The terrorist attacks in Paris and Sinai, and Russia’s earlier decision to get involved in the Syrian Civil War, have raised the stakes in that regional conflict considerably. International efforts in the fight against ISIS already involve new external (and not necessarily regional) actors. Barely a week ago, the United Kingdom and Germany joined the air assault on ISIS, although neither had previously demonstrated an enthusiasm for direct involvement. What can we expect? Is an anti-terrorism coalition really being formed?
The main problem is that the objectives and tasks of those who form this coalition do not coincide. The situation is a paradoxical one, however: despite the huge differences in the approaches of the external players (notably the United States, France, Russia and the UK), they identify the main enemy in similar terms. This is seen as ISIS, which should be eliminated or at least stopped. To fulfil this purpose, active assistance from the regional players; those inside Syria and in West Asia as a whole; is needed. In theory, they should be carrying out the main military action.
But it turns out that their priorities are different. For Turkey, the main threat is the Kurdish issue, which they perceive as far more dangerous than ISIS. So far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, its main fear is that of Iranian Shia expansion rather than of the threats posed by ISIS militants. Iran is engaged in a complex regional game, with ISIS being just one element. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not just facing radical Islamists, but a very wide range of opponents. The other countries in the region are desperately trying to maintain control over the situation at home, so they have to manoeuvre all the time. And they do not always see ISIS as their worst enemy. This state of affairs practically rules out a truly broad coalition. But it does create an unpleasant prospect for the external players. Everybody realizes and admits that ISIS cannot be defeated without a ground operation. The idea is that a ground operation should be conducted by regional players in the Middle East, all the more so since the countries of the region invariably condemn “colonialists” for any interference. However, if they do fight, they will be fighting not against terrorism but against each other, which cannot be allowed to happen. So there may be a need for a deeper military involvement on the part of Russia, the US, France and others. Having said that, everybody knows what risks are associated with direct interventions in the Middle East.
Russia has many motives for its involvement in Syria. The main motive, of course, is the threat of the unchecked spread of terrorism. Another has to do with relations with the incumbent Syrian government, which is Russia’s long-standing partner. Last summer, it became clear that the resources of the ruling regime were close to exhaustion. The Assad regime had turned out to be much more resilient than the West thought it would be back in 2011, but a war of attrition is not something that any country can easily cope with. The fall of Assad would be seen by all as a major setback for Moscow. There were other motives at play, too. For instance, the desire to expand the field of the conversation with the West, which for the past two years has been all but limited to the topic of Ukraine and the Minsk process.
At the same time, it is important to view Russia’s actions in a more global context. Moscow has claimed a right, which in the previous 25 years (since the war in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91) exclusively belonged to the US. The right to use force to restore international order is the function of a so-called “world policeman”. Russia has entered a sphere where issues of hierarchy are addressed. In a uni-polar world, wars fought “for the sake of peace”, or wars not aimed at achieving specific and clear goals of one’s own, were waged only by the United States with support of its allies. Moscow, having started the military operation in Syria, has changed the alignment of forces and prospects for resolving a major international conflict, with no real practical gains for itself. This is a prerogative of those at the top of the military and political league, who are capable of setting an agenda.
Another important factor is that the conflict in Syria is likely to end the era of a “humanitarian and ideological” approach to resolving local crises. Until recently, an important element of the discussion about sectarian conflicts consisted of such accusations as crimes against one’s own people and the ruthless suppression of protests. A leader who was accused of such behaviour was put in the category of rulers who had “lost their legitimacy”, which made any dialogue with them either unnecessary or unacceptable. That is what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Bashar al-Assad was next on the list. However, now it seems that the humanitarian component is once again giving way to a realistic approach. The black-and-white division into good and bad guys results in a deadlock, and bargaining will have to involve everyone.
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