When it comes to the great worst place in the world to live debate, there are many favourites that immediately come to mind. Your North Koreas, Saudi Arabias, Eritreas, Irans, etc. All with highly oppressive authoritarian governments, all set on either outright killing their own people, or just making life as miserable as possible. Then you have the places where plain old insecurity and crime are the main problem: countries like Honduras and El Salvador, currently battling over which has the highest murder rate per capita of population, while one of the BRICS, South Africa, is also averaging 49 murders a day.
Few though are likely to disagree (Islamic State supporting cretins excepted) that right now Syria is the closest equivalent to hell on earth. Beyond argument is the root cause of the civil war was the reaction of the Assad regime to the protests that broke out as part of the wider Arab spring; less widely accepted is that the regime's almost immediate resort to violence was not wholly surprising considering events in Egypt. There the Mubarak government pretty much surrendered without a fight. It has since resurfaced in the form of the Sisi government, but whether the Ba'ath party would have been able to come back to power in the same way had Assad also quickly left the scene is dubious.
Besides, let's not indulge the view that had the initial uprising succeeded Syria would now be rivalling Tunisia in the Arab spring stakes. That so many extreme Islamist groupings emerged as quickly as they did to fight the regime, not including either the al-Nusra Front or Islamic State, suggests there would have soon been a battle on the hands of the secularists and liberals to maintain their revolution.
In any case, the peaceful uprising quickly became an armed one. These groups were soon funded by the usual suspects: the Saudis, the Qataris, Kuwaitis, etc. Whether any Arab governments directly funded the most notorious jihadist groups is uncertain, but certainly the usual benefactors in their countries did. At the same time, the Syrian government turned to its own allies, the Iranians and the Russians, both of whom have helped it to survive through direct aid, weaponry and in the case of Iran, fighters from Hezbollah. Also helping out have been our good selves in the West: we quickly declared that Assad must go, his government was entirely illegitimate, and that the Syrian opposition, whichever group we've decided that is this week, are the only de facto representatives of the Syrian people. As well as helping to equip the "moderate" armed groups, it's fairly apparent that our approach throughout was to let the Arab states get on with doing whatever they felt like, even if that meant funding and arming jihadists, at the same time ironically enough as the Saudis and Emirate nations were helping with the overthrow of the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Confused yet? We're only just getting started. Ever since Islamic State took advantage of the Sunni uprising in Iraq against what they saw as the sectarian central government to take over vast swaths of the country, enabling it to also grab a massive part of western Syria, such was the collapse of government authority there, a veritable smorgasbord of nations have decided the best way to defeat them is to drop bombs from a great height on their general position. This roll call of countries includes the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and France. Technically we are yet to join in ourselves, but when you remember that British servicemen have taken part in sorties over the country and we felt the only way to protect ourselves from attacks on events that had already passed was to splatter some Islamic State morons across the Syrian desert via drone, you can basically include us also.
And now the Russians have joined in, only they are quite clearly intervening directly on the side of Assad. For a few moments it looked as though the way was clearing for the sort of precursor to a peace initiative a few of us have long called for: to recognise that however terrible the crimes Assad has committed are, the only way to deal with Islamic State is to work with him and his forces, at least in the short term. In exchange, Assad would be required to give up power once Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, but be allowed to remain a free man. With Assad gone, a peace deal would hopefully then be easier to broker with the other rebel groups. Free elections would follow, and so forth. Yes, it's a plan with myriad problems that almost certainly wouldn't work, but it's a far more realistic one than all the others offered so far. It seemed as if the arrival of new Russian weaponry and forces was to help purely with a renewed offensive against Islamic State, as suggested by the Syrians bombing targets they previously felt unable to. That the Americans appeared to be acquiescing to this rather than complaining about it in the usual incredibly hypocritical style looked a good sign.
That today's first attacks by Russian planes seem to have targeted rebels other than IS rather undermines any lingering hopes on that score. It could of course have been faulty intelligence, might have been merely an opening salvo designed to minimise any potential threat to the bases where the Russians are operating from, or it may be those on the ground are lying; any statement by rebel groups has to be treated with great caution, so often have they resorted to falsehoods. More likely however is that this is just the start of a wider Russian offensive against all opposition to Assad. Considering very few of the remaining rebel groups are "moderate" in the true sense of the word, this isn't the greatest tragedy. What is a tragedy is the Russians have the same sense of compunction towards civilian casualties as everyone else, i.e. none.
Putin's motives are fairly transparent, as are the arguments being deployed. All his forces are doing is going the extra mile the Americans and the rest haven't: attacking Islamic State from the air hasn't worked, so the next step has to be to coordinate with forces on the ground. The Americans have effectively betrayed the Kurds who were playing that role, leaving only the Syrian army. It's been apparent ever since the US airstrikes began that there is low-level plausibly deniable cooperation between the Syrians and the Americans, hence why there have been no unfortunate incidents in over a year of missions. Why not simply make this formal, the Russians ask.
They have a point. Of course, these motives are far from pure: as much as the Russians do have more to fear from Islamic State than the Americans do, their intervention has the exact same downsides as ours in the region have. It will likely increase the terrorist threat rather than decrease it, while the presence of Russians in the country will provide a further rallying cry for the jihadi recruiters. Putin hopes an intervention that brings the end of the war closer will somewhat make up for the on-going conflict in Ukraine, raising the possibility of an early lifting of sanctions. It also re-establishes Russia's influence in the region, building on the role played in the Iran nuclear programme negotiations.
Were Russia merely stepping up in this way, there would be little to protest about. Clearly the hope of the Americans was the Russians were going to do what they weren't prepared to. Instead, it looks as though there is no plan beyond propping up Assad indefinitely. If there are to be joint operations with the Syrian military, there is no indication of them starting any time soon. For a long time the harsh reality has been that we and our allies have been happy with a murderous stalemate in Syria. Even now, as the refugee crisis is not really directly affecting us as it is the rest of Europe, we're still not especially bothered. The only logic behind joining in with the bombing is for the sake of appearance; there's certainly no military necessity behind it.
With the Russians deciding to join the list of nationalities determined to make Syria even less liveable, the case for our getting involved becomes ever weaker. Rarely has there been a case of a country already going through hell being fucked over so utterly by so many others. The argument that only more war will solve the conflict applies only if that war targets Islamic State exclusively. Russia's intervention seems likely only to result in yet more suffering. And sadly, our hands are just as dirty as theirs.
Labels: foreign policy, Iraq, Islamic State, jihadists, liberal interventionism, politics, Russia, Syria, US foreign policy, Vladimir Putin