What Russia’s Involvement in Syria Means

This is one of my articles that were originally published in IDC Newsletter. Get the full IDC Newsletter for free here!


Eliminating ISIS won’t be an easy job to do. ISIS as an organization is not only having a lot of supporters who are ready to fund and volunteer to be a part of this organization’s manpower, but also more or less self-sufficient since their territory involves oil wells that can be their source of income. ISIS is an organized, highly effective organization that even able to establish a kind of ‘state’ on their own. ISIS as it is, has been a really tough opponent to eliminate that this organization might be the most dangerous terrorist organization as we know it. And unfortunately, the situation in Syria is far from supporting this combined effort to wipe ISIS off. The situation has been a complicated mess, almost all of the actors involved here  that ISIS is a threat that has to be eliminated but they haven’t reached the consensus on how to do so. This resulted in fundamental differences that made it hard for all countries involved to unite and work together in one joint effort to eliminate ISIS.

One of the reason why it’s hard to unite them is because the different stance each country has about Bashar Al-Assad, the current president of Syria. USA and its alliances don’t want to give military support to him and want him to go away from government seat due to his history of cruel regime, he was involved in a crime against international law for using chemical weapon against its own citizen. Other countries that are involved in Moslem Brotherhood like Turkey, Saudi, or Qatar want Assad gone for the ideological difference they have. Turkey however, greatly disagree with US military strategy of backing Kurdish militia due to its history of separatism movement against Turkey. Other countries like Russia and Iran however, supports Assad’s regime because of the same ideology and political reasons they have. The former had not been involved in this war against ISIS, until a few days ago when it finally started an air bombing campaign in Syria.

A simple logic would see that we will see an advancement in our effort to eliminate ISIS now that another big player has come into play. However, now that Russia is involved, the situation is going to yet another level of complication.

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The most problematic thing with Russia’s military intervention is that how until now Russia has mostly involved attacking territory that is not owned by ISIS but those who oppose ISIS instead. What Russia is attacking is instead rebels who fight ISIS but also oppose Assad regime in Syria. This involves Al Nusra that has Al Qaeda as its affiliates (which is regarded as international terrorists), Army of Conquest (the biggest existential threat to Assad), hard-line islamist Ahrar al-Sham, moderate islamists, and Free Syrian Army (although Russia denies that they targeted FSA). The timing could not be more crucial for Assad, government forces has been losing grounds not only to ISIS but also Army of Conquest and other rebel groups, without Russia’s convenient assistance, it might be only a matter of time that government lost its capital to rebels. In the end, it’s hard to argue that Russia’s military intervention in Syria is more about eliminating ISIS than supporting Assad.

The direct effect of such action by Russia would be a decreased force to combat ISIS. While USA and its alliances would not argue against Russia attacking what regarded as terrorist group like Al-Nusra, they have raised their concern on how Russia is also attacking moderate islamist group that shouldn’t be seen as terrorist and is also an helpful actor to fight ISIS. Assuming Russia is successful in curbing the movement of these rebels, then it will also effectively decrease the cumulative force that fight ISIS. Another scenario that could happen is a birth of yet another conflict in Syria between rebels and Russia, which will only distract them from their mission to eliminate ISIS and wasting their resource to fight someone who has the similar goal with themselves. This is of course far from an ideal scenario US thought about since their strategy at the moment mainly involves arming and training the rebels to hold on and regain grounds while US provided airpower support. If you think our most important objective in Syria is to eliminate ISIS as soon as possible, then it’s hard to imagine how Russia’s involvement could help to achieve that.

Of course, conflict in Syria is not merely about how to eliminate a super strong terrorist group but also about shaping the future of Syria. What next after ISIS is successfully eliminated? USA and its alliances believe the continuation of Assad regime is not the answer. Assad is a cruel authority with a history of killing its own civilian with chemical weapon and the cause of conflict escalation in Syrian civil war, there’s no way USA, EU, and their allies justify a proposal to work beside him in this war. That’s why they believe a future for Syria has to include a political transition from Assad to another power. Russia however, doesn’t think so. They believe that it’s okay for Assad to remain in power and Assad is the most worthy to lead Syria since he is the ‘legit’ government chosen in an election anyway, and would benefit Russia the most if he stays in power. This situation, I believe, almost wipe out the possibility for the most desirable outcome after ISIS has been eliminated, which is a peaceful establishment of government by a negotiation among rebels and current government of Syria. Both of them now have power that has been supported by two of the most powerful military forces in the world and could afford to go into an all out war if they have to. Escalation of conflict seems highly likely if status quo stays as it is.

When will the suffering end? pic : The Atlantic

A big change will indeed happen in Syria. Affected actors like US and EU have voiced their concern about Russia’s military intervention and have reached Russia for a talk. While expecting an immediate reconciliation between them is kind of overly optimistic, a possibility of them finally reaching a kind of agreement will be really great for Syria. A change of strategy could be possible also for the actors here. Turkey, whose supported group is attacked by Russia military would react to this somehow. A push for a more military involvement for US could also force Obama to react. It’s up to the debate also if Russia’s involvement could help Assad regain its power or just give him more time. Things will change, but it’s hard to know if it’s for better or worse.

There’s a lot we don’t know about this conflict and we can only let the future decide. This conflict has taken many victims, displaced millions of people, destroyed many invaluable cultural heritages, and cause incalculable suffering for many. However, it’s highly unlikely to see that we will see the end of this conflict in the near future.

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