Feb 20th 2016
IN A war as ugly as the one in Syria, several bleak lessons stand out: the longer it goes on, the bloodier it gets, the more countries are sucked into the vortex and the more unpalatable become the options to stop, or at least contain, the fighting. But perhaps the biggest lesson is how America’s absence creates a vacuum that is filled by dangerous forces: jihadists, Shia militias and now an emboldened Russia.
Syria is a nasty complex of wars within a war: an uprising against dictatorship; a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Alawites (and their Shia allies); an internecine struggle among Sunni Arabs; a Kurdish quest for a homeland; a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Iran; and a geopolitical contest between a timid America and a resurgent Russia.
Into this blood-soaked mess, Vladimir Putin has thrust himself on the side of Bashar al-Assad and the Shia axis. His air power has transformed the battlefield. Pro-Assad forces have cut off a vital corridor that resupplied rebel-held parts of Aleppo from Turkey. Mr Assad is on the point of encircling what was once Syria’s biggest city. Refugees are again pressing on Turkey’s borders, but many will stay put. In the diplomatic dance over ceasefires, humanitarian relief and a political settlement, Russia is now setting the terms, much as America did after intervening in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Barack Obama’s policy in Syria—to wish that Mr Assad would go, without willing the means to get him out—has been wretched. Mr Assad, it seems, will outlast Mr Obama. But the war will not end. Indeed, it has taken a turn for the worse.
Turkey is being sucked deeper into the maelstrom. It has started systematically shelling Syrian Kurds. It bundles them together with the Turkish Kurds, who have rashly resumed their decades-old insurgency inside Turkey. Yet the Kurds have been America’s best allies against the “caliphate” of Islamic State (IS). Recently they have tilted towards Russia and Mr Assad, helping sever the corridor to Aleppo in an attempt to merge the two Kurdish enclaves along the border with Turkey.
In support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia has deployed military aircraft. It has announced war games at home involving Sunni partners such as Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan. The Saudis have offered to send special forces into Syria with American ones, ostensibly to fight IS. Diplomats talk of a return to “Charlie Wilson’s War”, the operation by America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to give Stinger missiles to Afghan groups fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s. Would Saudi Arabia now give Sunni groups anti-aircraft weapons to neutralise Russian air power?
Most alarming is the risk of war between Turkey and Russia. In November Turkey shot down a Russian jet; Russia wants revenge and an opportunity to split the irascible Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from his NATO allies. It has conducted “snap exercises” in southern Russia (see article).
So Syria poses growing dangers to the West: that anti-aircraft missiles will proliferate, allowing jihadists to use them on Western planes; that countries such as Lebanon and Jordan will falter; that another flood of refugees will destabilise the European Union; that NATO could stumble into a war with Russia; that Mr Putin will be spurred to challenge the West elsewhere; and that he will inspire autocrats everywhere.
Reaping The Whirlwind
The West should urge restraint on the Turks and Saudis: the risks of war with Russia and of jihadist blowback are too high. America should try to persuade its Turkish and Kurdish friends to accommodate rather than fight each other. For its wishes to carry weight, though, America must do more in Syria. If Mr Assad and Russia succeed in turning the war into a choice between the regime and the worst jihadists, it would be a disaster. Most Syrians are Sunni and many of them will never be reconciled to Mr Assad. If mainstream groups are crushed, they will be driven either into Europe or into the arms of the jihadists. Non-jihadist Sunnis therefore need support.
The tragedy of Mr Obama’s feebleness is that actions that were once feasible—establishing a no-fly zone or creating safe areas—now carry the risk of a clash with Russia. Undeclared humanitarian zones may still be possible. Mr Obama’s best response would be to take his own policy seriously: create a moderate force to push back the caliphate in eastern Syria. This would involve Sunni states; it would give moderate rebels a hinterland from which to establish the nucleus of an alternative government under existing American air cover; and it would call Russia’s bluff about fighting the jihadists.
The West will have to press Russia, starting with the renewal of EU sanctions this summer. Mr Putin has made canny use of force. The West’s response need not be limited to Syria.