Syria’s bloody story

Sunday 23/10/2016

The story of Russia’s engagement in Syria is being written in blood. Lots of blood. Even the most conservative estimate of civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing raids since Moscow entered the Syrian conflict more than a year ago stands at 3,600. The Britain-based non-profit organisation Airwars, which monitors the international war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, offered this figure in mid-October, describ­ing it as an “absolute minimum”.

That grim reckoning says something fundamental about Russia’s incursion in Syria. Though every death diminishes us — the human race more generally and Syria, where this tragedy is playing out, in particular — the deaths caused by Russia’s bombing campaign add to those caused by the US-led coalition air strikes. Over 26 months of bombing, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths. It acknowl­edged 19 of these; the rest were perforce placed in its column by monitoring groups.

Moscow has not admitted that it caused any civilian deaths. It continues to insist that it is only attacking “terror­ists” even though it appears to have targeted non-combatant Syrians in their homes, hospitals and markets.

The Syrian regime and militias affiliated with it continue to be responsible for a great number of civilian deaths since the start of the war in 2011. In eastern Aleppo, a rebel-held area, the regime is said to be pursuing a scorched-earth policy with the assistance of its Russian ally.

The tactics are dispiritingly reminiscent of those employed by Russia in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999. Then, Vladimir Putin was Russia’s prime minister. Seventeen years on, he is pursuing a strategy of bloody intervention in Syria. Despite the bloodshed, there is little outcry around the world.

The Syrian incursion, as well as Moscow’s new muscular approach to the Middle East, is earning Putin the moniker of “the Middle East’s new sheriff”. It is clear that Putin’s Russia is taking advantage of political uncertainty in Wash­ington. The US presidential election campaign has about two weeks to go. With three months left in office, Barack Obama is a lame-duck president.

On Syria, the international community appears to be in a bind, with no realistic plan by Western powers to come up with new ideas towards a settlement. Their impotence is encouraging the Russians to proceed with their relentless campaign and prepare themselves for the long haul. Earlier this month, Russia completed an integrated air defence system in Syria, making it even less likely that the United States will strike Syrian government installations from the air.

Whoever is the next US president — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — he or she will find it harder to create safe zones in Syria, something that has been suggested by both candidates on the campaign trail.

For now, Syria’s story seems destined to be told only in blood.