Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?
In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.
It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.
So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.
But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.
Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.
Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.
Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.
These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.
IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.
As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.
What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.
Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.
UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.
Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.
When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.
Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.
So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?
Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.
Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.
Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.
They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.
In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.
It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.
If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.
The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.
Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.
Of course all this is easier said than done.
It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.
It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.
The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.