Europe and Russia Under Threat: To Support Putin, Assad or Not To Support Putin, Assad?
Economic troubles and crushing austerity across Europe, which helped spawn widespread civil disobedience, the so-called PIIGS Crisis, the Greek Debt Crisis, and the “Brexit threat,” European dependence on Russian energy, and US attention on Middle East instability created an ideal environment for Russian aggression. The Ukraine Crisis as the Western response to the seizure of Crimea was, therefore, an unlikely development in eyes of the Vladimir Putin-dominated Russian government. Although the Ukraine Crisis remains unresolved, Russian-NATO engagement is on the verge of a reset, which offers the Putin government’s preferred war strategy of attrition a near-victory.
Facing what is likely its worst political crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government should be expected to struggle with a militant separatist movement, even if it had the support of its most powerful neighbor. Given the massive amount of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine, as well as pre-conflict Russian efforts to neuter the Ukraine military and weaken all of the former Soviet State’s civil institutions, Ukraine needs time to fix itself. Thanks to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the threat of the Paris-Brussels terrorist super cell, however, Europe is hard pressed to secure Ukraine the time it needs, especially since Russia appears to offer Europe a solution to its threats.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis is clearly driven by the Syrian Civil War. When Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime in September of 2015 with a “shock and awe” style campaign, the Ukraine Crisis and the Syrian Civil War became two parts of the same equation. By inflicting massive, indiscriminate damage on Syria’s infrastructure and escalating the flow of refugees into Europe, Russia diverted attention away from the somewhat stabilized Ukraine Crisis. Although Putin apparently cannot coax embattled President Bashar al-Assad from power as the West needs, his ability to force a “cessation of hostilities” and peace talks makes unimpeded cooperation with Russia appealing.
That said, Assad’s refusal to compromise with opposition groups, despite calls from his own Alawite community to abandon his war, means Russia must either abandon the Assad regime or continue to provide military support. Conversely, the US and NATO must either choose to embrace the Assad regime or accept a war of attrition that could last for some time. Not only has Russian support allowed the Assad regime to retake territory lost to extremists groups, it has also weakened Western-backed rebels and emboldened Assad’s forces. More importantly, the withdrawal of the majority of Russian forces has made it more likely that Russia can sustain a war of attrition in Syria.
On the other hand, the Assad regime needs the rebels to secure territory against the Islamic State, but it also needs IS to prevent moderate rebels from solidifying their control over Syrian territory. Because holding territory undermines the reach of the Islamic State, while making the terrorist group an easier target of international airstrikes, IS would be best served if it abandoned control over territory to employ guerilla warfare. Faced with the prospects of a siege by the Assad regime and its allies in Aleppo, rebels face a similar choice. Because the Assad regime cannot hope to secure the entirety of Syria against a scattered rebellion, a war of attrition will, ultimately, favor insurgent forces.
Unfortunately, the Assad regime, as well as Russia, appears to believe the West can be forced to accept the Assad regime over terrorists. The collapse of moderate rebels would leave few alternatives, but this will simply give the US an excuse to refocus its attention elsewhere and deal with IS in other ways while Saudi-led nations will continue to sabotage the Assad regime, even if that means supporting extremists. As the Islamic State is a more imminent threat to Russia and Europe, Europeans may be more likely to accept Assad, but they will not support Assad the war criminal. By eliminating moderate alternatives, Russia will have no choice but to secure the weak, unpopular Assad regime.
Russian national security interests are at stake in Syria while it has an interest in using the situation to spread its influence into the Middle East via Syria and Iran. It also has a far greater interest in using the situation in Syria to reestablish relations with the West in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis. The Putin government may successfully use the Syrian Civil War to help restart NATO-Russian relations, but the elimination of moderate alternatives in Syria will hurt Russia’s primary national security interests. Vladimir Putin may know how to use the Syrian Civil War to disarm European resistance to Russian dominance, but Bashar al-Assad knows how to use terrorists to entangle Russia.
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