There has been a new twist in the narrative of the Syrian civil war. In a dramatic move, the Russian air force bombed “terrorist” positions in Syria for the first time on September 30, 2015.
As Europe reeled under the massive surge of migrants from Syria, the imperative to resolve the crisis has turned out to be of utmost priority for America and Europe. But no progress could be made as Russia, which firmly backs Bashar Al Assad, was shunned by the West for two years for annexing Crimea.
President Obama and President Putin in their speeches at the 70th UN General Assembly laid out plans to resolve the Syrian crisis. Both men liberally criticised each other and reiterated their respective positions.
Obama was categorical that 'brutal' Bashar Assad has to quit and cannot be part of any peace process. However, Obama said he was ready to work with the allies of Assad “including Russia and Iran” to put an end to this situation. Washington did not seem to have any effective plan apart from demanding Assad's removal.
Putin argued that the removal of Assad would lead Syria to the situation persisting currently in lawless Iraq and Libya. Assad's ouster will lead to carnage of the Alawite Shia population in Syria. He pointed out that it would be “an enormous mistake to refuse to co-operate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face.”
After delivering their speeches on September 28, Obama and Putin sat down to discuss Syria. It was the first encounter of the two men after a hiatus of two years. Though the meeting was described as constructive, American and Russian positions were poles apart on the fate of Assad.
There was, however, one important point of convergence. Both Obama and Putin wanted to defeat and dismantle ISIS. Putin informed Obama that Russia would be willing to join the fight against “terrorism”.
Events moved quickly thereafter. On September 30, Syrian President Assad requested Russia to help Syria against ISIS. The Russian parliament immediately authorised President Putin to help Syria militarily. The same day Putin asked its air force to bomb ISIS positions near Homs in Syria.
Putin has gone about the legality of military intervention with great care. Russian bombing in Syria is at the request of a friendly Syrian government, as required under international law. The US-led coalition bombing in Syria is not backed by either any UN resolution or any request from the Syrian government. Putin has described them as unlawful and called upon the US to stop the bombing in the country.
As is required under diplomatic norms, Russia did not directly inform the US about the bombing. It was conveyed through the Russian Embassy to the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Putin's quick and determined action came to prop up the Assad regime, which is besieged by rebel groups and ISIS. During the past weeks, Russia strengthened its naval base in Tartus, from where the Russian jets flew combat missions. What is surprising is that even after knowing about the Russian buildup, the US did not have any policy on how to deal with it. The Russians had taken the Americans with their hands down.
Syria has been a strong Russian ally since the Soviet days. Russia cannot agree to Assad's ouster and lose its base in Syria. This strategic base gives the Russian naval force a toe-hold in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and Putin is determined to protect this base.
Putin's action is a clear message to the West that Russia is a world power to be reckoned with. He is ready to use his military power to back his diplomatic goals. He is also sending a message to the West to not meddle with Russia over Ukraine. Putin wants the Western sanctions withdrawn and to re-enter the powerful club of G8. The Paris summit of October 2, 2015 involving Putin, French President Francois Holland, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is a clear indicator in that direction.
Immediately after the Russian action, the White House rushed to “deconflict” their air operations inside Syria. Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook on September 30 said that the purpose of the “de-confliction discussions” was to ensure that the ongoing US-led coalition air strikes against ISIS are not interrupted by any future Russian military activity, and to avoid misjudgment and miscalculation. Moscow and Washington are currently talking to avoid conflicts in Syria.
Actually, there are too many players in this conflict. Russia's entry has complicated the already complex Syrian tangle. Washington has “condemned” Russia's action, while others have expressed “grave concern” at Russia's entry into the Syrian crisis. China and Iran have expressed hope that Russia's move will help Syria move towards a resolution of the crisis.
The Syrian Civil War has attracted two very powerful militaries in opposing situations to fight “terrorism”. Americans see only one “terrorist” - ISIS. Russia sees two “terrorists” – ISIS and anti-Assad rebels. The West has already accused Russia of bombing anti-Assad rebel positions. Russian bombers will certainly not distinguish between ISIS and the rebels, as both are threats to Assad. The days of ISIS in Syria, thus, might just be numbered.
Clearly, Obama's policy on Syria has failed. The coming weeks will tell whether the Russian combat missions will compel the West to cooperate and draw up a peace plan to end the humanitarian disaster in Syria. It would be interesting to see Assad's role in that peace process.