The seemingly endless Syrian Civil War took a dramatic turn last week as Russian jets began a bombing campaign against anti-government groups from bases within Syria. The attacks come after months of Russian military hardware was transported to Syria at the invitation of the beleaguered government in Damascus.
In what seems to be a recurring theme with most Russian geopolitical moves, Western Capitals have been left scrambling to find a response to Moscow’s fait accompli. European paralysis at Russian hardball tactics is as depressing as it is predictable – for five decades Western Europe lived under the defence umbrella of the United States, allowing Europe the luxury of ditching great power politics, with the military and institutional infrastructure that goes with it, in favour of pouring resources into the apparatus of welfare states.
However a by-product of this has been the warping of the European world view. Because European leaders have bought into the idea that power is passé and national interests are old fashioned ideas, they’ve allowed themselves to believe that everybody thinks that way. This is why Europe’s response to Russia has been so painfully slow and piecemeal; they have to adjust an entire foreign policy paradigm ingrained over nearly five decades. One would have liked to have thought that Russia stealing 20 percent of Georgia in 2008 would have been the wakeup call, shaking Europe out of its cosy post-modern bubble and dragging it into the cold harsh world of perpetual competition that is international relations. The evidence would suggest otherwise; even if EU leaders did decide to go toe-to-toe over Syria they lack the means to do so, their militaries having become armed pension funds – a ceremonial hangover from when Europeans counted as geopolitical powers.
For the U.S. the Russian involvement has not only caught policy makers flat-footed but also profoundly undermined their entire strategy for Syria. For three years Washington has been providing arms and training to small numbers of, what it hopes, are moderate rebel groups fighting forces loyal to President Assad. The effectiveness of this strategy is debatable, not least when one of the chosen groups hands over their weapons to Jihadists. But at least the Obama administration could show it was doing something to thwart Assad whilst not putting U.S. lives at risk with boots on the ground. This was supplemented with air attacks on ISIS targets within Iraq and Syria – notably without the permission of Damascus. However Russia has been accused of treating all anti-government rebels as fair game, launching air strikes on both moderates and extremists with no more thought given to the US than a simple one hour notice period
And it’s that last point that has transformed this from a regional to an international problem. Washington and Moscow have fundamentally different views on Syria and both seek very different outcomes. For Washington the Syrian Civil War is a continuation of the Arab Spring, creaking kleptomaniac autocrats being toppled by popular revolt. This is the inevitable tide of history in action and all the outside world can do it manage it as best they can, preferably with a nudge here and there towards a moderate and democratic new administrations. For Moscow, the Arab Spring has been appropriated by U.S. policy makers to enact (selective) regime change across the region, ensuring an unbroken line of pro-Western governments stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to Afghanistan in Central Asia. Combined with E.U. and Nato expansion in Eastern Europe and loss of Ukraine as a reliable ally, the battle for the future for Syria is no less and existential crisis for Russia’s status as a first rate world power.
Indeed such is Syria’s importance to Russia that it’s created the same dynamics of asymmetry that we saw in Ukraine and the Crimea. Russia is prepared to go further and sacrifice more in both theatres than the West is, and both sides know this. For the West Syria is primarily a humanitarian problem with a geopolitical edge and as such the focus has been on aid and the logistics of a refugee crisis. Hardly surprising therefore that Russia’s actions have been perceived as an unhelpful and disproportionate escalation.
The big question of course is what happens next? Russia could call for a UN vote endorsing its actions. It is, after all, acting on the invitation of the recognised government in Syria. This would place the Western allies in a tricky position, as voting against the Russian action would be tantamount to defending ISIS, whilst abstaining or supporting the vote would be to endorse Assad and write off three years of covert ops. The another alternative would be a marked increase in Western attacks on Jihadi groups, hoping to finish them off and thus negate Russia’s excuse for being in Syria before Moscow before Russia completely routs the moderates. However this runs the risk of Western and Russian jets in the same air space at the same time potentially attacking the same targets – a recipe for accidents if ever there was one. The West may decide to target Assad, though this remains unlikely as despite three years of hand-wringing there remains no viable alternative to the current regime. Plus, Moscow would undoubtedly view this as a direct challenge to its vital interests and respond accordingly, and with Iran and Lebanese militias providing ground troops for Assad, the resulting conflagration could be region wide.
As with so much in Syria, there are no good options available to Western leaders. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger – with a brutal tyrant, Islamic extremists and a sabre rattling Russia locked in a three-way death spiral, it’s a pity they can’t all lose.