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A Russian intervention in Syria?

When no good options remain, tough decisions have to be made writes Jan Techau. Hard ethical judgment calls, too. Is Syrian President Bashar-Al-Assad, a murderous dictator who has waged unbelievably brutal war on his own people to stay in power? Yes. Would anyone be better off if the so-called Islamic State were residing in Damascus instead of him? Certainly not. So is it possible that maybe, just maybe, Russia is doing the right thing by contemplating air strikes against the Islamic State to support Assad? Well, perhaps.

Russia has been actively supporting Assad since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in terms of both logistical and political support, most strikingly at the UN Security Council. The Assad family is an age-old ally of the former Soviet Union and now of Russia. Syria—or what remains of it under Assad’s control—is Russia’s only remaining strategic foothold in the Middle East, an asset Moscow wants to defend.Also, Russia fears the spillover of Islamic State–style combative Islamism onto its own soil, and so fighting the militant group is a domestic security consideration for Russia as well. It thus comes as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin is highly interested in Assad’s staying in power. In recent days and weeks, Russia has increased its support for the Assad regime and has reportedly shipped air control systems and other advanced operational equipment to an Assad stronghold on the Syrian coast.

The question is whether a Russian operation against the Islamic State is a good thing or not. Could it be that Russia is doing the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons?

The initial reactions from Western and Middle Eastern representatives to possible Russian air strikes are all negative. The Saudi foreign minister has warned of an escalation. But for Saudis, any support for Assad, one of Iran’s closest allies, is a bad thing, no matter where it comes from.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also cautioned against a Russian combat mission, fearing an escalation. But the American (and Western) position remains built around the demand that Assad must leave office. Only that this is not going to happen. Russia will not abandon its old ally, Syrian opposition forces are too weak to defeat him, and his voluntary departure from power is extremely unlikely.

And so it looks like the only force capable of ousting him is the Islamic State. The militants have moved dangerously close to Damascus in recent weeks, and no one knows how far they can still go. This begs the question: Which is worse, Assad or the Islamic State? Even the Syrian president’s staunchest enemies might have to concede it’s not him this time. This is where Russian interests in Syria overlap with those of the West.

Over the last few days, many other Western pundits and commentators have used the escalation argument against a Russian intervention. It is claimed that many more civilians would die if Russia started bombing the Islamic State’s camps and hideouts on Assad’s behalf. But that argument could be dismissed as highly cynical. Haven’t the recent escalations come mainly from the Islamic state. Wouldn’t blaming Russia for escalating the situation turn the militants into victims they are not?

Of course, it would be better if Russia defended not Assad but the democratic opposition in Syria. It would also be better if Russia, by intervening, were not in fact supporting Iran. But these arguments suggest that an ideal outcome is somehow still available. The truth is that the opposition has not played a decisive role in Syria for months and is far from getting anywhere near power. Not to mention that many opposition forces have no liberal, democratic, pro-Western intentions.

In reality, therefore, the options in Syria are all bad. In cases like that, preventing the worst is better than hoping for the best. Perhaps the negative side effects of a Russian intervention in Syria—namely, the stabilization of Assad in power and the increased role of Russia in the region—are acceptable when assessed against the potential takeover of the country’s capital and other large swaths of territory by the Islamic State.

If the West eyes Russia’s possible intervention with suspicion, that’s completely understandable. One of the traditional goals of Western and U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to limit the Soviet Union’s and now Russia’s influence in the region—for good reasons. But if Russia’s clout is growing in the Middle East, the West can only blame itself. The West’s unwillingness to play a responsible role in the region only invites others to play their own game. Leading from behind means that the driver’s seat is up for grabs.

There is a possibility, of course, that the West would silently welcome a Russian intervention. The West could stay clean while the Islamic State gets a thrashing. Indirect support for Assad would come from a country that has no qualms about it, thereby enabling the West to stick to its old he‑must‑go policy.

No matter how cynical the game being played by any of the parties involved, the situation in Syria is so bad, and the fight against the Islamic State has become such a priority, that in the absence of a Western willingness to intervene, a Russian intervention might be the last best option. It is one of the most heartrending realities of today’s Middle East that the right intervention for the wrong reason seems to have become the only ray of hope in that slaughterhouse called Syria.

Jan Techau is a Director of Carnegie Europe, the European centre of the Carnegie endowment for international peace. This article was first published by Strategic Europe.


  1. The usual bullshit as if the US hasn’t financed and armed al Qaeda in Syria. The war against terror is as the war on drugs, one gigantic fraud. I guess the writer of this knows this – if not he is plain stupid – but just uses twisted logic to come were any sensible man would have come years ago. Leave Syria alone and kill this vermin called Salafists and send them to their 72 or so virgins with their freakish Allah.
    Here Russia must clean up the ma

    Comment by Willy Van Damme on September 9, 2015 at 9:43 pm
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