When the civil war in Syria broke out in 2011, no one at the time, at least in the Middle East, thought it was going to last this long for many reasons. For one, the Syrian regime is known to be a ruthless and extremely violent regime. Given this, it could be assumed that the regime had no public support to hold on to power amid all the turmoil that took place following the regime fall in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen and the public uprisings that led to these results.
However, it turned out that the regime of Bashar Al Assad was even more ruthless towards its own people than the international community ever thought possible and had more tricks up its sleeves than all of its opponents could ever imagine. Assad freed close to 11,000 political prisoners (mainly Islamic hardliners) to infiltrate the peaceful demonstrators in the southern cities, called on Hizbollah’s fighters to join his special forces, opened the door to Iranian revolutionary guards to attack his opponents and left stock piles of old weapons in the abandoned cities so that the public uprisings could turn into a full-fledged civil war. Later on when ISIL surfaced, his regime made it extremely easy for these new forces to cross the Syrian borders in order to gain international sympathy and support against the terrorist group.
Almost five years later, after more than 220,000 civilian deaths and close to 10 million displaced people, the war lingers on with no solution in sight. There isn’t even a glimmer of hope that the current Syrian regime will ever collapse and many opposition leaders as well as real freedom fighters (what is left of them) have given up the struggle.
The US lost a golden opportunity in 2012 to topple the regime or at least make Assad accept a peaceful solution to the conflict and withdraw from politics. The last minute withdrawal from a potential airstrike on strategic targets by President Obama gave the regime ample time to reorganize and hit its opponents real hard while continuing on to use chemical weapons. The absence of any international support to the opposition, whose fragmentation and religious tendencies did not help, only helped fuel despair and loss of hope among the population who had no choice but to either flee the country or join one of the different religious extremist groups to avenge their lost ones against Al Assad’s regime.
Hence ISIL’s success in the region stems (in big part) from this sense of betrayal and disappointment that many Sunnis in the region feel (in Syria and Iraq) in their fight against the Shiites regional dominance for the last 15 years with the support of Iran. ISIL pretends to have the solutions for Sunni problems, which is simply not true. Years of oppression by the different regimes in Iraq and Syria and many other Middle Eastern countries contributed directly and indirectly to the sudden raise of ISIL to counter the influence of Iran in the area.
With all this in mind, we now have to analyze and try to make sense of the Russian intervention in Syria against ISIL (DAESH). To make sense of the Russian intervention, three questions seem salient:
Did the Russians really think through this decision carefully? Do they have an exit strategy as a war like this can go on forever? Is Bashar Al Assad’s regime supposed to stay if they ever got rid of ISIL in Syria?
I am not sure that Russia really has the answer to all of these questions and I have a tendency to think that they have too quickly forgotten their misadventure in Afghanistan.
From one point of view, getting rid of ISIL is not an easy task and yet, this evil force has to be eradicated from the area as well as the forces tied to Al Qaeda and Jabhat Al Nusra. These extremist groups are not the solution to Syrians’ problems especially those of the Sunnis. Yet they are their only hope now when they see Al Assad’s regime still in place and waiting to massacre them at every chance Assad gets, sometimes using chemical and biological weapons. Hence the fall of ISIL and its allies now will open the gates of hell on all Sunnis in the country with no mercy from the Alawites (Bashar’s religious group).
From another point of view, toppling Al Assad’s regime now will leave a power vacuum that can only be filled with these religious extremist groups who will kill each other and what is left of the population to get to power and there isn’t a single international force that could prevent that from happening. Right now, there must be at least half a dozen armed groups who hate Al Assad but will hate each other even more when he is out and the power in Damascus is up for the taking.
Yet, Russia remains today the only hope of a possible solution for Syria as the US lost many chances to make a difference there and it is just too late now to get involved as it lost all of the opposition’s trust since 2012. Obama’s hesitation and lack of a clear strategy led to the current chaos and gave Russia a unique opportunity to play an important role in the region despite its lack of support from the regional forces.
The question is: how will Russia manage to get rid of ISIL and Al Assad at once and keep the country in peace all alone? It is a tough balancing act.
Image Credit: Telegraph UK