Putin rescues Assad for now but may escalate war
BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin has rescued President Bashar Assad, at least for now, from a last-ditch battle the Syrian dictator was unlikely to win but the Russian intervention, which Arab sources in Beirut say Moscow began planning as long ago as June, may escalate the Syrian war and bring about a showdown with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Putin’s deployment of a combat air wing to Assad’s main stronghold in the Latakia region of north-western Syria, along with advanced air-defence missiles and elite troops with tanks, will no doubt ensure that Assad’s minority Alawite regime will not fall.
It had looked to be on its last legs after a series of major battlefield defeats to rebel forces, despite the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and about 12,000- 15,000 Shia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The bold and apparently unexpected Russian move, which Moscow declared was intended to tackle ISIS head-on, incensed the administration of US President Barack Obama, who has long sought to get rid of Assad but whose reluctance to get involved in another Middle Eastern war left the door open to Russian intervention.
Putin and Obama met for 90 minutes on September 28th on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York but they settled nothing — although they grudgingly conceded that they may have no choice but to work together to end a war that’s well into its fifth year of massacres and massive humanitarian upheaval in which the United Nations says more than 240,000 people have died. The most divisive issue remains the ceaseless slaughter in Syria, largely by ISIS and the regime, the Islamic State’s growing power and the mushrooming humanitarian catastrophe.
At the centre of the crisis is the power struggle between Moscow and Washington over what happens to Assad and whether he is the cause of the problem or part of a solution. It is this point that determines whether the crisis intensifies or diminishes in the weeks ahead.
Obama declared the United States was willing to work with Moscow and Tehran to end the killing in Syria but that, “after so much carnage”, there cannot be “a return to the pre-war status quo”, meaning no Assad in power.
Putin lashed out against the United States. He declared the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the fatal decision to disband its army of some 200,000 men who became the genesis of al-Qaeda in Iraq and subsequently ISIS, followed by the Western-backed toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in October 2011, were the root causes of the ISIS phenomenon.
But Putin has taken a calculated gamble with his military intervention in Syria. For one thing, he is seeking to divert the world’s attention from Russia’s controversial 2014 takeover of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as well as draw his own people’s attention from a shrinking economy worsened by international sanctions over Crimea.
He also wants to exploit the West’s failure to restore order in a Middle East that has undergone dramatic changes since late 2010 or to even fully comprehend the consequences of those changes.
Putin wants to crush ISIS because he faces the prospect that the jihadist caliphate that covers half of Syria and one-third of Iraq is reigniting the Chechen wars of the 1990s on Russia’s southern periphery — not a problem the United States faces.
US and NATO officials say the Russian intervention, which primarily involves basing combat jets and attack helicopters at Latakia to support Syrian regime operations, is clearly intended as a long-term deployment to restore Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean that ended with the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The Russian Navy has a depot base at Tartus, south of Latakia, Russia’s only military facility outside the Russian Federation. But Moscow has also stepped up its supply of arms and ammunition for Assad’s forces, boosting their firepower at a critical time. The Americans predicted the Russians would soon launch air strikes against the rebels.
This military lifeline will go a long way to countering the regime’s chronic lack of manpower — largely due to combat losses, desertions and widespread draft-dodging — against rebel forces that have no shortage of jihadist volunteers, most of them from outside Syria.
So one consequence will be that whatever chance there may have been for toppling Assad has evaporated, increasing the prospect that Syria will be partitioned, with Assad holding Damascus, the Alawite region and the all-important M5 highway linking them.
Russia’s taking a big risk,” warned Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics. “Syria is a quagmire in which everyone’s drowning. Everyone’s losing and Syria could prove to be a graveyard for Russia’s influence in the Middle East.”