On Apr 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that further Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs as Washington prepares to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions. In a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart Hasan Rouhani, Putin and Rouhani agreed that the Western strikes had damaged the chances of achieving a political resolution in the seven years Syrian conflict. Two days earlier, the US, the UK and France jointly launched 105 missiles targeting suspected chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack on Douma on Apr 7. The Western countries blame Assad for the Douma attack that killed dozens of people. The Syrian government and its ally Russia have denied involvement in any such attack. The bombing marked the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and his ally Russia.
Will the strikes achieve any objectives in both the near and long-term?
Even though the Syrian government, like the Russians, has condemned the strike, they are virtually proceeding with business as usual. But, unfortunately, the political dialogue has suffered a significant setback. The problem is that OPCW inspectors were sent to investigate whether it was an actual chemical attack in the middle of talks. At the same time, the Americans, the British and the French decide to bomb only three facilities, which seems a very suspicious move because it does not achieve any objective. It doesn’t serve the purpose of the Syrian conflict in terms of going forward towards a political mediation and the reality on the ground remains the same.
It needs to be noted that Russia was definitely informed beforehand regarding the attacks as both the French and American presidents made statements. That gave them adequate time to prepare. One can argue that it has happened in the case of Iraq, Libya and some other places wherever there external interventions are imposed. Indeed, that doesn’t serve the rule of international law. Though some of those who initiated the attack claimed it was done in service to international law, this is not the case. If concrete evidence of a chemical attack has been met, then the whole might of the international community should work through the UN against it, but not through these kinds of interventions which serve little to no purpose.
It is also clear that the Russians are looking at other new opportunities. But for the time being it looks like that the situation is not going to spill over unless the Western countries decide to go in for further adventurism. It appears that at the level of great power politics, there is a certain amount of stability that both sides seem to have achieved and the great powers remain where they were before this conflict. Largely, if one looks at the ground reality, I don’t see much changing in the short to medium term because the larger reality of Syrian conflict remains where it is Assad firmly in place and the people who are suffering.
Truth be told does not affect great powers directly. What it impacts are largely the Syrian people who are suffering every day. But, if one looks at the major players here, they’re all ensconced in their respective positions.
If Russia were to have a stern word with Bashar al-Assad today, would he listen? It’s not clear. Of course, Russia has tremendous leverage, as the US does over the Israel. But, Assad can do much as he pleases because he has the Russians and indeed the Syrian people over a barrel. If he is to go and if Russia has gotten rid of Assad and his family, it is very possible that the state of Syria would collapse. Because who would take power if one Alawite general tried to take power it’s not clear that he could hold it. Other generals would vie for power and there would be coup after coup just as Syria suffered before the Assad family consolidated its position once again. This is the problem with the Syrian opposition – it is very much divided. There are over a thousand different groups, they don’t agree on anything. It’s very unlikely that the men under Assad would agree on anything once he’s gone. So, the Russians have to treat him with kid gloves because if they just got rid of him or kidnapped him, the whole Syrian state could collapse and Syria then would fell into chaos, which would be terrible for Russia. So, that’s the dilemma. It is also the dilemma for Syrian people who don’t want chaos. They don’t want the kind of militia warfare they see in Libya or Afghanistan. But, at the same time of course they want change and nobody knows how to bring it about in a peaceful way.
Where is Syria headed now? It has been clear since the time of emperor Trajan from the days of the Roman Empire that one can’t use foreign imperial military power in the Middle East and expect things go in one’s way. One can dominate local situations for a few years, maybe a few decades, but, in the end, the foreign powers leave. And, this is what the world will start to see in Syria. In Syria, the world is witnessing the same problems that it saw a hundred years ago and sees today. A hundred years ago it was European powers, now it is Russia, Iran and Turkey working to shape the future of Syria. The truth is that they are trying to mould the country with their own hands, even writing constitutions for the Syrians. So, the struggle to define Syria, to own Syria, to control Syria is going on as it did a hundred years ago. And, it’s going to continue to go on until one day somehow the Syrian people can gain the ability to can define themselves. But that can only happen after a transition period where the foreign powers bring an end to this era of conflict.