Russia and the US battle it out in Syria

          Despite the fragile ceasefire in Syria that has brought a brief respite to the indiscriminate bombing of soldiers and civilians alike, the situation that has developed in that benighted country is fraught with dangers, contradictions and ironies.
          In September 2014, in pursuit of restoring stability to that war-ravaged country, a US-led coalition of nations engaged in a twin-objective military effort – in itself almost a recipe for disaster. The first aim was to defeat the rampant Islamic State (IS) that had seized large swathes of the country; the second to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power and establish democratic governance. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and those opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
          Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces of Iran’s satrap Hezbollah, and since autumn 2015 by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up within Syria. Although Islamic State is nominally in Russia’s sights, some estimate that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have targeted IS. Russia’s powerful air support has been directed primarily against the FSA.
          So Russia is battering the FSA; the US-led coalition is supporting them. In short, Russia and the US are at war with each other, albeit by proxy. Which side is winning? The assault on Aleppo by Russian-aided pro-Assad forces says it all. The fight is going Russia’s way, and Assad’s grip on power is being strengthened.
          The Aleppo operation, especially the indiscriminate air strikes by Russia that have generated a new flood of refugees, has helped to destabilise the fragile peace talks that began in Geneva in early February. Those talks were aborted after one day and were then resumed in Munich, yielding the ceasefire agreement which came into effect on 27 February. They were then adjourned, to be restarted in Geneva on May 7. Geneva was originally intended as the first stage in a UN-inspired road map, aimed at restoring peace in Syria. Its timetable is now so badly disrupted that a successful outcome seems ever more doubtful.
How have the Western allies allowed this situation to develop?
          In the final analysis, the support provided to the FSA by the coalition powers was simply inadequate. The training, the logistical support and the air cover, no doubt of assistance to the ground troops of the FSA, were not enough by themselves to overcome the strength of the enemy. Assuming a genuine victory was desired, “no boots on the ground” was a faulty, if understandable, strategy.
          The coalition’s effort is so obviously deficient that Saudi Arabia, a member from its foundation in September 2014, announced on February 10, 2016, that it was forming a 34-nation Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, and was ready to participate in any ground operation. Saudi military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri had already confirmed that Saudi Arabia was ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight IS, but how the new Saudi initiative might relate to the Joint Arab Military Force, agreed by Arab League military chiefs in May 2015, is not made clear. 
          Why are the Saudis taking the initiative? Because, in common with other pro-Western Arab states, they are alarmed at the way the US is apparently allowing Russia and Iran to lay the foundations for a Middle East that reflects their own, separate, interests.
          Iran seeks regional hegemony. Greatly aided in its bid for power by the ill-advised US-led nuclear deal, it has been boosted by the lifting of western sanctions, the renewed sale of oil, and the unfreezing of $32 billion of foreign-held assets. Now Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have used the state’s new-found wealth to pour thousands more Iraqi and Afghan mercenaries into Syria. So ironically it is the US itself that has contributed both to a racking up of the war in Syria, and to an increase in the misery imposed on the people, more and more of whom are forced to flee their homes.
          From its start back in 2009 the Obama administration was intent on abdicating America’s former role as power-broker in the Middle East. Instead it devised a self-defeating strategy of boosting Iran’s power and influence. The idea was that a regenerated Shia Iran would take the initiative in combatting the Sunni jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, allowing the US to adopt a much lower profile.
          The strategy failed abysmally. Its main result was severely to shake the confidence of America’s erstwhile allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, while affecting Iran’s attitudes and objectives not one jot. The leaders of Iran’s Islamic Republic despise the West and all it stands for – the US in particular, which Iran’s Supreme Leader regards as its greatest enemy. As for the nuclear deal, he lauds it as an Iranian victory over America. Iran remains determined to achieve both religious and political dominance in the Muslim world, and its influence over Syria’s future is a vital element in that strategy.
          As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin has filled the vacuum in the Middle East left by Obama. Putin is determined to re-establish a position for Russia in world politics akin to that of the defunct USSR, and no doubt sees Syria as a convenient stepping stone in that direction.
          An undoubted plus, from his point of view, is that Turkey – a member of NATO – is among the fiercest opponents of Assad and Iran. Putin has long regarded NATO as a permanent threat along Russia’s western borders, and now he could put a cat among NATO’s pigeons. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considering sending Turkish ground and air forces, in alliance with those of Saudi Arabia, into Syria to assist the US-led coalition to defeat Assad. If he did so, Russian air strikes could be directed against his forces. That in turn, as Middle East correspondent David Blair recently pointed out, could lead to Turkey invoking Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty (an armed attack against one NATO member shall be considered an attack against them all). What would NATO members choose to do – ignore their own charter, or go to war with Russia? Blair leaves the question hanging in the air.
          In such circumstances the proxy US-Russian conflict seems to stand only a slim chance of resolution. Not only on behalf of Syria, but for the world as a whole, we can only hope it does not escalate.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014”. He blogs at: