Russian involvement in Syria: A Blessing in disguise?

The contradiction of approaches between Russia and the United States regarding the future solution to the crisis in Syria was clearly demonstrated in the speeches of both presidents Obama and Putin at the UN in New York. While Putin stated that his country grants priority to fighting jihadist terrorism, and by extension the ‘Islamic State’, Obama maintained that President Assad cannot remain in power in any future arrangement in Syria – regardless of the importance that he attributes to the defeat of the ‘Islamic State’.

Russia’s decision to take practical steps and employ force to protect its interests in Syria, most chiefly preventing the fall of the Assad regime, by sending military forces (mainly aerial) to Syria has sparked widespread criticism from the West. Russian bombings in Syria, targeted, at this stage, mainly at rebel sites, rebels who are not ‘Islamic State ‘, have only reinforced the West’s suspicions regarding the motives of the Russian involvement. Moreover, the West is concerned with the possibility of forming of an alternative coalition which allies Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad’s military, which will function as a potential rival for the Western –Arab coalition formed to defeat the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq .

Thus, while the United States in particular and the West in general conduct endless, ardent, and pointless discussions in order to decide between direct involvement in the campaign in Syria (“boots on the ground”) and indirect military intervention and support of the activities of local forces (“Sandals on the ground”), Russia and Iran decided to take action and adopt a policy of direct involvement. To this end, aircraft and troops were sent to Syria. Thus they proved in practice that for them there is an intolerable price to the lack of military action (or partial action) and to lingering with the forceful prevention of the spread of Sunni Salafi -Jihad terrorism, which threatens their security and the security of their allies.

It is possible that the involvement of foreign forces, Russian and Iranian, is not to the liking of the West, Israel having its own concerns but keep in mind that the fear of military entanglement in the thicket of the violent local conflict is not reserved to the West: The threat is now on the shoulders of Russia and Iran, and they are the ones expected to pay the price for their involvement, the same price the West shied away from paying.The suspicions and fears of the “old” coalition’s members regarding the plans of the new alliance are justified and require them to carefully monitor the targets of Russia and Iran in Syria, as well as ensure that those are meant not only to keep Assad in power but are directed at a common goal – defeating the “Islamic state” and uprooting it from Syria.

Presumably the Russian -Iranian involvement would force the United States and its allies to take practical measures in Syria,and possibly in Iraq to ensure their regional interests. To that end there has to be close coordination with Russia, in order for integrated effective actions to be taken to help defeat the ‘Islamic State’ and other Salafi jihadists operating in Syria, alongside the establishment of a stable government in the country.

The main bone of contention between the two coalitions is the question of keeping President Assad in power. If the United States and its allies were to reach an understanding with Russia to coordinate the current action in Syria, the question of the personal future of Assad will be postponed to a later date. In this scenario, Putin’s military initiative, which has been wildly condemned at first,might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The military initiative in Syria is appropriate, and in fact have long been required in order to put a stop to the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens forcefully displace and turned into refugees by the millions, fleeing to neighboring countries and to Europe. That is, only if the initiative leads to the end of the humanitarian catastrophe that befell the people of Syria, and ultimately formulates practical policies which will establish order and government stability and prevent Syria from being a source of danger to the region and beyond. Israel has the obligation to examine carefully the development of the fighting in Syria and protect its interests and to preserve its freedom to act to damage or prevent any military action, terrorist action or arrival of unusual weapons to its enemies in Hezbollah or from the ranks of global jihad.

This article was first published in Hebrew at the INSS’ blog Shorti

About the Author
Yoram Schweitzer is an expert on international terrorism and head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies.