The Russian intervention in Syria is actually a positive step toward an end to the nightmare that the Syrian civil war has become, To see why what has been widely regarded in the United States as a major negative event, is a potentially positive development, it is necessary to dispel some myths..
Myth. # 1: Bashar al Assad is the bogeyman who singlehandedly turned Syria’s Arab Spring moment into a nightmare.
The popular image of a “dictator” is a solitary figure -- probably crazy -- who says “jump” and all his minions ask “how high?” In fact the Syrian regime that has grown up in the 40 years since Hafez al Assad came to power in military coup rests on an interlocking elite sitting atop the military, economic and political establishments. Bashar is the accidental face of that regime. (His older bother, who was being groomed to take over, died in a helicopter crash and Bashar was called back from his career as a eye doctor in London to take over.)
There was a great deal of hope in Syria when Bashar took over after his father’s death in 2000. The regime that had been markedly successful in the 1980s in developing the economy, expanding education and health care, improving the lives of rural peasants and creating an urban middle class, had become old and tired. Instead of infusing new blood into the tired old elite, getting the economy back on track, reducing corruption, and allowing greater latitude for political expression, Bashar fell under the sway of his father’s inner circle and there were no reforms, no progress, and declining support for the regime.
There is no doubt Bashar al Assad is ultimately responsible for the decision to respond to peaceful protests in 2010 with unrestrained force. There is no doubt that Bashar al Assad is ultimately responsible for the decision to use chemical weapons against Syrian protesters. But he is not solely responsible for those decisions and may not have initiated them. Bashar is the single most influential figure in the Syrian elite. But faced with strong agreement by the top military brass and/or governmental ministers, he is powerfully constrained to go along.
Myth #2: Bashar al Assad could have been thrown under the bus by the Syrian elites.
The relevant example seems to be Egypt. Faced with massive unrest and protests, the Egyptian military and political powers that be chose to arrange for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak rather than engage in bloody repression. The Syrian elite could have done the same thing.
Yes, they could have, but one of the most glaring differences between Egypt and Syria is the nature of the elite. The Egyptian elite was relatively broadly based in Egyptian society and, particularly the military wing, had a high degree of legitimacy, even among those most opposed to Mubarak.
But the Syrian elite is drawn heavily from the Alawite minority. The vagaries of history and geographical isolation created a tightly knit community in a mountainous area of rural Syria that was regarded with suspicion and disdain by their neighbors. Faced with periodic persecution and aggression, the Alawites developed a distinctive culture that included a version of Shi’a Islam that relied on esoteric teachings known only to the elders of the community. French colonial policy in Syria after World War I, as elsewhere in the world, actively recruited members of minority communities to participate in the administration. A key to Hafez al Assad’s rise to power was a cadre of fellow Alawite military officers.
The Egyptian elites could coolly calculate that Mubarak could be removed from power without threatening their own status and position. But the Syrian elite perceived an attack on al Assad as an attack on the Alawites and feared that they and their community would be swept away if they opened the flood gates.
President Obama was widely criticized for his slow and lukewarm response to the anti-Mubarak movement in Egypt. He seems to have been determined not to make the same mistake in Syria and early in the game announced that Assad had to go. That encouraged the protestors but also made it more likely that the Damascus elites would resist change.
Myth #3 The “Syrian Civil War” is a Syrian civil war
There are multiple dimensions of war in the area marked “Syria” on maps. At the local level, there is conflict between a shifting array of militias and armed groups and the Syrian armed forces.
There is no single entity opposed to the Syrian regime. There are mostly small local militias organized around a leader, often a local notable or tribal chief and there are Islamist fighters in several distinct groups. While they all share the loose goal of getting rid of the Assad regime, they are more often divided by regional and local issues, and distinct visions of what the ideal future looks like. On any given day two or more of these groups may be cooperating; it is equally likely they are shooting at each other. The distinction often made in the West between “Jihadists” and “moderates” gets cloudier and less useful the closer to the Middle East one gets.
Almost from the beginning forces outside Syria got involved. Some came to support the regime; some came to oppose it. On the one hand, Iran offered aid and comfort to its long time friends in Damascus and Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters from Lebanon to aid in the cause. On the other hand, some money and arms flowed from the Gulf States and a great deal of money and arms came from Saudi Arabia to the diverse forces fighting the regime. For Hezbollah the issue was preserving supply lines for weapons. For Iran and Saudi Arabia, the immediate issue was influence in the region. The broader issue was what each perceives as a struggle between Shi’a and Sunni states for the future of Islam.
