U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s call on Saturday for renewed diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict is wishful thinking, amid several indications that if anything, the war is likely to intensify.
The call shows that Russian President Vladimir Putin has outmanoeuvred Washington with his recent ramping up of military aid to the beleaguered Syrian regime, including heavy weaponry, training and advisers. Russian troops are reportedly even engaged in combat in Syria.
Though Washington had been warning against such a build-up, Putin knew it would not reciprocate with an increase in U.S. military aid to Syrian rebels. Opposition groups’ foreign backers have never been as materially supportive as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies have been of his regime. Knowledge of this, and the unlikelihood of that changing, must have informed the Russian military build-up.
Moscow’s build-up in Syria will embolden the regime to continue being as intransigent as it has been throughout the conflict.Sharif Nashashibi
Putin’s gamble – if one can call it that – has paid off, with Washington softening its tone and even attempting a face-saving U-turn. Laughably, Kerry now says the build-up presents an opportunity to progress diplomatically and to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as if the Assad regime will not use these new Russian weapons to continue slaughtering Syrian civilians.
As Amnesty International pointed out last month: “Time and again, the Syrian government’s Russian-made fighter jets have targeted busy public spaces, including markets or near mosques after prayers, seemingly hell-bent on causing the maximum possible civilian death toll and destruction of the places they frequent.”
Subsequent high-level military talks between Washington and Moscow will not contribute to a diplomatic breakthrough – their aim is likely limited to staying out of each others’ way as they continue their respective operations.
The West may not respond to the Russian build-up, but regional parties such as the Gulf states and Turkey may increase financial and military support to Syrian rebel groups. Such aid contributed to a series of battlefield successes this year, and they will not want to see those gains reversed. However, it will not include the kind of military backing – troops and heavy weaponry such as tanks and warplanes – that Assad is accustomed to.
The Russian build-up will also likely swell the ranks of jihadist groups in Syria. Just as they have played on anti-Western and anti-Shiite sentiment to encourage recruitment, they can now also use the presence – or even just the prospect – of Russian boots on the ground to stir up bitter memories of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The Soviet withdrawal was brought about by jihadist fighters who would later form Al-Qaeda. And Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, is one of the most formidable military opponents of the Assad regime and its allies, as well as ISIS and Western-backed rebel groups.
Moscow’s build-up in Syria will embolden the regime to continue being as intransigent as it has been throughout the conflict. Assad was way off the mark in arrogantly predicting in April that “this year, the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended.”
However, his confidence will have since been renewed not just by Moscow’s muscle-flexing, but by the recent Iran nuclear deal, which entails the lifting of sanctions that will enable an increase in Tehran’s support for Assad. Both have since reiterated the unwavering strength of their alliance.
The U.S.-led coalition war against ISIS has not only failed to significantly weaken the jihadist group after more than a year, but has also played into Assad’s hands by allowing him to focus more forcefully on fighting rebels that are opposed to both him and ISIS. Even U.S. officials have acknowledged the benefit to him.
Assad and his allies are portraying his regime as indispensible in the fight against ISIS (ignoring, of course, their pivotal role in the latter’s creation and expansion). Those duplicitous efforts have been somewhat successful in the West, where a growing number of officials and members of the public have begun to view the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils.
Countering this flawed view, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote last month that “the greatest threat to Syrian civilians” comes not from ISIS, but from the Assad regime’s barrel bombs. ISIS “has distracted us from this deadly reality,” Roth added. “Too few people understand the extraordinary slaughter that the Syrian military is committing with its barrel bombs.”
The regime has consistently insisted that Assad’s future is not up for negotiation, and has refused to discuss any meaningful transition of power. The above factors mean that Assad, who in July admitted that manpower shortages meant his army could no longer control the whole country, may be willing to bide his time in light of increasing assistance from foreign allies and his opponents’ divisions.
This will mean continued regime intransigence in any future diplomatic efforts, not that there is anything noteworthy on the horizon. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy on Syria since July 2014, has made no headway since his appointment, and nor did his predecessors. And Moscow’s increasing military support for Assad will hurt its attempts – however superficial and hypocritical – to play mediator.
The result of all this will be the prolongation and escalation of the conflict on the ground, while diplomacy will remain the hollow buzzword in press conferences, official statements and media interviews. Expect more corpses on Syrian streets and European shores.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash