It all happened very fast, in the end. Earlier last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the United Nations in New York saying that the United States was making “an enormous mistake” in not backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his war against Islamist rebels, notably including the “Islamic State” (or Isis, as it used to be known).
World View by Gwynne Dyer
On Tuesday last week the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to let Putin use military force in Syria to fight “terrorism”, in response to a request from the Syrian government.
And on Wednesday morning Russian warplanes started bombing rebel targets in Syria. Moscow gave the US embassy in Iraq one hour’s notice, requesting that US and “coalition” aircraft (which are also bombing Isis targets in Syria) avoid the airspace where the Russian bombers are in action.
And US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, bless his heart, said: “You know, Russia wants to get Isis, right? We want to get Isis. Russia is in Syria. Maybe we should let them do it. Let them do it.” And for once, Trump is right. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
If you want to stop Isis, you have to do it with troops, and the only ground troops fighting Isis in Syria are the Syrian army and the Kurds along the northern border with Turkey. But the US has been duped by Turkey into betraying the Kurds, and it will not use its air power to help the Syrian army, which is on the ropes.
That’s why Palmyra fell to Isis forces in May. Despite all the other American air strikes against Isis forces in Syria, it made not one to help the Syrian forces when they were desperately defending the historic city, and so they eventually had to retreat. It was more important to Washington not to be seen helping Assad than to save the city.
This is a fine moral position, as Assad’s regime is a deeply unattractive dictatorship. Indeed, the great majority of the four million Syrians who have fled the country were fleeing the regime’s violence, not that of Isis. But if you don’t want the Islamist extremists to take over the country (and maybe Lebanon and Jordan as well), and you are not willing to put troops on the ground yourself, who else would you help?
Washington’s fantasy solution has been to create a “third force” of rebels who will somehow defeat Isis while diplomacy somehow removes Assad. But other big rebel organisations in Syria, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are also Islamists, little different from Isis in ideology and goals.
Al-Nusra is a breakaway faction of Isis, now affiliated with al-Qaeda. (Remember? Chaps who did the 9/11 attacks?) If Assad goes down, it is Isis, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham who will take over Syria, not the pathetic band of fighters being trained by the US in Turkey. In fact, the first group of them to cross back into Syria were immediately annihilated by Isis, who had probably been tipped off by America’s not very loyal ally, the Turkish government.
Putin does not make the same meaningless distinctions between Isis and other Islamist groups the US insists on. The first Russian air strikes were on territory held by al-Nusra. But the Russians will hit Isis, too. The first big operation will probably be an attack by a re-equipped Syrian army to retake Palmyra, backed by Russian air power.
Whether Putin’s intervention will be enough to save Assad remains to be seen. Comments in Western media about how he wants to distract attention from Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war and restore Russia’s position as a great power are true enough — indeed, he is probably shutting down the fighting in Ukraine mainly to clear the decks for Syria — but that is not his primary motive.
He is just doing what needs to be done.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.