The New York Times reports the increase of Russian airplane attacks on Syrian territory to bolster the position of their ally, President Bashar al-Assad, while the US continue their bombing campaign to defeat ISIS and their support for the Free Syrian Army. Russia also wants to fight ISIS, but simultaneously targets the Free Syrian Army and other rebel factions that were doing their best to get rid of Assad, also one of the US enemies. What is developing on the ground can best be referred to as a proxy war between the US and Russia, as they are struggling to hold greater influence over the troubled region (Barnard 2015).
There is a golden window of opportunity for the two former Cold War powers to get together on a common negotiating table and broker a peaceful solution. Unfortunately, what is more likely to happen is that each side will continue to support their own favoured faction and in the mean time each superpower hopes to defeat their opponents and, of course, ISIS. Russia’s side has greater prospect of winning the battle, because Russia supports Assad, which is a much weakened, but still quite influential central government. The US side is weaker, because after pouring in 500 million dollars of funding for anti-Assad and anti-ISIS rebels, many of these rebels took the US weapons and funding and defected from this Free Syrian Army to develop their independent forces to attack Assad.
I am no supporter of Russian foreign policy, and would find it better if they did not actively engage in a battle that could turn into another Afghanistan for them, where the Soviets were worn down and beaten, which significantly lowered national morale, and eased the collapse of the Soviet regime. But I have to say that the current Russian position is much more feasible and morally defensible than the American position. Russia supports Assad and opposes ISIS and other pro-US and anti-Assad rebels. The US supports the Free Syrian Army (fledgling and small), opposes anti-US rebels, Assad and ISIS.
The simple realpolitik question is which policy position is more feasible? Of course, the Russian position makes more sense. Assad, as brutal and ruthless of a ruler he may be, is still the president of the country, and he commands a significant military force, otherwise he would have been ousted by now. Four years of active western support for the anti-Assad rebels have not yet led to his downfall, so why should they be more successful this time around? The US genuinely hopes that they can install an el-Sisi type, pro-American dictator, but that goal conflicts with defeating ISIS. If ISIS is such a big threat to US national security, then why would the Obama administration not focus its effort on defeating ISIS rather than wanting to defeat both ISIS and Assad? To an extent, Pentagon experts are quite confused at this point, because they are quite uncomfortable about Assad, while they know they have to commit military resources to beat back ISIS. I think their plan is to keep both enemies engaged, but I doubt that this will be efficacious, because the US lacks solid partners in the region.
This confused US position reminds me of the former Chinese commander, Chiang Kai-shek, who argued that “communism was a cancer while the Japanese presented a superficial wound” (quote from Wikipedia). The Nationalist government was facing two enemies at the same time, the Communists and the Japanese, and even though the Japanese began invading China in 1931 (1937 beyond Manchuria), Chiang still prioritized the capture and destruction of the Communists. This diversion of resources clearly resulted in the loss of Nationalist territory to the Communists, and their eventual defeat after the defeat of the Japanese. The moral lesson is that you can’t fight two powerful enemies at the same time.
So what is the way forward? In an open-ended war, it will be difficult to make really accurate predictions, but let me try my best. In a realistic scenario, the Russian military strikes will defeat ISIS and bolster the Assad regime, which will get another 10 years of guaranteed power. The rebels will still be there, but their force will subside as US officials recognize the futility of supporting unreliable rebels to get rid of Assad. That could conceivably create peace, even though there will be continuing resentment against the Assad regime, which results in more civil war. In the second scenario, Russia is merely buying time for Assad, and he will have to step down (or be assassinated). The country enters anarchy until the Islamic State takes over Damascus, as they are the most powerful faction after Assad. Russian and American policymakers are incensed, and will now fight together to beat back ISIS.
The third scenario is that the Free Syrian Army receives US military personnel support (boots on the ground) given that a Republican president (Donald Trump? Ben Carson? Jeb Bush?) wins the elections, and they smash Assad and beat back ISIS. The Russians will be quite incensed, but what can they do against the world’s most powerful military? However, the US-enforced peace will remain very unhappy and fragile, and civil war will break out any time. Mounting costs of a US military occupation characterized by high financial and human cost will drain US public support for the war, which will result in US retreat, and the nightmare scenario that we witness in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya today.
The most likely scenario is the first one, but I hate all of these scenarios. So let us dreamers propose a fourth scenario: stop supplying your side, pro-US or pro-Russian, with guns and weapons. There is no net benefit for bringing in more weapons, which will encourage the fighters to continue their warfare. Give peace a chance by having multilateral forces, especially US and Russia get together on a bargaining table to bring about a non-violent solution. As cruel as Assad, ISIS or other rebels may be, it is important that they are all brought to the bargaining table to hammer out a peaceful solution to the crisis.
It may very well mean that negotiations could result in the legitimation of ISIS, and this is a huge price that needs to be paid to secure a peace treaty. I do not support ISIS, but there have to be non-violent ways to undercut the support for ISIS. After years of mismanagement their public support will fall away. People will realize that guns, fear and terror don’t feed people. A fire can only continue to burn as long as we add oxygen and oil into it. If we stopped doing that, the flame has to die down. I wish we had more committed fire-fighters in the halls of power today.