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Year in review 2015: Russian intervention adds to uncertainty in Syria

The campaign of Russian air strikes that began at the end of September blindsided the United States, Europe and the Gulf countries, as well as the rebel factions hit in the bombings.
A Russian bomber drops bombs on a target. Russia has unleashed another barrage of airstrikes against targets in Syria, including the first combat launch of a new cruise missile from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
A Russian bomber drops bombs on a target. Russia has unleashed another barrage of airstrikes against targets in Syria, including the first combat launch of a new cruise missile from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Much about Syria in 2015 was sadly predictable. The continuing violence, the worsening refugee crisis and the steadily climbing toll of dead, wounded and disappeared. That there would be no end in sight to this most appalling of modern wars during its fifth year was no shock to anyone.

Russia’s deployment of its air power and a limited corps of ground troops on behalf of Bashar Al Assad’s retreating forces did come as a genuine surprise, however.

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The campaign of Russian air strikes that began at the end of September blindsided the United States, Europe and Gulf countries, as well as the rebel factions hit in the bombings.

Moscow’s assertions that it was targeting ISIL were propaganda more than fact. Just as Assad’s own air force has made no concerted effort to tackle ISIL, preferring to bomb markets and moderate rebels, the Russian intervention has been largely aimed elsewhere. Russian bombs have hit any rebel groups threatening regime-held areas, regardless of ideology.

Vladimir Putin was not, then, joining a largely US-run coalition engaged in carrying out air attacks on ISIL in eastern Syria. Instead, the Kremlin’s gambit was directed at keeping the Assad regime afloat in a slowly rising rebel tide. The move was a success.

Syria’s embattled regime has been shored-up and, thanks to Russian air support, together with Iranian military expertise and foot soldiers from Hizbollah, advancing rebel forces have been pushed back.

The Russian air force has flown hundreds of sorties – fewer than 20 per cent of them against ISIL – and, in so doing, has surely laid to rest any lingering hopes in the western and Gulf-backed rebel coalition that Assad will be defeated militarily. Moscow will simply not allow it.

Putin has made leverage for himself with Syria. But what will he use it for? Does he want to keep Assad in power, full stop – a sort of solidarity among autocrats in this new Cold War – or is he willing to cut a deal that sees Assad transitioned out, in order to cement Russian influence in a new Syria, as well as his gains in the Crimea and Ukraine?

Whatever rationale lies behind Putin’s calculations, his allies in this war continue to cling to a non-negotiable red line.

Iran, Hizbollah and, of course, the Syrian regime, have a goal set for religious and ideological reasons: that Assad must stay at all costs.

At this point, they must all feel fairly confident he will. The latest peace initiative envisages talks between the regime and the opposition for January 2016, with an election tentatively pencilled in two years later, with Assad remaining president until at least then.

With Russian air power, and Shiite militias fighting for him, Assad can be confident of holding on in the meantime and content to gamble that, by the time those elections swing around, Europe and the US will have decided a murderous autocrat controlling Syria is the least of their problems, compared with a growing refugee crisis and the constant threat of ISIL.

Assad will also believe he can stand in that election and, backed by a united front, win it. From the start of this conflict, the core of Syria’s regime and its supporters, Russia, Iran and Hizbollah, have been unified and willing to do anything to keep their man in office. In contrast, their opponents have been the very definition of fractured. On the ground, rebel forces span the range from genuine moderates to ISIL. Their international backers are almost as disunited, with Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US divided by different goals and strategies.

Attempts are, once again, under way to create a united and broadly moderate opposition front, but there is little reason to think that will now succeed where it so recently failed. The opposition’s military effort to oust Assad has not succeeded. Likewise, if they were to try a ballot box approach, they do not have a single candidate to unite behind. Assad may indeed win an election in two year’s time against such divided foes.

All of these varied calculations may be upset by the outcome of 2016’s US president election.

Barack Obama’s doctrine on Syria has resulted in a strange menagerie of contradiction; involved yet not committed, anti-Assad but wary of the opposition, prepared to deploy US aircraft in Syrian airspace against ISIL but not stop Assad killing civilians.

Whatever the theory behind this policy, it has had the effect of keeping Syria in crisis, not bringing that crisis to an end.

Russian policy, too, has prolonged Syria’s agony.

A new US president may take a more direct and confrontational approach to the crisis, with who knows what impact.

In this violent limbo, ISIL has found the perfect environment to blossom, exploiting a poisonous sectarianism that pits extremist Sunnis against Shiites. And it has already responded to Moscow’s air strikes, amending a plan to bomb a western plane and, instead, knocking a Moscow-bound airliner out of the sky over the Sinai with, it claims, a soda can turned into a low-tech explosive device.

What is clear is that until the war ends and a genuinely inclusive government takes control in Damascus, chaos will reign. And in that chaos, ISIL is king.

Phil Sands is a freelance journalist based in the US.

Updated: December 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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