Some Observations on Putin’s Involvement in Syria
Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are the cause of the disaster in Syria, and only with the removal of Assad, his clan and his clique will Syria be able to begin on the long and difficult path to peace.
In 2011 Assad chose brutal repression over reform. He shot demonstrators and arrested and tortured peaceful activists. Less known is that he released hundreds of Islamist extremists in late 2011 as documented towards the centre of this long article on ISIS by Martin Chivers in the Guardian
This is a classic Russian strategy of discrediting the opposition by driving it to extremism.
In 2011 Russia was in a position to apply immense pressure on Assad to reform, but it did not. Instead it backed his turn to repression. So from the very beginning Russia has been part of the problem not the solution.
Since 2011 there has been much talk of peace, but every Russian proposal has included the condition that weapons supplies to the rebels should be blocked without any similar constraint being applied to supplies to the regime, which already had massive armed forces with around 5000 tanks and 600 warplanes. So the Russian proposals have not been ‘peace proposals’ but schemes to help Assad crush the opposition.
Could Russia now be part of the solution? It is supporting a regime whose monstrous crimes make it hated by the majority of the Syrian population. The only way Assad could regain control of Syria would be through a combination of brutal repression and sectarian cleansing. The latter has, of course, been partially implemented through the regime’s bombing and shelling of civilian areas which has had the effect of driving out many of the inhabitants.
It is unlikely that Putin envisages a complete reconquest of Syria. What he is probably looking for is a puppet state comprising much of western Syria and cleansed of many of the opposition’s supporters. A peace deal in the form of a partition and truce could achieve this aim. The regime’s remaining territories form a coherent and probably viable block, much of it untouched by the ravages of war. The rebel held areas though large, are scattered across the country and divided by regime or ISIS held territory. They have also been subject to shelling and bombing to a vastly greater degree than regime areas. Without an implausibly high level of foreign support it is very unlikely that these areas would be economically viable. A truce would also expose the rebel areas to conflict between pro and anti-truce factions, a problem which would not face Assad as, within the areas he controls, there is no independent force or faction that can effectively oppose his actions.
So a truce would, in effect, be another means by which Putin could aid Assad extend his control over more of the country, and for this reason would be very likely to be rejected by the rebels.
The reality of Syria, and this has been true from around the beginning of 2012, is that there is no hope of peace so long as Assad and his clan remain in power. The various “peace” plans have been shams which have served to prolong and intensify the war and increase the suffering of the Syrian people.
Putin has stepped in at a point when Assad was clearly loosing ground, when Iran and Hezbollah have demonstrably failed to put a stop to rebel advances. Putin now has Assad in his hands as his only viable protector and he will undoubtedly demand a degree of control that will make Assad’s part of Syria into a Russian protectorate in which Assad serves as figurehead and local governor.
This will not bring Syria any closer to peace, it will only prolong the war for many years. As mentioned Assad lacks the demographic basis to reconquer the whole country, but the rebel areas are not viable without further gains on their part. What Putin will most likely attempt, as Assad has done, will be to weaken the rebels and try to create an end game of Assad vs ISIS in which the world will be united on Assad’s side. If he succeeds one thing will be certain, the number of refugees fleeing Assad and ISIS will increase massively from the present 4 million. But as that would threaten to destabilize the EU Putin would probably consider that to be quite a satisfactory outcome.
So expect Putin to make some well-publicized attacks against ISIS, but to quietly devote the bulk of his efforts to supporting Assad against the rebels and improving Assad’s capacity to implement sectarian cleansing through the bombing of civilian areas. Eventually expect him to press for some sort of “peace” plan.