As a child, I would eagerly await the annual World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) “Royal Rumble” – 30 of the best wrestlers, all in one ring, fighting it out in a lengthy and often brutal (and yes, scripted) affair over the course of hours to be the last man standing.
The most entertaining part, I found, were the “stables” – groups of wrestlers who joined forces only to knock out stronger opponents like Andre the Giant. At the end of the showcase, when only a few wrestlers remained, the true agenda emerged. Any “stables” fortunate enough to get this far were tossed aside like prop chairs. Without a common enemy, the wrestlers turned on each other.
In Syria, a disastrous “Royal Rumble” is now under way.
While working on the Iraq Team of the UN Department of Political Affairs in 2008, I learned the importance of interstate cooperation in the pursuit of a shared goal. Having also researched the decision-making process of the UN Security Council, I am aware, too, of the failures that emerge when countries cannot reach mutual agreement.
United against ISIS
Russia’s military intervention to fight the Islamic State shares some of the common goals of the anti-Assad alliance involving the US, UK, Australia, Canada, France, Turkey and no less than six regional Arab States. All sides have already intervened to varying degrees with military force, bombing or supporting the bombing of targets each claims are strategic. But strategic to whom?
On the surface, Russian strikes can be interpreted as a lifeline for Syria against the creeping lava of ISIS, which destroys everything in its path and stubbornly solidifies. After all, anyone bombing ISIS is good news, right?
Only Russia is not primarily in Syria to fight ISIS. Russia is there to eliminate any anti-Assad fighters, including ISIS. And this is a key distinction to make.
Should ISIS retreat, leave Syria or declare a truce with Assad, they will probably disappear from Russian crosshairs. None of this, of course, seems imminent. So, even without coordination, East and West will work together for now against ISIS – the Andre the Giant of Syria.
The black flag of ISIS – for now – flies over large enclaves throughout Syria, while outside of these areas heavy fighting rages between Assad and anti-Assad fighters.
If ISIS is weakened, Russian and the coalition fighters will find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. Russia’s goal for Syria is more of Assad – period. The US, France and the UK all want Assad out, if not sooner, then later.
Putin has now confirmed that that Russia has intervened in Syria primarily to rescue the Assad regime. But allegedly, 90% of bombings have not targeted IS. From a Russian standpoint, this is rather smart.
Legally speaking, the Assad regime still holds a seat at the UN and is recognized as a legitimate government. Putin is no fool. The Russian military base at Tartus dates back to 1971, when current President Bashar al-Assad was just a child and his father Haafez was at the helm. In supporting the Assads, Russia is protecting a lifelong relationship. The strategic significance of the Tartus military base is illustrated by the fact that it is the last Russian facility outside of the former USSR.
Clash of titans
Russia will not abandon Assad. For this reason, the conflict in Syria is poised to be the most dangerous international conflict in living history. In Iraq, Afghanistan and the Ukraine, the US or Russian-led military faced local militaries or populations. The proxy war brewing in Syria is a clash of the titans unlike any since the Korean or Vietnam wars. This is the first time the Western and Russian militaries have faced off in decades, and neither looks to be backing down.
The US is gearing up to arm more Kurdish and Syrian opposition ground troops in the area. Russia has been moving heavy artillery and tanks to Syria. The UK is hinting at another vote in Parliament to extend strikes from Iraq into Syria in support of the US. Most recently, Russian incursions into Turkish airspace have led NATO to warn that it would deploy troops to pursue its collective defense strategy of “an attack on one, is an attack on all.” This is brinkmanship at its finest.
For Syria, however, all outcomes now look equally catastrophic. The situation in Syria has already led to the displacement of almost 12 million civilians. For Syria, there is little hope of peace returning in the near future.