Russia has formally joined the civil war in Syria, adding a meager air force of roughly 50 mostly ground attack plans, to the skies already crowded with U.S., British, French, and occasionally Israeli fighter jets.
The war in Syria began just a little after the uprising in Libya began, in early 2011, and I watched as a friend intimately connected with the exiled Libyan leadership offered whatever technical assistance they could to the people organizing the anti-Assad protests in Syria.
They were heady days, these early months of 2011, when it seemed like “the people, united, can never be defeated!” In late March, 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhdhafiy threatened to obliterate the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and just as his armed forces were closing on the city, NATO launched a sustained air campaign to enforce a UN-imposed no-fly zone. It took months or hard fighting, but eventually Qadhdhaify’s government was toppled, and the deposed strongman was later found hiding in a drain pipe, and was beaten to death by a mob.
It seemed for all the world at the time that the Ba’ath Party government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would eventually succumb to rebel pressure. As he slowly cracked down on protests, and then opposition, the army began to fracture, with Sunni Syrians defecting to the increasingly well-armed and reasonably well-organized resistance.
However, Assad took things more slowly, and by the time he’d begun doing what Qadhdhafiy had only threatened to do, the West had the example of the Libyan intervention — Qadhdhafiy had not been replaced by much a democratic transition, but rather by a country fractured and dominated by militias and jihadis, a country whose instability bled over and fed Islamist militants across northern Africa (including Boko Haram). Libya stood as a cautionary tale of what happens when you intervene, even with the best of intentions.
The West never gave up the desire to see Assad ousted. I suspect there are several reasons for this. The first was simple inertia. Western leaders, including President Obama, committed themselves early to Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, thinking it was inevitable. (France even recognized an exile government, as I recall.) There’s no way to step back from that and save face. Politics today doesn’t give anyone room to say, “We were wrong, and now we have changed our minds, our position, and our policy.”
The second reason is Assad simply has all the wrong friends — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah. Western policy, particularly American policy, has tried to square a strange circle. Yes, the United States has been at war with non-state Sunni jihadism (in the form of Al Qaeda, its franchisees, and affiliates) since September 11, 2001, but the United States has also identified particular states as problems (in part because the Bush administration did not, and possibly could not, understand non-state terrorism), and in any case, has also wanted to keep to Iran and Hezbollah (and increasingly Russia) on its enemies list. This means we don’t entirely know what to do or who to support in Syria, aside from some alleged Sunni moderates who, outside of Syria’s southwest frontiers with Israel and Jordan, control little and are even less effective as fighters.
I suspect one reason for supporting Sunnis is the appreciation that handing Iraq over to majority Shia rule — and thus Iranian influence — was not all that smart. Whatever his flaws, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a comforting buffer between the Iranians and the Arabian Peninsula. To balance the books, so to speak, it would best to hand Syria over to its Sunni majority, reducing Iran’s influence, boxing in Hezbollah, and calming the fears of nervous Gulf allies.
But here we are, it’s 2015, the Syrian civil war has been dragging on for four years now. Western policy remains incoherent in the face of the facts on the ground. Especially the rise of داعش Daesh, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.
Whatever the sins of Bashar al-Assad and his regime — and they are legion — and his lousy pack of allies, the West has lost its focus: Al-Qaeda (and its affiliates and franchisees) and Daesh. Sunni jihadism, which attacked us, and not just on 9/11. That loss of focus is preventing Western leaders from thinking clearly. Or even seeing clearly.
There are no moderate, Sunni, anti-Assad forces fighting in Syria. There may be moderate Sunnis in Washington, writing op-eds and lobbying congresscritturs for money and weapons, but the ground in Syria is largely dominated by pro-government forces (army and militia) and anti-government forces (AQ and Daesh). At one time I believed dealing with Daesh was a Sunni problem that needed a Sunni solution. Given, however, the arrangement of the governments in Damascus (sic) and Baghdad (sic), Sunnis are unlikely to find a place to organize that isn’t subsidiary to non-Sunni power. In fact, AQ and Daesh may be how Sunni aspirations articulate themselves at this point (in the same way the Taliban is how Pashtu “nationalism” expresses itself), which means that allying with Sunnis in Syria by necessity means making nice with some flavor or jihadist — people who have attacked the West before and likely would again if they could.
So, we can’t pretend to liberate the Sunnis until we defeat them first. Or they are defeated first. And we did that — in Iraq. Which is how we got here.
The United States has no business looking to Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria — remember Al Qaeda, the people who attacked us on 9/11? — as potential allies simply because Bashar al-Assad and his government offends our tender sensibilities. This is just foolish. The West had no problem making common cause with Stalin — after June 22, 1941 — in fighting Nazism despite the horrific record of Stalin’s regime. There are two sides in Syria — worse and worser. No amount of wishful thinking or lobbying or seed money or training is going to create a third force worth a damn, and certainly not one morally pure enough to fly the banner of anything resembling Western liberalism. We need to appreciate that. Whatever our regrets about what we didn’t do in 2012 (Libya, remember?), it is too late to go back and do something differently. If the government Assad heads is fighting a very dirty and brutal war, well, such allies have never given Washington and NATO heartburn before.
Yes, the vast majority of Syrians fleeing the war are fleeing because of the government, and not Daesh. The West can preach all it wants about the desirability of Assad’s removal, but unless the West is actually willing to field a real army, invade Syria, topple that government, and then occupy and pacify the whole of the country (maybe half a million soldiers, and remember, Daesh began life in Iraq as an insurgency; they know how to wage that kind of war), then the West needs to hold its nose and and deal with Assad. We also need to accept that the Russian government for reasons of its own (large numbers of Chechens are fighting with Al Qaeda and Daesh in Syria), has national security interests at work.
Besides, Americans are in no position to complain about the brutality of allies, or Russian warplanes at work in Syria, when Israel lays waste to Gaza at will and the Saudis have been busy doing the same to Yemen.
The war in Syria is unlikely to end soon. No one possesses the strength to defeat the other side, though Daesh has fought brilliantly and will likely continue to horrify and surprise. Russia intervened to save the Syrian government’s flagging military effort (against all comers), and might buy Assad some space and time to claw back some territory and improve its forces. But Russia doesn’t have the ability or willingness to intervene decisively either. Neither, for that matter, does the West.
It will, however, end eventually. And quite possibly decisively. The Lebanese Civil War went on for 15 years before a settlement was more or less imposed in the shadow of the military build-up in the Saudi desert ahead of the 1991 Kuwait War (as a price, oddly enough, for Syria’s cooperation against Iraq). A less happy example would be the long civil war in Sri Lanka, which raged for 26 years on that island (provoking an ill-fated intervention by India), until government forces decisively and thoroughly defeated the Tamil separatists in 2009. It was a brutal ending. But it was also final.