The announcement by Russia’s truculent leader, Vladimir Putin, that his nation’s forces are to withdraw from Syria confirms what we all suspected: propping up the Assad regime was, and is, Russia’s key priority in the region. Its mission ‘fulfilled,’ only months after entering the fray, the Putin model of pursuing goals is, in its own way, impressive. Granted, the methods chosen by the Russian military have given only slightly more concern for civilian casualties than the Assad regime, however the dogged determination to get things done, and quickly, has shown, along with the war in the Ukraine, the ease with which Putins turns bellicose rhetoric into action. Russia is not alone in its efforts to seek an outcome to the Syrian conflict favourable to its aims, as Turkey also is heavily invested.
Despite the current reprieve in Syria as a shaky ceasefire holds, violence is increasing in neighbouring Turkey, a NATO member and alleged bastion of moderate Islam. The most recent terrorist attack in Ankara, which killed over 30 people, has not yet been claimed by any group, however it is likely to be the work of either a Kurdish separatist movement or the Islamic State. Fighting his own war against the Kurds within his country, as well as against various enemies over the border in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has sought to expand the culpable parties in terrorist attacks. There is no difference, he insists, between ‘a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position or pen to serve those aims.’
The irony of this comment cannot go unnoticed: while an ally quickly claimed by the US, Turkey has not only become increasingly Islamist in recent years, and apparently allows the passage of foreign fighters into Syria, but explicitly supports—along with Saudi Arabia—a coalition of hard-line Islamist factions in Syria fighting the Assad regime. One of the member groups included in this sponsored alliance is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda spin-off responsible for attacks throughout Syria, and a ‘terrorist’ designated group according to the UN.
The approaches of both Putin and Erdogan, while on opposite sides of the conflict, can be juxtaposed with that of the United States and its Western allies. ‘Our’ strategy has wavered dramatically between seeing Assad go, full stop; presumably removing him if he crossed the ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons; supporting ‘moderate’ resistance fighters, some of whom joined the Islamic State, and all of which did little to accelerate the demise of the Assad government; and the current situation where peace talks could well lead to the Assad regime remaining in control of Syria anyway.
Whichever way you look at it, over a quarter of a million people have died in Syria, and while the present situation on the ground has improved due to the ceasefire, the future is far from clear—especially when you acknowledge the incompatible goals of Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian people themselves.
What the West hopes to achieve in Syria is uncertain, other than the destruction of the Islamic State. This should be a comparably easy goal to achieve, considering the fact that no state officially supports the group. What is certain, is that the United States’ influence in the region has dropped to historic lows, as countries more willing to get hands dirty in pursuit of their goals have emerged. Thanks to the benefit of hindsight, it’s now clear that the US should have acted earlier, and more decisively in Syria. The prompt establishment of a no-fly zone, the enforcement of ‘red lines,’ and even the deployment of troops to maintain security and avoid the lawlessness seen during the Iraq occupation. Obviously, such a ‘hawkish’ suggestion would have been met by howls of indignation at the alleged neo-colonialism/Western imperialism. However, when the human toll is considered and the refugee crisis with which the West also is expected to deal is recognised, it seems justifiable to act in a preventative way.
The alternative, which we see playing out daily, is a maelstrom—Syria is the battle-field on which sectarian, geopolitical, and even domestic issues can be dealt with. Regional and international players, at seeing the reluctance of the US to get involved (except at the level of tokenism), quickly seized their opportunity and turned a civil war into a much worse conflict with endless non-state actors, power-hungry nations eager to get a slice of the pie, a catastrophic death toll, and millions of refugees expecting the West to host them.
With November’s US election fast approaching, any candidate who suggests that the US has either conducted its Middle East policy well under Obama, or that America ought to pull up the drawbridge, is deluded. They need look no further than Syria to see what happens when Washington does not lead from the front.
This article first appeared on Quadrant Magazine Online.