Russian Involvement in Syria: the Beginning of the End?

Recent news of increased Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria and – to a lesser extent – Iraq  have left many observers in Western capitals scrambling to make sense of these developments. While few believed that Putin or Iran would simply abandon their longtime ally in Assad, Iran and Russia surprised many by pairing their traditional material and moral support with high-profile military operations and intelligence cooperation to strengthen their influence within the region. These efforts came to a head when Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria to shore up their failing ally. In doing so, Russia and Iran made their intentions to maintain and expand their influence in the region clear.

It is certainly true that despite their common enemy in the Islamic State, Western leaders do not see eye to eye with their counterparts in Tehran and Moscow, at least given their official positions. Russia and Iran, whether in their respective capitals or in their statements at the UN, emphasize the necessity to fight terrorism. Western powers have resisted attempts from Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to focus on terrorism without addressing what they see as the underlying causes, Assad. However, an increase in Russian and Iranian activity in the region could in fact be a harbinger of a final, peaceful settlement to the nearly five-year-old conflict, if the two countries are able to separate their interests from Assad’s interests.

Clearly, Russian and Iranian support for Assad and the Syrian regime more broadly is not surprising. The two countries have been Syria’s most steadfast allies for some time and while many hoped that Assad’s extreme response to the protests that erupted against his rule in 2011, such hopes were short lived. Iran’s geographical proximity and Russia’s traditional interest in the region have outlasted many events and as such, they are not willing to shortchange their interests. Any solution to the conflict that seeks to supplant their interests in the region will require incredible force, not only against the Syrian government, loyalist militias, rival rebels and (hopefully) the Islamic State, but also against the inevitable conflict with Iran and Russian that comes after such a victory, whether through direct combat or proxies. Barring such willingness to use force, there will be no solution to the war in Syria that sees Iran and Russia sacrifice their influence for either human rights or the strategic interests of others.

Why is Syria so important to Russia? Observers point to many reasons, including the Middle East’s historic import, Russia’s naval base in Tartus (its principal warm water port, though not contiguous to Russia), and the desire to slow the expansion of US influence in the region. There is certainly merit to all these claims and it is worth noting that while Russian influence may be on the rise in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Moscow simply does not have the clout that the US does – along with the chorus of other Western states that emphasize democracy – nor does it possess the economic power to make jumping ship from the West a worthwhile endeavor for states in the region. While Russia exports weapons to a number of states in the region, it cannot compete with the US in the general market. Simply put, no other state can be listed on the same page as Syria when discussing Moscow’s interests in the Middle East. Russia cannot win a war against the US on the basis of soft power (hearts and minds) nor can its economy power an aggressive buyout of Arab capitals and diplomatic circles.

Medvedev and Assad (wikicommons)

It is also worth noting that while war rages in Syria, war continues in Ukraine and tensions remain high throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In these areas, where many countries are stuck between the promise of Western opulence and Russian power, NATO expansion and the increase of Chinese influence is a subject ever on the mind of decision makers in Moscow. As Russia seeks to preserve and expand its influence in the Caspian and beyond, as well as rollback NATO advances in the Baltics and Caucasus region, standing with Syria sends a powerful message to potential allies that will not soon be forgotten. This is especially true when the promise of a Western lifestyle comes with the demands of reforms and restructuring, something that Russian involvement in a state is less likely to include.  Any ally in the region, particularly autocratic leaders, can look to Russian involvement in Syria, safe in the knowledge that Russia will remain with dependable leaders through the bitter end.

For Iran, losing Syria would mean losing its chief ally in the region. Although Jordan’s King Abdullah has repeatedly warned of the emergence of a “Shia Crescent” in the region, Iran’s influence remains limited, carrying significant weight in Syria and Iraq alone. Yes, Iran commands influence as the sole great power in the region to aggressively stand against the US and other Western states in the region, but its influence is most notable when discussing its support for non-state entities and militant groups: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ansar Allah (the Houthi Movement), and Hezbollah. And it is true that Hezbollah – due to Lebanon’s fractured politics – commands attention in Lebanon, but this has also served to chain Hezbollah to Assad and deploy its forces to Syria, weakening its influence at home. While Iran can claim a modicum of influence in a number of dissident and anti-Western movements in the region, US influence stretches from Morocco and Tunis to Riyadh and Baghdad; there is little chance of Iran overtaking the US regarding influence. Iran cannot afford to sacrifice its only state ally in the region, regardless of how much attention it demands in anti-US circles. Iran’s image in the region stems from its underdog status, not its outsized influence in Arab capitals. Moreover, the anti-Shia sentiments prevelant throughout the MENA means that Iran is eager to play down the sectarian element of its power, meaning that relationships that hinge purely on identity-based claims – such as the Houthi movement – matter less than those that carry regional weight – such Iran’s support for Hamas.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (wikicommons)

What does the endgame look like right now for Iran and Russia? They have made their intentions clear: to cement their influence in the region and curb the expansion of influence of states who oppose them. However, if Russia shores up their ally in the Levant without actually ending the fighting, they will simply make themselves one more party to an already intractable conflict. If Russia  and Iran could maintain their influence in Syria by making themselves part of the solution – regardless of  the true equity of such a deal – they could rest easy in the knowledge that their influence is unchallenged in Syria while also quieting critics in the West who use support for Assad as an effective battering ram against their bloody policies. Four factors are necessary in such a solution.

