Comment: Putin’s blank check in Syria

Emboldened by the Russian intervention, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been regaining ground against the multitude of fractioned and unaligned rebel groups.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacts after peace talks on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, February 12, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin reacts after peace talks on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, February 12, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we approach the fifth anniversary since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, for the first time there seems to be a feeble light at the end of the tunnel.
Thanks to the diplomatic effort by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, last Friday in Munich the parties involved have agreed to work toward a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” starting next week.
Before we start celebrating though, let’s pause for a moment and rewind the tape.
This window of opportunity opened up only 10 days after the UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva broke down within 48 hours. A sign that the situation is still highly volatile, and events could shift in any direction quite abruptly. “The real test will be how we implement what we have agreed,” Lavrov admitted.
Five years on, the conflict in Syria has generated over 7.6 million internally displaced people, four million refugees, and a death toll that, according to UN estimates, has surpassed 250,000 people (though NGOs claim that casualties are nearly twice as many). Entire cities, such as Homs, Aleppo and Kobane, have been reduced to rubble; several archaeological sites, including a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, have been damaged, looted, or destroyed.
Recent developments had not been promising either.
Emboldened by the Russian intervention, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been regaining ground against the multitude of fractioned and unaligned rebel groups, but his position is still precarious.
Islamic State-controlled territory has shrunk during 2015 – in part also thanks to the fierce resistance by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Yet the self-proclaimed Caliphate has also managed to make a number of valuable strategic gains – especially as it closed in on the borders with Jordan and Lebanon and, perhaps most importantly, on the outskirts of Damascus.
Finally, also regional powers like Turkey, Iran and the Gulf States have been involved in the dispute – mainly by having this or that faction fight a proxy war on their behalf.
So despite the good news coming a couple of days ago from Munich, a sustainable and lasting solution still appears unlikely in the immediate future.
How is it possible though, that all that the world has been able to achieve since 2011 is this shaky and vague agreement? Couldn’t the UN, or Europe, or America, do more? Generally speaking, there are three main doctrines on how to approach the Syrian conflict.
First, the so-called “boots on the ground” option – namely a Western-led (or, more realistically, a US-led) military intervention on the blueprint of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This would allow the US and Europe to gain direct control over the events in the Middle East. They would probably topple Assad and downgrade IS, while limiting the ongoing genocide and facilitating humanitarian interventions.
The unavoidable downside of this option though, is that to really exert pressure and achieve long-term objectives it has to be open ended, with no expiration date. And in light of the daunting cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (nearly 7,000 deaths and a military expenditure of $1.6 trillion for the US alone), nobody in either Europe or the United States seems thrilled by this idea.
The second option is the isolationist one. What happens in the Middle East stays in the Middle East. We do not get involved Syria, hoping that regional powers take responsibility for what is happening in their backyard. In an ideal world this would be the best option, of course. However it is hard to imagine these dictatorship or semi-dictatorships, characterized by strong sectarian tendencies as well as contrasting interests, finding a consensus and acting for the common good.
This approach has been in vogue until very recently. Yet the migrant crisis first, and the Paris attacks later, sent a clear message: what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East, especially when it comes to Syria. Sweeping the problem under the rug does not solve the crisis. Eventually it will catch up with us.
And when that happens it will hurt.
So this leads us to the third option – a hybrid of the previous two. Since they have been dragged into the conflict and their interests are now on the line too, Western democracies do get involved in Syria. However they do so with a low-intensity, low-cost, low-risk type of intervention: on one hand intelligence, air strikes, weapons supply, training of rebel forces, on the other, diplomatic efforts and negotiations.
Given the circumstances, this solution is certainly the most prudent. It allows at least the US and France to maintain a certain degree of control over the situation and to safeguard part of their interests, while avoiding the costs and risks of a second Iraq (or a third Vietnam – you choose).
There are, however, two implications to this approach.
The first is that, in reality, this is a non-solution that betrays the chilling lack of a long-term plan for Syria. Simply put, all Western governments are trying to do is lower the risks and limit the damage.
The second, and even more dangerous implication is that this power vacuum is being filled by Russia. This, in a way, is indeed a comfortable situation for the US and Europe – someone is doing the dirty job for them. But this is Putin we’re talking about – a leader with dictatorial inclinations, a poor record when it comes to liberty and human rights, whose primary objective is to advance the interests and prestige of his nation. And if that means using the fight against IS as a pretext to bomb Assad’s opposition and provide crucial support the Syrian dictator, so be it. As long as it helps Russia score strategic points on the global chessboard then anything is permitted.
In conclusion, it is hard to blame Western governments for not intervening in Syria (yet). Clearly, they learned their lessons from Iraq very well. Sending troops in a conflict- torn region is the easy part. What to do once you are already there – that’s the real challenge. And if you do not have a solid and viable plan, with realistic long-term goals and even an exit strategy, then maybe it is a good idea to stay away.
This doctrine is starting to backfire though. Western hesitation is issuing Putin a blank check to increase Russian influence in the Middle East. And having the Russian president become the gatekeeper of such a volatile region may not be in the best interests of either the United States or Europe.
Decision time is coming, and Western democracies may not like any of the options they have in front of them. If they stay out of the game, Putin wins. If they get involved, then the stakes will skyrocket. It’s a lose-lose situation. Finding a convincing third way out of this deadlock will require a lot of creativity, determination and political courage – qualities that, as of today, are in low supply among most Western leaders.
The author recently obtained a Master of International Affairs in International Security Policy from Columbia University. Today he is an analyst for an international business consulting firm.