, according to the Kremlin, acting in a training and logistical support role. Putin claimed that direct military action by the Russian Army has not been executed, but that it could be utilized in the near future.

Putin hopes to "...create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism," an ambition he claims he has consulted President Barack Obama on personally. 

Western powers, primarily the United States and European Union, have been fiercely opposed to Al-Assad's rule. During the Arab Spring, Syrians initially rose up peacefully to protest Assad's authoritarian rule. These protests were brutally suppressed by the Assad government, but they continued to grow in number and eventually morphed from peaceful protest to armed rebellion. The conflict became a civil war, a civil war which has killed more than a quarter of a million people, allowed for the rise of the terrifying and bloodthirsty Islamic State, and involved the use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, no end is in sight.

The Syrian Civil War has grown progressively more complicated as time has gone by. President Assad's forces control most of the capital of Damascus and the major cities of Hama and Homs, but are still fighting with the Free Syrian Army over Syria's largest city of Aleppo. Farther inland, most of the country is controlled by Islamic State. To the north, Syrian Kurds have carved out their own enclaves on the Turkish border which they hope to unite in an autonomous region they call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. 

If Assad prevails, he will have clung to power in Syria against enormous odds, but the country is in ruins. Most of Syria's cities have been devastated by the war. Don't expect a loosening of repression if he emerges from the war still controlling the country, but his ability to control Syria will be diminished considerably by the destruction of Syria's infrastructure.

A clear resolution to this brutal war remains elusive and far off, not to mention complicated. Even if Assad remains in power, does he have enough ability to prevent anarchy from breaking out? How will the powers in support of the Free Syrian Army respond to Russia's support of Assad-will there be more sanctions? If they do get a boost from Russia, are Assad's forces going to attack the Free Syrian Army or will they concentrate on driving Islamic State out of their country? What will happen to the Syrian Kurds?

If Assad clings to power, it's unlikely he would govern much differently than how he did previous to the outbreak of the civil war-namely, a repressive but secular dictatorship.

How the Free Syrian Army would govern Syria is less certain, and the decision by Western powers to support the FSA remains a risky call when you consider the loose coalition of forces that are allied together against Assad. While some factions want to establish real democracy in the country, an FSA-wide consensus on how to govern Syria after Assad is deposed is elusive, and there is a very real possibility of an Islamist government rising to replace Assad. This has a whole new plethora of risks for the region, especially since the Syria that emerges from this war will be severely weaker than the one that Assad ruled prior to the Arab Spring.

The only other group that seems interested in ruling over all of Syria is Islamic State, but the world has united against the vile terrorist group and will not let that happen. 

Russia's decision to aid the forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad are in direct conflict with the United States-led coalition as the United States is directly sending aid to FSA groups and the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), but some consensus does still exist: Both the forces loyal to Al-Assad and the forces fighting against him in the FSA are opposed to Islamic State. 

The Kremlin seems to be more interested in a stable Syria than a free, democratic Syria. While it could be argued that an authoritarian but peacful country is better for the region than a democratic but devastated country, it remains frustrating, but not particularly surprising, that Moscow remains apathetic to how its allies treat their dissent.

It's also not surprising to see President Putin try to approach his support for Assad from the angle of fighting terrorism. Russia has seen horrifying tragedy, usually in the form of hostage crises and suicide bombings, on her own soil at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. In 1995, a hospital in Budyonnovsk was invaded by Chechen terrorists, who killed hundreds.  In 2002, over one hundred Russians were brutally slaughtered in a Moscow theatre when fundamentalist terrorists took over the theatre and held them hostage. In 2004, the Moscow Metro was bombed twice and Islamic terrorists took over a school in Beslan in southern Russia. Russian security forces stormed the building and when the dust had settled, hundreds of innocent Russians, many of them schoolchildren, lay dead. Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport saw a suicide bombing in 2011. In 2013, Volgograd, the city where the Motherland's calls still echo some seventy years after the Battle of Stalingrad, was rocked by two suicide bombings-one on a bus and one in a railway station. 

This is probably the reason, at least on paper, as to why the Kremlin has decided to keep its cordial relationship with Assad intact. To ally with the Islamist-in-places Free Syrian Army would have raised a lot of eyebrows in Russia considering the history Russia has with Islamic fundamentalism,
though it is ironic in some ways considering President Assad's extensive war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons, on his enemies.

While the Kremlin's direct and consistent support of Bashar Al-Assad has frustrated western powers, it's at least an understandable course of action. In the United States, Washington's decision to support the Free Syrian Army was a considerably controversial decision because the F.S.A. does have links to Islamist groups and has even allied with smaller terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra at times. The policy set forth by President Obama of "arming moderate rebels" after the administration seemingly waffled forever on what to do in Syria was widely mocked in American press outlets.

Al-Assad is a brutal and bloodthirsty dictator who has inflicted immeasurable harm upon Syria. But he is not an Islamic fundamentalist, and he is a vocal ally of the Kremlin, which brings us to the question of did the Kremlin have no other choice? The Kremlin would never ally itself with the F.S.A., as doing so would effectively destroy the relationship Putin and Assad already had, a decision which would have been seen as entirely uneccessary and a break from Putin's tendency to present himself as a pragmatist.

The only other option the Kremlin might have had in this fight (other than complete non-intervention) would be to ally itself with the Kurdish YPG-but even that would be a questionable decision. For one, of the four nations where Kurdish people live (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran), the smallest population of them by far is in Syria. Syrian Kurds are a small minority group, only living around Syria's northern border with Turkey. Even if they do manage to liberate all of what they consider their homeland within Syria, a large portion of Syria still remains to be liberated from Islamic State's shroud, and the Kurds, while they have proven themselves to be tough as nails in the fight against IS, may not have the firepower or the will to march on ISIS's de facto capital of Ar-Raqqah, a predominantly Arab city. Kurds have also faced terrible discrimination at the hands of the Assad government, and thus their primary goal seems to be autonomy (and perhaps down the road, independence). Directly assisting the Syrian Kurds would provoke unnecessary tensions with an already on-edge Turkey which has recently gone back to fighting with the terrorist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). Turkey's status in NATO would exacerbate already simmering tensions between Ankara and Moscow stemming from the Kremlin's recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the Turkish government's disapproval of the annexation of Crimea, as Ankara expressed solidarity with the Turkic Tatars of Crimea when the peninsula abruptly switched hands.

The decision of the Kremlin to stand with and prop up the Assad government is regrettable and something that is not really much to be proud of. And yet, in this complicated war, it bizarrely might be one of the lesser evils. It's true the Kremlin could have chosen non-intervention, but the time for that passed a long time ago.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Great analysis. Keep up the good work, Kyle.