The U.S. and its Western allies have largely backed themselves into a corner on negotiations with Russia and Iran on Syria.
The coordinated terror attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 that resulted in over 130 deaths marks an inflection point in the West’s war on the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). In the short-term, Russia and Iran may ‘tilt’ towards the West on IS. However, this ‘tilt’ is unlikely to extend to an agreement on the situation in Syria, where negotiations are deadlocked over the fate of embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Thus, there will likely continue to be a security and political vacuum in Syria for the foreseeable future, which portends darker days ahead for the people of that country.
IS has claimed that the Paris attacks were ‘retribution’ for France’s involvement in the U.S.-led air campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq. The coordinated attacks in Paris included shootings and suicide bombings on four streets in the Saint-Denis suburb and a commando-style assault on the Bataclan Theatre, where 1,500 people had gathered for a concert. The attacks were eerily reminiscent in scale and form to the 2008 attacks in south Mumbai, where coordinated attacks launched by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba claimed the lives of approximately 160 people.
Days after the attacks, France’s warplanes struck at targets in IS’s stronghold in Raqqa, including a command center, munitions depot and training camps. The air forces of the U.S., Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also hit at IS targets in Raqqa. The Russians ostensibly launched an independent air campaign against IS in September, but most news reports in the West conclude that the Russian Air Force has largely targeted not IS, but rebel forces battling al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s north- and south-west.
The attack on a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, allegedly carried out by IS, in which over 350 people were killed, appears to have altered Russia’s calculus, at least in the interim. Since the attack on the airliner, Russia’s air force has pounded targets in Raqqa as well as Deir ez-Zor, a province crucial to IS’s oil reserve and petroleum infrastructure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with his French counterpart Francois Hollande in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and agreed to “coordinate military attacks” in Syria. Mr Putin also issued orders to the command of Russia’s missile cruiser, Moskva, currently based in the Mediterranean, to “establish contact…and cooperate” with the French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, which is on its way to Syria.
Whether this is largely a public relations exercise on the part of Russia (as some suspect) or not, Russia’s shift in strategy to target IS strongholds, along with the West, can help dent and degrade IS’s capabilities and control over vast swathes of Syria and Iraq. By some estimates, IS has already lost between 15 to 25 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq, from its peak levels in mid-2014.
However, in the context of the larger war in Syria, the West and Russia continue to have divergent objectives. At the heart of the disagreement over a diplomatic solution for Syria lies the fate of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S., backed by its allies, insists that al-Assad must step down, while Russia and Iran stand steadfastly by al-Assad.
Russia’s air campaign in Syria is largely in support of al-Assad’s battle against rebel groups. Iran, which views the Syrian civil war largely in geopolitical terms as part of an enduring struggle for influence and power over Saudi Arabia, supports the Alawite al-Assad regime not only diplomatically, but also militarily. A number of Shia militia groups backed by Iran reportedly provide ground support to al-Assad’s regime, while there have been reports (denied by Tehran) of Iran having deployed ground troops in Syria.
Taken together, this means that it is unlikely that either Russia or Iran will abandon their ally. For the West, particularly Europe, the continuation of the civil war in Syria will undoubtedly mean an increase in the number of refugees from that country, whether taken in voluntarily or by other means. Approximately 4 million refugees have already fled Syria since the civil war began four years ago. The large influx of refugees from Syria presents humanitarian, economic and security-related challenges to Europe. The possibility of IS smuggling in terrorists into Europe along with the refugees cannot be ruled out.
Russia and Iran on the other hand, who have not taken in any refugees, do not have to contend with these pressures. Indeed, even Saudi Arabia, on whose behest the U.S. launched operations in Syria in 2014, has taken in no refugees from Syria. Lest we forget, the Saudis threw a tantrum over the U.S.’s lack of commitment to military operations in Syria in 2014, and threatened to “limit interaction” with the U.S.
The U.S. and its Western allies have largely backed themselves into a corner on negotiations with Russia and Iran on Syria. Their choices are to either relent on their demand that Bashar al-Assad stand down or negotiate a compromise solution that accepts al-Assad’s current role in exchange for a commitment to hold elections. Either option puts Russia and Iran in a position of advantage in Syria, as does a prolonging of the civil war.
Photo: Guido Gloor Modjib