The chances for a political settlement in the Syrian civil war look bleak, and the threat of a regional or even larger war looms. This a direct consequence of the U.S. Barack Obama administration’s failed policy of promoting Arab Spring revolutions and, moreover, through a strategy of backing the radical Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt, Libya and Syria. While the Russian intervention may have complicated matters, it is hardly the cause of the crisis, failed talks or the deteriorating situation in the region.
There was little to no chance the talks would have succeeded, and no party was invested wholly in them. The divide between the major outside players over who should have a seat at the table was too great, with the West and the Saudis insisting on the participation of such clearly jihadi terrorist formations like Ahrar al-Sham (AS) and Jeish al-Islam (JI). The West’s ‘moderates’ were few—many of them not-so-moderate MB members. They had little popular backing or military leverage given their weak position on the battlefield. Moreover, each side–the Bashyr Assad regime, the Russians and the Iranians, on the one hand, and the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Arab Sunni states, on the other–was using the talks in order to buy time, build up its alliance, gain strategic advantage on the battlefield, and put the blame for the failure of the talks on others.
It is instructive to look back at how this crisis was created and developed and who is ultimately responsible. Although the Syrian regime deserves some of the blame for the beginning of the civil war by brutally handling protesters, the scale and duration of the war was expanded exponentially by interference from abroad, as is almost always the case in civil wars. The Obama administration and U.S. allies in the Middle East—in particular NATO member Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—infused the opposition with weapons. The U.S. did so by among other ways funneling weapons to MB and jihadi elements in Syria from MB and Al Qaida (AQ) elements in Libya where it had made a similar mistake just a year earlier. Moreover, the Obama administration then dropped the ball in Iraq, letting the jihadi wound in the region fester and then antagonizing but not fully fighting the Islamic State (IS). Meanwhile, U.S. allies funneled weapons to AQ affiliates, like Jabhat al-Nusra, AS, JI, and other jihadi groups and facilitated the transport and sale of oil, lending IS enormous profits for financing terrorist attacks in Egypt, France, and elsewhere.
The Russians might be blamed for keeping the Assad regime afloat, except for the fact that had he fallen immediately, the outcome still might have been civil war, jihadi mobilization and infiltration, or even a jihadi seizure of even more territory in Syria than has been the case hitherto.
Now it is becoming a Western meme that Russia’s bombing of, and the Syrian army’s advance on Aleppo is the cause of the talks’ breakdown. One drive-by commentator wrote: “Russian military escalation in support of the Syrian army was meant to sabotage any possibility that a genuine Syrian opposition might have its say.” In fact, a Syrian offensive against Aleppo was in the cards from the beginning of the Russian intervention. Syria’s second largest city was the stronghold of the rebel forces, including numerous jihadi groups and some IS mujahedin. The offensive would not be happening now if Syrian forces had not been able to advance on the ground through territory and reach the approaches to Aleppo now (as opposed to later or never); something that many Western commentators and U.S. government officials claimed would not be possible even with Russian air support. Indeed, they claimed that Russia would fail and in the bargain simply spread instability, as if this was not the case in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region in recent years as a result of the Obama administration’s much-touted ‘Arab Spring’, MB gambit and feckless anti-IS strategy and tactics (not to mention the mistakes of the previous administration).
After recent FOIA U.S. government document releases showing the Obama administration’s culpability in building up IS and other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, some Western governments and commentators now are beginning to acknowledge what they denied in the past – that “western strategy against Isis has officially depended on building up local Syrian opposition ground forces.” But they obfuscate when they add: “so that they might one day push the jihadi insurgency out of its stronghold in Raqqa.” Those forces were backed to fight the Assad regime initially, and subsequent, very recent to turn against IS failed miserably, as U.S. military officials testified to in congressional hearings last year. Washington and its army of pro-administration commentators also live under, or at least sell the illusion that “foot soldiers”—the anti-Assad groups in Aleppo—“have in the past proved to be efficient against Isis.” For this to be true, they would need to explain the total ineffectiveness in fighting IS in recent years as well as IS’s persistent growth during this period.
But why get bogged down in facts. What really irks Obama administration officials and media commentators is that Russian is accomplishing what the U.S. and its allies could not – the rout of the jihadi Syrian rebels and soon enough, they fear, IS in Syria. Indeed, IS is present in and around Aleppo, and its fall to Syrian forces will make it a springboard for a future offensive against IS in the north and east.
Now, fearing the Russian success will confound the West’s goal of removing the Bashir Assad regime, knee-jerk American officials commentators are warning that the defeat of the Syrian ‘opposition forces’ will “empower ISIS” as the “sole defender of Sunni Muslims.” But in fact it was the U.S. and its regional allies that put IS in a position to take on this mantle.
What these commentators and Western governments will need to cover up next is the Syrian-Russia defeat of IS. The former will be hard-pressed to argue this convincingly unless the West and its allies move in aggressively to ‘beat the russkies to Berlin’ and take the lead in destroying IS in Syria and Iraq. But there is no political will in the West for this.
There is a way for the West to save face and accomplish the task of reducing the credit Russia gets for any defeat of IS while at the same time lightening its own burden so that it falls below the threshold beyond which political will is lacking. This could be done by allying with Moscow. Unfortunately, this is beyond the imagination of decisionmakers in Washington and Brussels, who are wedded to the idea of the ‘Putin threat’ and the West’s sole right to decide the geostrategic issues.
But in Syria, the best the West can hope for now in its quest to defeat the efforts of ‘Putin’s Russia’ in Syria is that Damascus and Moscow fail and IS survives their current onslaught. Indeed, the details emerging of the Pentagon’s strategy state explicitly that after pushing IS forces north up the Euphrates and then west, NATO-backed Iraqi forces are to drive them into Syria. This will result in making Syria’s and Russia’s work much more difficult. Talk in Ankara and Riyadh of putting Turkish and Saudi troops on the ground in Syria uninvited by Assad raises the stakes and possibility of a larger war.
And what about IS and the larger global jihadi and Islamist revolutionary movements? This probably is less important than destroying Putin for those making the decisions in Washington and Brussels today. Just ask those with experience in living in the wake of Washington’s most recent choices. They might first ask around Ukraine about just how Washington’s obsession with fast-forwarding history in order to challenge Russian interests has been working out for them.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Adjunct Professor and Senior Researcher, Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; a Contributor for Russia Direct, www.russia-direct.org; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. He also has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute. His website is http://www.gordonhahn.com.