Russia’s controversial airstrikes against non-Islamic State targets near Homs in Western Syria send three messages. First, Russia will act without the blessing of the International whenever and wherever in the world it chooses to do so based on its own rules. Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees all insurgent groups, i.e. dissenters, in Syria as potential threats and will stomp those threats out. Third, Putin will stand by his supporters and strike against his detractors; the only choice is to support Putin and his allies.
Through his brazen and defiant exercise of sovereign power, Putin has taken control of the next chapter in the Syrian Civil War. Coming less than 48 hours after Putin and US President Barack Obama’s dueling UN addresses, Russia’s airstrikes ended the rhetorical battle between the American vision for engaging global conflict and the Russian plan for Syria. Although the Russian military buildup in Syria over the past few weeks was likely orchestrated to ensure Russia could launch these airstrikes after his UN appearance, the actual intervention leaves the International Community struggling to respond.
One of the most difficult things people can do, especially when they are influential individuals accustom to wielding power, is to wait for the right opportunity to make a strategic move. Throughout much of the Syrian Civil War, patience and restraint have been essential to preventing the crisis from getting worse. Frankly, the Syrian Civil War is a bad situation that seems to only get worse, yet an uneasy stalemate has been maintained. As history has taught the United States, the wrong kind of intervention is often worse than no intervention.
Like the West and the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, Russia has said it does not plan to send ground forces to fight in Syria. The problem will Russia’s alleged targeting of moderate rebel forces is that they are the ground forces keeping the Islamic State at bay. If strikes against these groups are to be temporary, Putin’s strategic objective may well be to pressure anti-Assad forces into supporting Assad’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State, which is a possibility bolstered by the fact that revival extremists were targeted, but this assumes that Assad is the much more palatable enemy to those on the ground.
Meanwhile, Russia’s strategic calculation appears to neglect the response of the International Community. One dimension of the Syrian Civil War is the actual conflict, which is what Putin’s military strategy seeks to address in favor of Russian interests. The humanitarian crises surrounding the Syrian Civil War are international concerns, which Putin has offhandedly dismissed the International Community’s response as ineffective and insufficient. The Ukraine Crisis, however, makes Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War an even greater obstacle to resolving both conflicts while the intervention in Syria heightens the risk of a world war against Russia.
Although the International Community may be foolishly flirting with the idea of some cooperation with the Assad regime, political pressure will ultimately push Western and Middle Eastern officials further against Assad and Putin, especial with the deaths of civilians. Out of convenience, there will be those who praise Russian intervention. After all, Western intervention has not been able to end the violence or return stability to the region. Whether US-led Coalition, Assad regime, or Russian airstrikes, their potential effectiveness is the same; the strategy is the same. The difference is that the US is only targeting extremists; whereas, Russia is also targeting anti-Assad forces that are fighting the Islamic States.
Furthermore, the key to properly responding to the emerging crisis over Russian intervention is to understand Putin’s psychology. Putin made this strategic maneuver in order to shellshock critics and intimidate non-supporters, who fear war with Russia, into supporting his agenda. In dealing with someone like Putin, global leaders cannot show fear, hesitate, or capitulate. Domineering individuals like Putin capitalize on these weaknesses to manipulate others into serving their interests, but they also keep using their newfound leverage to push their agenda and will not stop until limits are imposed upon them.
That said, the real issue for the West and Middle East is Russia’s targeting of pro-Western fighters. This cannot be tolerated. Anything else Russia wants to do in Syria against the Islamic State only weakens Russia and helps further Western interests. After all, Syria can easily become Russia’s second Afghanistan. The most beneficial outcome to Russia and Assad, however, would be for the West to overreact and start deploying ground force, which could not engage the Assad regime due to the potential for war with Russia. The second most beneficial outcome would be for Westerners to indulge Putin’s strategy.
Consequently, world leaders need to make the best strategic choice and decisively communicate to Putin they will not support his goals in Syria. They must also set limits in the conflict. Russia needs to limit its military activities to areas surrounding Assad-controlled territory while Coalition activities need to be limited to areas outside of that Russian strike zone. Putin takes great pains to legitimize his policies. In fact, Putin’s justification for Russian intervention is based on whether the Assad regime is seen as a legitimate government; Putin may convince some that his military intervention is legal, but Assad’s potential to be prosecuted as war criminal means Putin risks framed as aiding a war criminal. With that in mind, limitations on military activities need to exist in order to prevent accidents between militaries.
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