First, any solution that hopes to be amenable to the majority of Syrians must address the demands of the masses. While the West likely hopes for a diverse, tolerant, and multi-sectarian democracy, the most pressing need for Syrians is an end to the bloodshed and the promise of safety after a peace deal is signed. Simply put, Syrians need peace and to know that after agreeing to continue their lives as normal, security and intelligence services will not engage in acts of retribution after the war is completed. Safety and stability, the most underrated features of states and automobiles, are key.

At the same time, however, Syrians are very aware of what has driven them to flee their homes and take to the streets over the last four years; as terrible as ISIS is (which alone exceeds my descriptions), it is not ISIS that has dropped barrel bombs into crowded residential areas, bombs that kill soldier and civilian alike. It is fallacious for us to equivocate between ISIS and the regime when Assad makes a habit of starving areas controlled by rebels. Given this, Syrians will not accept a post war status quo that sees Assad remain in power. No agreement that contains Assad will be accepted by those who fought and died – or were killed – by the Assad government and thus, Assad can be no more than a temporary place holder moving forward, at best. If Russian and Iran want to maintain their influence and reach an acceptable solution with the Syrian people – and the US and Europe for that matter – they must find leadership in Damascus that is both amenable to their interests and the Syrian people, one without the face that Syrians have learned to fear.

Second, for obvious reasons, an agreement must take away the power of spoilers to interrupt an agreement to push for their own ends. Part of this can be ensured by removing the principal driver of opposition to the government in Damascus – Assad – to ensure that groups that can’t be or are not defeated military do not stand in direct opposition to the post-war agreement. However, removing Assad by itself will not satisfy all actors and any power wishing to enforce a post-Assad agreement must learn from the failures of state building in Libya, neutralizing those who can engage in military action at a whim for their own ends. Such action could reveal a true divide between Western powers, tied between their own ideals and reality, reticent to undertake action given the human and material costs, and Russia and Iran, keen to preserve a tangible advantage in tumultuous region. The West, while it has stood unwaveringly in the corner of human rights and democracy, has proven willing to invest the resources and manpower necessary to engage all actors in the conflict – likely militarily – that an ultimate solution entails. A final agreement in Syria will necessitate a solution amenable to the majority and a willingness to engage those oppose such an idea. Moscow and Tehran should take note and be willing to engage these actors, regardless of the costs, if they want to be important stakeholders in Damascus after any agreement is reached. Such resolve could supply the necessary ingredients to final success, if Tehran and Moscow are willing to tolerate Assad’s ouster.

Third, a final agreement must satisfy the international community’s desire to remove major human rights abusers from power in Damascus. Does this necessitate regime change? Sort of. Does it necessarily challenge Moscow’s and Tehran’s influence in the state? Not by a long shot. Russia and Iran need a new face to placate both Syrians and Westerners: Assad has overseen the most egregious of human right’s violations and no moral observers can conscionably accept his rule as legitimate in a post-war state. However, while the Assad family has traditionally been the backbone of Russian and Iranian support within the country, the two countries possess influence that goes beyond personal connections; each has something – perhaps not universally benevolent – to offer to potential leaders in Syria and despite the country’s history of despotism, the pool of potential leaders certainly extends beyond one individual. There is nothing to prevent Russia and Iran from preserving their influence in Syria in a postwar agreement – not in Western statements against Assad, nor in the lukewarm support for democratic elements as the war rages on.

If these criteria could make an agreement possible, what does this mean for backers of anti-Assad groups within Syria? Saudi Arabia and Turkey have made no secret of their desire for regime change in Damascus, seeking to install a ruler (likely Sunni) that would check Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region. While not likely to be happy with such an outcome, it is worth remembering that Turkey enjoyed normal relations with Syria during its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ heyday. In spite of the ongoing war in Syria, Turkey has continued to work with Russia inside of Turkey, much to the chagrin of Washington. Turkey has proven capable of living next to a Russian-backed Syria – an Assad Syria – and need not worry about a rising Iran in the same way that Gulf states might. Its clout and preeminence in the Middle East exist now in spite of Assad and can continue to do so into the future.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (wikicommons)

