Who is right in Syria?
Here is the situation in Syria as I see it: Russia is taking a long-range view and wants stability in post-Islamic State (IS) Syria. France and the United States are taking the short-range view and really have no achievable plans for Syria’s future stability. Turkey appears to have given little thought to Syria’s future. Ankara may be willing to see indefinite chaos in Syria if it hurts the Assad regime on the one hand and the Kurds on the other.
The Russians may be the only party interested in the long-term political stability of Syria. There is certainly no doubt that President Vladimir Putin is more determined than Western leaders to act on the fact that the various so-called “moderate” parties standing against the Assad regime cannot work together, and that this fault cannot be corrected by enticements from the United States. For the Russians, this fact makes the Damascus government the only source of future stability.
This understanding, and not Soviet-era nostalgia, has led Russia to support the Assad regime, which possesses a working government, a standing army and the loyalty of every religious minority group in the country.
Some might object that both Assad and Putin are dictators and thugs (by the way, thugs in suits in the US government are all too common). However, this cannot serve as a serious objection. The only alternative to Damascus’s victory is perennial civil war fragmenting the country into warlord zones. With the possible exception of Israel, this scenario is in no one’s interest, although it seems that the leaders of Washington and Paris are too politically circumscribed to act on this fact.
US and France
Thus, it would appear that neither the US nor France really cares about Syria as a stable nation. Once the present military capacity of IS is eliminated, Washington and Paris may well clandestinely continue to support a low-level civil war against the Assad regime. In this effort they will have the help of Turkey, the Kurds and Israel. The result will be ongoing devastation of the Syrian population and fragmentation of its territory.
Despite its air campaign against Islamic State, Washington has no ground component nor any answer to the political vacuum in Syria.
As if to justify US strategy, President Obama, with French President Francois Hollande by his side, recently boasted that the United States stood at the head of a “65-country coalition” fighting terrorism in Syria. However, this is a hollow claim. Most of these countries are coalition members in name only, and some of them, like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state governments, play a double game. And then Obama dismissed Russia and Iran as “outliers” and “a coalition of two”. Yet those two countries are the Syrian nation’s best hope for future stability.
The fact is that US policy in Syria has been a losing proposition from the beginning just because of its hostility to the Assad government. Despite its air campaign against IS, Washington has no ground component nor any answer to the political vacuum in Syria. Both missing parts are to be found in an alliance with Damascus.
Refusal to make that alliance has also opened Washington to building neo-conservative political pressure to increase the US military presence in the area. However, American “boots on the ground” in Syria is both a dangerous option as well as an unnecessary one. Syrian government boots can do the job if they are properly supported. The support has come from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. It is the United States and its coalition who are the “outliers”.
It is not easy to explain Turkey’s animosity toward Damascus. Prior to the civil war in Syria, the two countries had good relations. Then something changed. It may have been something as foolish as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s taking personal offence against President Bashar Assad because the latter chose to heed the advice of Iran rather than Turkey at the beginning of the war. Whatever happened, it sent Ankara off on an anti-Assad crusade.
That anti-Assad mindset is probably the backstory to the recent reckless Turkish decision to shoot down a Russian warplane operating in support of Syrian government troops close to the Turkish border.
The Turks say that the Russian jet strayed into Turkish airspace. The Russians deny this. The Turks claim that they tried to communicate with the Russian plane to warn it away. When it did not respond, they destroyed it. Of late the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has said that Ankara “didn’t know the nationality of the plane that was brought down… until Moscow announced it was Russian”.
In all of the bloodshed, population displacement and terror that has accompanied the Syrian civil war, the least-considered party has been the Syrian people and their future.
This statement is frankly unbelievable given that Davutoglu followed it up with an admission that Turkey had complained to Russia about military flights in this exact border area. He also asserted that both Russian and Syrian operations in this region of northern Syria should stop because IS has no presence there. This assertion makes no sense, since Damascus’s aim is to reassert government authority by the defeat of armed rebels regardless of their organisational affiliation.
It is hard to say whether the Turks are telling the truth about an incursion into their airspace. Most of their evidence, such as recorded Turkish warnings to the Russian plane, is easily fabricated. However, in the end it does not really matter if the plane crossed the border. There was no need to shoot it down.
If the Russian jet strayed into Turkish airspace, there would have been a range of options. The Turks could be very sure that the Russian plane had no hostile intention toward their country, and they should have assumed, for the sake of minimising any consequences, that no provocation was meant on the part of the Russia. In other words, they should have acted as if the alleged overflight was a mistake. The Turks could have then shadowed the Russian plane in a way that coaxed it back into Syrian airspace and followed the incident up with a formal protest to Moscow. Instead they made the worst possible choice and shot the plane down. Now both Ankara and Washington are shouting about Turkey’s right to defend its territory despite the fact that the Russian plane never posed any threat.
In all of the bloodshed, population displacement and terror that has accompanied the Syrian civil war, the least-considered party has been the Syrian people and their future. IS, or at least its present infrastructure, will ultimately be destroyed. However, while that destruction is necessary, it is an insufficient outcome because it fails to provide long-term stability. Right now that vital ingredient can only be supplied by the reimposition of order by Damascus. The folks in Washington, Paris and Ankara might not like that, but they are not the ones facing a future of anarchy. And, indeed, the more they stand in the way of Damascus, the more chaos they will help create.