Strategy for Syria: Russian clarity, Western confusion

The situation in Syria has been awful for many years and it looks to remain dreadful or become even worse. The recent waves of migrants escaping the ravages of the civil wars – plural since there seems to be many different groups fighting different wars with different aims – in Syria and Russian intervention have made sure that Syria is often at the top of the news bulletins. Tensions between the West and Russia have been rising, and there is a sense that Russia has managed to outmanoeuvre the West over Syria. Russia has a clear set of objectives that can be achieved by pursuing certain strategies, whereas the West has conflicting objectives for which there is no easily discernable strategy, and everyone can see it to the delight of Russia and the dismay of the West.

Russia has a clear set of aims guiding its strategy: it wishes to retain Bashar al-Assad in power and defeat Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL). Russia has been and is a target for jihadist movements, so it probably does have genuine interests in defeating IS and other groups that see Russia as an enemy (though it is hard to know who sees whom as their worst enemies in this fractured landscape), but equally it wishes to support its friend in region. The two objectives can be neatly combined: Russia intervenes to bolster Mr Assad’s position, and argues that only with Mr Assad’s or his pro-Russian replacement’s presence can IS be defeated and Syria held together. Hence the military strategy is to weaken all opposition to the Assad regime, whether IS or those supported by the West. Mr Assad does have ground troops, aided by Hezbollah and Iran, that can coordinate military operations with Russian air power to great effect. Russia is in a strong position to influence the course of events in Syria, and it can use the situation in Syria as a political and diplomatic leverage to obtain a better deal regarding sanctions or eastern Ukraine.

The West wishes to defeat IS and remove Mr Assad from power. The West has failed to create a credible military and political force that could administer Syria. Arguably the retrenchment of Mr Assad’s forces created a vacuum that was not occupied by the opposition groups sponsored by the West but by IS. There is very little appetite from the politicians and the public for a full-scale ground intervention after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as was demonstrated in August 2013 when intervention was mooted in the US and the UK. The West does not have the wherewithal to achieve the twin goal of dislodging both IS and Mr Assad. It does not wish to start a war with Russia (and Russia presumably would not want a hot war with the West either), therefore it is unlikely to stop Russian aerial bombardment and Russia would be reasonably confident such is the case, which further weakens the opposition groups in Syria, further reducing the West’s ability to shape the situation. It would be very difficult for the leaders of the Western states to justify a deal with Mr Assad to their public, especially after what happened with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, even if the more urgent issue is to beat IS. Perhaps the public in the West can be convinced by a narrative based on realpolitik: it is far more important to defeat IS and making a deal with Mr Assad is a price worth paying. However it will rob of the West of the moral argument that its leaders have relied upon to convince their people that their actions are justified not solely on utility or security, i.e. doing ‘good’ by vanquishing terrible dictators and bringing prospect of a better future to the oppressed. Also and very bitterly it means a clear Russian victory.

How much will Russia and the West push each over the coming weeks and months over Syria and what will result from such brinkmanship? There is tense and quite scary time ahead.