As for the Gulf states, it is true that the Iran deal and the expected ascendance of Iran within the region give Gulf monarchies concern. The Iran nuclear deal, coupled with the absence of US action in Syria, have led many to believe that Washington is either looking to side with Tehran in its pursuit of regional power or willing to stand back as Iran turns the region into its own backyard. While the rhetoric Tehran and Washington would seem to dampen enthusiasm for those who expect a détente between the two powers in the near future, it is not unreasonable for Gulf states to worry about the implications of the West’s new orientation with regards to Iran. Clearly, the deal has not dampened Iran’s ambitions in the region and Gulf countries are rightly worried about an Iran that has not changed its intentions and now enjoys at least limited tolerance from the US. However, Washington has been steadfast in its insistence that the Iran deal does not signal a new chapter in Iranian-US relations and rhetoric from Iran seems to indicate reciprocal feelings. Washington has also intimated that it intends to supply its Middle East allies – especially Gulf states and Israel – with the military technology necessary to prevent Iran from assuming total hegemony in the region. Thus, while Saudi Arabia and other states are certainly concerned about the outcome of events in Syria, there concerns are far from existential. And the preservation of the status quo in Damascus would do nothing save preventing Gulf capitals from expanding their influence in the region.

If such a deal succeeds in ceasing hostilities, can we really say that Syrians have fared any better, allowing the same powers that enabled a bloody dictator to hold on to power for four plus years to continue to exert influence in the country? While it may be unpalatable, an agreement that preserves Iranian and Russian influence while moving al-Assad from the equation would undoubtedly benefit Syrians.

First, returning to a country without Assad will go to great lengths to placate those who rose up in opposition to him and also allow a new set of hands on the reins. The Assad family has governed Syria for more than a quarter century and though it has not run the country into the ground – until recently – it has generated a not insignificant degree of animosity in its wake. Allowing a new leader to assume power – content with the knowledge that their interests are thoroughly established in the minds of the country’s leadership – Russia and Iran can allow the people of Syria more than a bit of breathing room. As we have seen in the revolution in Egypt, the genuine underlying democratic ambitions of revolutions are not as strong as Western backers would like. In the case of Egypt, a genuine democratic opposition to Mubarak’s 30 year rule was enough to oust him from power but not enough to establish lasting democracy in the country. In its place, many Egyptians have accepted the rule of Sisi – similarly strong armed and lacking in democratic credentials – in the place of Mubarak. Replacing Assad as the face of Syria would go a long in way in placating the masses and ensuring stability, regardless of the policies of a post-Assad government.

Second, any agreement that ends the conflict will allow the return to normalcy for those who remain in the country and potential return for those who fled the regime abroad. This would not only stop the killing that has wracked the country for the last four plus years but also help rebuild Syria’s economy, which has suffered damage to the tune of $220 billion since the war began. While democratic ideals undoubtedly lie at the heart of the issue for many, a likely greater number would be happy to see their lives return to normal, seeing peace prosper in the face of bloodshed.

A negotiated settlement would facilitate such an outcome better than an outright military victory by either side. First, a settlement agreed to by major powers would also limit the funding of proxy militias roaming the country, reducing both their numbers and influence. The growth of militias and explosion of offshoots is a key factor in continuing the violence in Syria, as outside powers ship arms and other materiel into the country in an effort to effect a military victory for the ‘right’ side. Additionally, by removing Assad in a peace deal, the question of transitional justice is sidestepped. While this is does not address the legitimate and longstanding grievances that underlie the people’s rejection of Assad as a leader nor the barbarism committed by his regime as they furiously clung to power, it is worth remembering that removed from power, Assad would most likely live out the remainder of his life in exile. It also worth questioning whether people should be driven by their  ideals – to seek a democratic Syria and righting the wrongs of the past – or the reality on the ground – which promises a real life for Syrians weary of broken promises and years of bloodshed. In the face of more than 200,000 dead, I feel it is necessary to entertain any solution could succeed in bringing about long lasting peace in the country. It does not make me proud. It does make me human.

Unfortunately, politics is the art of the possible. The field of politics makes short work of those who wish to implement only ideal solutions. No realistic situation at the current moment can give Syrians what they so thoroughly deserve. No group that engages in atrocities in atrocities should be allowed to roam free anywhere in the world, especially after hostilities have ceased. While our morality calls us to condemn such acts and the individuals who perpetrate them, our common sense compels us to search for common ground and a solution that, while far from perfect, guarantees a far better life for Syrians than the hell that they currently face day in and day out, with little prospects for improvement. Acknowledging the interests of outside powers in Syria does not ‘sell out’ Syria to the highest bidder; rather, it gives the Syria people real prospects to live with dignity. Though well intentioned, refusing compromise in pursuit of the perfect solution does nothing but further the suffering of Syria and its people and our common humanity must call us to end such grievous violations of human rights, no matter how.

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