Moscow has only a bombing strategy
Russia’s putative war on the Islamic State (ISIS) was revealed as a charade as soon as the first bombs were dropped. At least 80% of the air strikes have targeted anti-regime targets other than ISIS, by some estimates, paving the way for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces to retake territory.
The Russian line about fighting “terrorists” is disconcertingly reminiscent of former president George W. Bush’s “war on terror”, a term so vague as to be applied to any enemy of convenience. In this case, all opposition to the Assad regime, including mainstream groups which are fighting ISIS, qualify simply by being Sunni Muslims.
For the Gulf Arab states, Russia’s military offensive and diplomatic overtures reflect a strengthened alliance involving not just Syria but Iran as well. In recent days, Saudi commentators have repeated warnings about a “Farsi crescent” encompassing Yemen, Iran, Iraq and Syria. For many of the Gulf monarchies, Russia’s muscle has been thrown behind a potentially existential threat to regional stability.
Under those circumstances, the recent meetings among Saudi Arabian, US and Russian envoys fit the same 4-year-old pattern of talking for talking’s sake, with little prospect of a multilateral accord on Syria’s plight. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated that no diplomatic solution is possible as long as Assad remains in power.
As Russia boasts of more than 280 air strikes within three days, the Saudi refusal of diplomatic overtures is in part strategic and also stems from an unwillingness to compromise while the Russian-backed regime is temporarily at an advantage. For most of the Gulf, a peace settlement in Syria while Iran and its allies are in the ascendant is simply untenable.
The demand that Assad depart office is not simply a procedural point. There is a deep personal animosity between the Saudi monarchy and the embattled Syrian president. That rift was on full display in 2008 as Damascus and Riyadh sparred over influence in Beirut, and Assad’s derogatory comments about other Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia’s now-deceased King Abdullah, were uncharacteristically made public. Well before the revolution, Assad had marginalised himself from the ranks of other Arab autocrats.
The irony is that there is a real shared interest in opposing ISIS. Syria and, to an extent, Iraq are broken states that cannot control their own territory; Russia, like many European countries, faces a domestic threat from a radical fringe and ISIS’s rabid anti-Shia ideology threatens Iran’s allies across the region.
Yet arguably the Gulf Arab states face the most dangerous threat as ISIS tries to challenge the governing legitimacy of the monarchs. The recent suicide bombing at a mosque in south-east Saudi Arabia, claimed by ISIS, is only the latest punctuation mark. States across the MENA region, including Tunisia, must contend with a radicalised fringe drawn to a spurious caliphate.
Russia’s heavy-handed entry into the fray has, for the time being, ruined chances of effective coordination. Along with the air strikes targeting Syria’s opposition forces — many of which the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported with funds and materiel — Moscow has conducted a misinformation campaign that continues to insist this is a war against ISIS.
Credibility is sorely lacking. The proposal, endorsed by Assad, of fresh elections is a farce in a country divided by battle fronts rather than voting districts. Improbably, Russia has blamed the United States for its inability to support Free Syrian Army groups, even as it bombs them.
The timidity of US Middle East policy opened a door for Russia to overreach in Syria. The Gulf states may see Moscow as a new foe in the regional contest for power with Iran, yet caution is warranted. Neither Russia nor Assad’s Syria has a strategy for winning, only a strategy for bombing, with all of the consequent civilian deaths that entails.