Proxy Cold War over Syria

Drawing by Dormidont Viskarev

Drawing by Dormidont Viskarev

Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow amid Russia’s campaign of air strikes against targets in Syria has seen the United States refuse offers of dialogue on cooperation from the Kremlin. The US appears to have stepped up arms supplies to groups opposed to Syrian leader al-Assad. Could the situation deteriorate into a proxy war between Moscow and Washington, played out in the deserts of Syria?

Hopes of a thaw in Russia-America relations after Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent meeting with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in New York have been belied. While Moscow's military intervention in Syria has slightly changed the agenda with Washington, with a decrease in "toxicity" over Ukraine, it has not helped to build cooperation; even when at stake is the crucial issue of fighting terrorism of the radical, militant Islamic State (ISIS). The disagreements between Russia and the U.S. over Syria's future appear to be too great.

A challenge to U.S. policy

Washington has perceived Moscow's actions in the fight against various terrorist and Islamist groups in Syria (not only ISIS but also groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which essentially is a wing of Al-Qaeda) not only as excessive, but also as a direct challenge to U.S. policy in the region. This is despite the fact that the broad international coalition's months-long bombardment of ISIS forces not achieved any serious results, but instead, ISIS has increased the territory under its control. Media reports suggest that Obama has handed the advantage to Putin, something that has further vitiated the background for improved dialogue, particularly since their personal relations have never been amiable.

The first days of Russian aerial attacks in Syria saw the U.S. administration make statements which could have been interpreted as relatively positive. More recently, the statements are openly critical and condemnatory: The Russians are bombing the wrong formations, they are playing their own game in Syria, and their main objective is not to fight ISIS but to help the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime survive.

There is no more discourse about how Assad could play a role in the transition of power. The U.S. refuses to hold consultations with Russia on issues of political regulation in Syria. Moscow's proposals to hold high-level talks with participation of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who has amenable relations with Obama) have been refused.

Washington is only willing to hold talks between the militaries of both countries to prevent any accidental combat collisions in Syria's airspace. After three videoconferences, both Russia's Defence Ministry and the Pentagon are speaking about the convergence of positions on key issues for preparation of a memorandum of understanding on flight safety over Syria.

The risk of arms supplies

Will such contacts lead to talks on political issues? In the near future, obviously no. America does not want to discuss with Russia its support for the so-called "moderate opposition" or even explain which groups, besides the semi-mythical Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is divided into tens of motley brigades, it considers moderate. Furthermore, with the failure of the $500-million program that prepared "moderate" fighters on location, the Pentagon has started sending massive weapons supplies to Assad's enemies to combat him from the air.

But there is no guarantee that these weapons will not end up in the hands of ISIS or other "moderate" terrorists. This has already happened with a shipment of off-road Toyotas that had originally been sent to the FSA but wound up with ISIS – a scandal that flew around the internet. It seems that the U.S. is gambling on a decisive change in the battlefield, one that favors a broad coalition of anti-Assad forces proclaimed as moderate. And then, if necessary, the U.S. will start negotiations. Especially since, with the support of Russia's air force, Syria’s government troops are now in a more offensive position, which obviously Washington would like to prevent.

In Syria the different groups are constantly forming and reforming alliances, including ISIS, and fighters migrate from one alliance to another – together with their weapons. In Hama province there is an army with several dozens of thousands of fighters that includes terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusram, Ahrar ash-Sham and others. Now there is the risk that they will receive, even if indirectly, through third parties, American arms. At least for now, we are not talking about antiaircraft systems.

Upping the ante

America's refusal to coordinate its distribution of weapons from the air onto regions occupied by Islamist groups means it is creating the prerequisites for starting a proxy war between Damascus, with its Russian support, and terrorists. This threatens to further worsen relations between Russia and America on all the other issues, to the point of the U.S. considering the introduction of new sanctions against Russia – now for its involvement in Syria. The fact that Washington has momentarily diverted its attention away from Ukraine and the strengthening of NATO forces in Eastern Europe is meaningless. The main battle has shifted to the Syrian desert.

For now this still cannot be called a confrontation in the form of a proxy war. It seems the U.S. believes the Russian campaign and Assad's worn-out army, which has been fighting a four-year war, will fizzle out. Islamist sites are already showing how American missiles are burning Assad's tanks in the provinces of Hama and Idlib. This is not the coordination on Syria that the Kremlin would like from the U.S. Also, Washington’s refusal to engage in political talks on Syria's future can be interpreted by Moscow as a challenge, one that will result in Russia strengthening its alliance with Iran, which is also set on supporting Damascus with military force.

The author is a political analyst and member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent Moscow-based think tank.

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