By James M. Dorsey
As tens of thousands of refugees shiver in the cold on Turkey’s borders with Europe and a new phase of the brutal Syrian war erupts, Russia, Turkey, the European Union and the international community are being presented with the bill for a flawed, short-term approach to the nine-year old conflict that largely lacked empathy for millions of victims and was likely to magnify rather than resolve problems.
The failure of Western policymakers to adopt an approach that would have served Europe’s longer term security interests and sought to end Syria’s suffering in ways that may have held out the promise of a sustainable resolution of the conflict is compounded by the failure to exploit what was always a fragile alliance between Russia and NATO-member Turkey.
With that alliance under strain, both in Syria, where Russia has warned that it cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft in Syrian airspace, and in Libya, where the two allies support opposing sides, multiple regional conflicts have begun to mesh.
Some analysts have suggested that Russia was seeking to enlist the support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Syria so that it could dump Turkey with which it is on the brink of military blows. The two Gulf states oppose Turkish ambitions in the Middle East and beyond.
The analysts point to recent contacts between Emirati, Russian and Syrian officials and the establishment of relations between Syria and Libya’s UAE and Russian-backed rebel force led by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar.
The various manoeuvres constitute variations on a theme.
The international community, including Russia, did little in the early years of the war to stop militant groups and regional powers from contributing to the violence by exploiting Syria’s power vacuum to their immediate advantage. That changed selectively when the Islamic State gained a territorial foothold in Syria and Iraq.
Similarly, much of the international community falsely assumed that a Syrian victory in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel stronghold, would create a fait accompli that Turkey would accept and that would pave the way to an end to the war and reconstruction.
Like in much of the Middle East where a failure to put one’s ears to the ground and hear the widespread discontent simmering at the surface that produced a decade of revolution and brutal counterrevolution, neither Russia nor its detractors read the writing on Syria’s walls.
If militants and external powers turned what started in 2011 as peaceful protests demanding reform rather than the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the international community failed to recognize that nine years later criticism of the regime is widespread among an impoverished population traumatized by war.
Rather than creating an environment for reconciliation and reconstruction, Russian-supported Syrian military successes in retaking territory from rebels by force or in negotiated handovers have not been accompanied by a relieving of economic and social hardship, sparking intermittent anti-government protests and stepped up repression.
Much of the criticism focuses on the government’s failure to improve economic and living conditions, but, like in the early days of the popular revolt, shies away from calls for regime change.
The improbability of a Russian-Syrian military victory putting Syria on a road towards peaceful resolution and recovery is highlighted by the fact that snap polling suggests that less than ten percent of the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons would be willing to return to or remain in a country that continues to be ruled by Mr. Al-Assad and his regime.
As a result, Russia and Mr. Al-Assad appear to have adopted the kind of scorched earth policy that Israel’s military rejected in the late 1980s during the first Palestinian intifada or uprising.
In contrast to the military that told then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin that the resolution needed to be political because the cost of a military solution would be too high, Russia and Mr. Al-Assad have concluded that no cost is too high. It is an approach that emulates Russia’s brutal crushing of rebellions in Chechnya in the 1990s.
“Russia realized that it cannot cement its military victories into permanent political gains through diplomacy within the projected remaining lifetime of the regime. Instead, it decided to employ the ‘Grozny doctrine’ of complete annihilation of all those who stand in the way of its strategic goals and bring the conflict to an end before the regime collapses,” said Syrian activist Labib al-Nahhas De La Ossa, referring to the Chechen capital that was virtually destroyed by Russian forces.
Its an approach that in violation of international law takes no heed of the consequences for innocent millions in Idlib or the fact that many, rather than supporting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an erstwhile Al Qaeda affiliate that controls part of the province, have repeatedly protested against it.
Its also an approach that potentially could spark a renewed refugee crisis in Europe with Turkey, already home to some four million refugees, no longer stopping fleeing Syrians and others from trying to cross its Greek and Bulgarian borders with the European Union.
Russia, in a cynical twist of irony, would likely be happy to see a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis that fuelled support for far-right, anti-immigration and nativist forces in Europe who are empathetic to Moscow’s effort to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance as well as the European Union with its adherence to Western values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Even with that being the case, Russian policy towards Idlib and the rest of Syria is likely to only produce problematic outcomes: ensuring total victory for Mr. Al-Assad risks a break-up with Turkey, a key regional player, and forecloses chances for a sustainable resolution of the Syrian conflict that would allow for the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons.
Continued Russian and Iranian-backed support for Mr. Al-Assad’s brutal regime will at best temporarily stabilize Syria and potentially open the door to a forced return of some refugees and displaced persons while setting the stage for another round of conflict.
An equally unsustainable alternative scenario, envisioned by Mr. De La Ossa, would involve a Russian-Turkish agreement to cram three million refugees into a tiny slice of Idlib in what would amount to sub-human conditions.
Said Mr. De La Ossa: “The humanitarian catastrophe that is Idlib has shown that the lessons from the beginning of World War II still apply: Appeasing dictators who are willing to kill massive numbers of people to realize their delusions of grandeur never works. But if the US, Europe, and the international community at large fail to heed these lessons, it will not only be Syrians who pay the price. “
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture