Why is Russia dropping bombs in Syria?

October 5, 2015

With Vladimir Putin's Russia carrying out air strikes in Syria, Eric Ruder explains the backdrop to the conflict and the consequences of this new stage in the violence.

RUSSIA'S INTERVENTION in the civil war in Syria marks the beginning of an ominous new chapter in a conflict that has already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and scattered more than 10 million people within and beyond Syria's borders.

President Vladimir Putin dressed up Russia's entry into the conflict as "similar to an anti-Hitler coalition" to include the U.S. and other Western countries, against the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which controls eastern Syria.

However, Russia's first air strikes on September 30 didn't target ISIS, but rather rebel groups--some of them supported to varying degrees by the U.S.--that have been fighting a war on two fronts: against the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad on the one hand, and against ISIS on the other. Reports of civilians dying under Russian bombs have been emerging ever since.

Not only did these early air strikes reveal Putin's real aim--to bolster the Assad regime, Russia's last significant ally in the region--but they also illustrated the potential for a stepped-up confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, despite "de-confliction" efforts by the two nuclear-armed powers.

Wreckage from air strikes believed to be carried out by Russian forces
Wreckage from air strikes believed to be carried out by Russian forces

For its part, the U.S. government has publicly opposed the Assad regime--not because of its repression and violence against a popular uprising, but primarily because of its alliance with Iran, another enemy of Washington--while never providing the level of support for anti-Assad rebels that would allow them to match forces with the Syrian military.

The entry of Russian military forces on the side of the regime has left the U.S. government casting around for a response--while the human toll in Syria grows.

THE RE-emergence of the confrontation between imperial rivals Russia and the U.S. now must be placed at the top of the many layers of hostilities that are tearing Syria apart.

The roots of the conflict lie in a popular uprising against Assad that took inspiration from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and other struggles that were part of the Arab Spring of 2011.

Unlike the dictators who were swept aside, Assad was able to strike back, slaughtering peaceful protesters, forcing a militarization of the conflict, and portraying all resistance as driven by the U.S., Israel and/or Sunni rebel groups bent on destroying Shia and other religious minorities. To help demonize the opposition, Assad cynically released Sunni extremists from prison, gambling that these fighters would target the same democratic forces he was confronting, while simultaneously serving as the perfect enemy to point to while shoring up support.

The conflict in Syria is a three-way war between the Assad government, rebel forces of varying backgrounds, and ISIS. It includes Syrian Kurds fighting both ISIS and Turkey on Syria's northern border, plus proxy clashes between various armed rebel and jihadist groups backed variously by the U.S., Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Now, with Russian air strikes serving as cover, Iranian troops will join Lebanese Hezbollah fighters alongside Assad's government forces in an escalating war to regain control by the central government.

The fighting has so far taken the lives of some 250,000 Syrians--and turned half of Syria's population of 22 million into refugees. About 7 million people are internally displaced, and some 4 million have fled the country, ending up in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and--in smaller numbers, but with much higher-profile political fallout--Europe.

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, U.S. officials have stated publicly that a political settlement to the conflict must remove Assad from power. But the U.S. and Israel are keen to keep the machinery of the Syrian state intact. The reason is simple: From the point of view of Western imperialism, all the alternatives to Assad seem far worse.

In 2012, Russia reportedly offered to negotiate Assad's removal from power. But with his regime seemingly about to fall, the U.S. and other Western powers ignored the offer, and spent their time promoting the political and military forces they thought would bring about a stable post-Assad regime.

But Assad managed to hang on, by means of the utmost repression and violence: barrel bombs and other scorched-earth tactics that laid waste to entire neighborhoods and regions, as a warning to others that resistance would be met with an iron fist.

Meanwhile, ISIS--the product of the barbaric civil war in neighboring Iraq, largely instigated by the U.S. to keep the upper hand as colonial overlord--gained a stronghold in eastern Syria, where millions of persecuted Iraqi Sunnis fled. Built out of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS recruited fighters, gained battlefield experience and seized sufficient arms and money to become a formidable force.

Today, Assad may have clung to power, but his regime controls only about 25 percent of Syrian territory, in a strip along the heavily populated western third of the country--while ISIS, based in the east, controls about half of the country.

Neither U.S. air strikes against ISIS nor support for Kurdish and other fighters have changed the balance of forces. Another component of Washington's strategy--a $500 million program to train a fighting force of 5,000 against ISIS--failed even more spectacularly. Last month, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted that the program had so far only produced "four or five" fighters.

If the additional $600 million requested by the Pentagon to continue funding the training program meets with the same success, the U.S. will have organized a $1.1 billion army of 11 individuals.

ENTER PUTIN with his soaring rhetoric about leading a coalition to confront ISIS--tailored, of course, to win support at home for reasserting Russian imperial power.

Putin's gambit led to much handwringing in Washington, with the "hawk" faction of the foreign policy establishing calling on Obama to react forcefully to Putin's "interference" in Syria--as if the U.S. alone had the inalienable right to determine which countries should be allowed to operate there.

The debates likewise began in the media about whether Russia was acting out of strength or weakness or desperation. The answer is probably all of the above.

To some extent, Putin's hand was forced by the recent nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran, which pulled Iran back toward normal relations with other world powers--and thus out of Russia's orbit. For Russia, this further elevated the strategic importance of the Assad regime.

But if Putin's most ambitious goal of restoring the Russian empire might be out of reach, the Syria intervention has gained Russia a place at the table in discussions about what the endgame in Syria might look like.

And whatever weaknesses Putin may face, the U.S. grip on the Middle East has been severely tested--in both military and political terms--since its disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.

That war toppled Saddam Hussein and created the beginnings of a U.S. puppet regime, but ended with a humiliating withdrawal of combat troops in 2011 and an inadvertent strengthening of Iran as a dominant power in the region. Al-Qaeda, which didn't exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, thrived amid the resistance to occupation, and re-emerged from the catastrophic sectarian civil war stoked by the U.S. in the form of ISIS.

And through it all, the standing of the U.S. as the dominant imperial power of the region, ruling through a combination of its own economic and military power, combined with a network of allied regimes, has been severely damaged.

Putin's latest grab for power and influence in Syria has further revealed the slippage in U.S. power. As conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat summarized some of Putin's accomplishments:

His annexation of Crimea, for instance, saddled Moscow with all kinds of near-term and long-term problems. But it established a meaningful precedent regarding the limits of American and Western power, a kind of counterexample to the first Gulf War, by proving that recognized borders can still be redrawn by military force. His Syrian machinations, similarly, haven't restored the Assad regime's control of that unhappy country. But they have helped prove that America's "Assad must go" line is just empty bluster, and that a regime can cross Washington's red lines and endure.

RUSSIA'S INTERVENTION in Syria also provides a lesson in the limits of historical analogy--specifically, the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the former USSR that political commentators of all kinds reached for to make sense of the Syrian tragedy.

The Economist, for example, longed for a reinvigorated and more muscular American military campaign, from Syria to Afghanistan. "Even if this is little more than political theatre, Russia is making its biggest move in the Middle East, hitherto America's domain, since the Soviet Union was evicted in the 1970s," the magazine argued.

Meanwhile, Independent journalist and Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn celebrated the return of Russia to the grand stage of diplomacy:

The U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world. Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit. Crises did not fester in the way they do today, and Russians and Americans could see the dangers of them slipping wholly out of control and provoking an international crisis.

In reality, the superpower standoff of the past threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, and the "global competition that went with" this threat was far from positive for the countries where it was played out. But even leaving that aside, the yearning for its replay is based on a false hope of returning to the past, while ignoring the casualties caused by an escalation of a conflict in the present, as Marxist author and activist Gilbert Achcar pointed out.

Even more puzzling than Cockburn's nostalgia for the Cold War is the self-delusion of outright supporters of the Assad regime and its new protector in Moscow. Brian Becker of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and its front group ANSWER simply echoes Putin's rhetoric in his latest statement:

The main force preventing Syria from being completely overrun by ISIS and al-Qaeda has been the Syrian Arab Army, the national army of the country...Now the Russian military has directly entered the battle on the side of the Syrian national army...Russia's intervention was formally requested by the sovereign Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad and thus conforms to international law.

In order to imagine Russia's intervention as a challenge to the U.S. empire on behalf of the "anti-imperialist" hero Assad, Becker has to ignore the barbarism of the Syrian dictatorship, responsible for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the civil war--and the ugly history of Russia as an outpost of neoliberalism serving the Russian oligarchy and an imperial power in its own right, with a savage record in Chechnya among other conflicts to prove it.

The old slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow" has become newly relevant. As Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher wrote:

There can be contradictions between...different regional actors, but at the end of the day, the U.S. wants to maintain an imperialist status quo in the Middle East, maintaining its interest in the region. This is why we should oppose all imperialist (USA, Russia and others), and sub-imperialist powers (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey) because they all oppose the interests of the popular classes, and not choose one or the other because we consider it the lesser evil.

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