by Jeremy Havardi Author and journalist
For years, western policy on Syria has been hesitant, half hearted and ineffective. It has failed to deter aggression and tyranny while contributing to the current refugee crisis. Now the Russians are taking full advantage with their latest military intervention. Already their air force has carried out a series of strikes against the Syrian opposition, with more to follow.
Putin is determined to consolidate the rule of Bashar Assad and, if the horrors of the Chechen campaign are anything to go by, the bloodshed in Syria will only intensify.
This action is not a sign that Moscow is ‘on our side’ in the quest for regional stability. Instead it indicates that Russia is a brutal and unapologetic power player, seizing on the West’s own lack of resolve to further its interests.
The story of Western inaction over Syria is truly appalling. From 2011, President Obama condemned the atrocities perpetrated by Assad and, more recently, the genocidal jihadism of ISIL. He called for Assad to ‘step aside’ and even issued a red line on using chemical weapons. Yet no meaningful intervention was forthcoming.
The sensible idea of creating safe havens was discussed, and then promptly dismissed. Attacks with chemical weapons breached Obama’s red lines but he ruled out using force, allowing Russia to seize the initiative.
The resulting deal for “disarming” Assad was deeply flawed. According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, there is credible evidence that such lethal munitions have continued to be used. Meanwhile, by failing to back moderates at an early stage, the Syrian opposition only became more radicalised.
Yet the effort has been as half hearted in relation to battling ISIL. In 2014, the President promised to train 5,000 US backed fighters who would target the jihadis, with Congress approving a $500 million budget.
A little later, according to Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, the number of available fighters was a mere 60, and it has since dwindled further.
Meanwhile, the limited air strikes against ISIL are merely containing the march of the jihadis, rather than overturning their gains.
Little wonder then that Frederic Hof, a former special advisor for transition in Syria, has described US policy towards that country as a “pantomime of outrage”.
The UK is hardly immune from criticism on this score. In what must count as one of its more inglorious moments, Parliament, spurred on by Labour, voted not to intervene in the Syrian conflict in August 2013.
Afterwards, Ed Miliband offered a vacuous statement, decrying “a rush to war” and demanding that the UK work “”with the international community”.
This might have satisfied the tormented consciences of his MPs, many undoubtedly suffering from post Iraq war guilt. However, it did little to help beleaguered Syrians fleeing their shattered country. Even today, some on the left (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn) demand humanitarian responses to the refugee crisis, while rejecting military intervention as imperialist.
The West has indirectly helped Assad in other ways. Under the terms of the nuclear deal with Tehran, billions of dollars of Iranian assets will soon be released.
It is highly likely that some of this money will be used to prop up Assad’s regime and further entrench Iran’s support for Damascus. In other words, the West will be funding the very conditions that make further refugee outflows from Syria inevitable.
Some might argue that realpolitik demands western support for Russia right now. After all, if ISIL poses a greater threat to the West than Assad, why not fall behind Moscow’s use of military muscle? But in some ways this is a false argument.
First, the Russian air force is hitting targets other than ISIL with American backed Syrian rebels recently claiming they were targeted by strikes. Second, if Putin aims to destroy the opposition to Assad, it will take months or even years of prolonged warfare, the results of which could wreak further devastation on the country.
Arguably, this could entrench support for the jihadists among the ordinary Syrian population. But western nations can hardly protest when their own intervention has been so weak, hesitant and ill conceived. The Middle East abhors a vacuum and, over Syria, the Russians are taking full advantage.