The interlocking conflicts moved to yet another dimension with the increasing involvement of the United States, France and Britain. The use of poison gas, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians including the use of so-called barrel bombs, the flood of refugees to neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of refugees moving from one part of Syria to another resulted in the involvement of a host of international agencies. The UN Security Council called for an end to the conflict. A series of talks, or at least talks about talks, have gone nowhere.
A seriously complicating factor (as if the situation were not complicated enough already) has been the sudden and surprising emergence of the group known variously as ISIL, ISIS, the self-styled Islamic State, or just plain Islamic State. Moving quickly out of their original base in Iraq, ISIS fighters have gained control of a significant area in Syria, often by defeating local militias or a Jihadist group. The most important fact of ISIS involvement in Syria has been providing a common enemy for everyone else.
Myth #4 Putin is Just Out to Cause Trouble in Syria
Saying “Putin” when what you mean is “the various groups, organizations, individuals and interests that shape Russian foreign policy decisions” is convenient shorthand but it obscures far more than it reveals. The Russian government is a constellation of large bureaucracies, each with its own turf and interests. Putin is undoubtedly the most important player in decision making but he is not alone. And the menu of options from which Putin and his advisors choose, the assessment of the risks and rewards of those options, and the details of implementing decisions are defined by agencies and bureaus with their own perspectives and ways of doing things.
Vlad did not wake up one morning and say to himself, “It’s a fine fall morning. I shall send some troops and a wing of fighter bombers to Syria because Obama is a wimp and I can get away with it. And, oh yeah, I’ll tell the pilots to turn off their transponders so they can fool the Americans.”
Governments always have multiple reasons for what they do. And what they do is always the result of an interaction between the goals, intentions and interests of the people making the decision and the situation in which they find themselves. Political psychologists talk about “the fundamental attribution error”: when we think about our own behavior we focus more heavily on the situation we’re in; when we think about other people, we focus more heavily on what kind of people they are. When we think seriously about U.S. policy in Syria, we take into account the difficult and confusing situation on the ground and the assets available to the U.S., as well as President Obama’s strengths and weaknesses and the quality of his advisors. But when we think about Russia’s actions, we tend to put more emphasis on our understanding of Putin and far less on such factors as the long standing relationship between Damascus and Moscow, or the consequences for Russia if the al Assad regime is replaced by Islamists.
The Potential Positive Consequences
From an international perspective, there are two primary struggles in Syria: against al Assad and against ISIS. Of course, it isn’t that simple. For the U.S. and our friends, making sure that al Assad is not replaced by radical Islamists is critical, which immensely complicates things. There’s been a long and frustrating search for “moderate” anti-regime groups to support, the embarrassing spectacle of the small contingent of Syrian fighters trained and equipped by the U.S. at enormous cost who lost or surrendered their equipment to Islamist fighters almost as soon as they crossed the border into Syria. Groups like al Nusra are good guys because they are fighting al Assad and sometimes ISIS; they are very bad guys because they are ideological kin to al Qaeda.
The Russian military has changed the dynamics in Syria. Their air strikes and cruise missile attacks have supported a renewed offensive by the Syrian army and the recapture of a few strategic assets from rebel forces. Any damage done to ISIS is a more or less accidental bonus. (The bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula is unlikely to change Russian goals or behavior.) Whatever hopes opponents might have had that the Syrian army and/or regime was on the verge of collapse have vanished.
The immediate impact has been significant: Iran, a critically important player has now been invited to join the talks about talking about talks that have been held periodically in Vienna. And the Russians tabled a proposal for a transitional regime that was immediately rejected by everyone else. But reading between the lines it did suggest that al Assad would not necessarily remain in power indefinitely. If a bus came along some months from now and al Assad were standing close to the curb ...
For the first time in five horrific years, it is possible to see the first faint outline of an end game. The initial stages of the bargaining process include the understanding that there is a “hurting stalemate”( it’s a no-win for everyone) and getting the involvement of all the key players.
The Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has shattered any illusions that the regime can be defeated on the battlefield. But even the regime’s most ardent supporters do not think the Syrian military can ever hope to regain control of the country.
If Iran agrees to participate, the major international players will be involved in talks about Syria’s future. Getting representatives of the patchwork of rebel factions, and the al Assad regime to agree to join the discussions will be a major hurdle.
There is a painfully long way to go before there will be any hope the suffering of Syrians will end and certainly no guarantee that some kind of solution will emerge in Vienna, let alone on the ground.
Whatever he may have intended in getting involved in Syria, Vladimir Putin has tilted the odds toward peace.