Among the ranks of the Islamic State are an estimated 2,500 Russian nationals. Concerns that these fighters may inspire other Russians to join the extremist movement or return to Russia as battle-trained, battle-tested insurgents are legitimate reasons for Russia to intervene in Syria. If the Kremlin is sincere in its efforts to negotiate a political solution and aid the Free Syrian Army in order to serve its interests, the Putin government must be honest in its assessment of the situation in Syria.
The Kremlin has repeatedly placed blame for airstrikes against Western-backed forces on the unwillingness of the US and “patriotic opposition” to coordinate with the Russian military. Given the Russian military is acting on behalf of their enemy, i.e. the Assad regime, the Russians should understand the reluctance of opposition forces to reveal their positions to them. The Russians should also recognize the US cannot undermine the fragile relationship it has with its opposition allies by sharing information with Assad's ally, i.e. Russia. If the Putin government is sincere in its offer to assist Western-backed rebels in their fight against the Islamic State, it must earn the trust of the Syrian opposition.
With the West and Western-backed rebels accusing Russia of striking the positions of opposition forces, whether by accident or by design, Russian forces have already undermined their chance to earn opposition trust. Quite frankly, this lack of trust means any Russian backed political-deal will be a one-sided pledge to continue the status quo. What Russia can do to gain trust from the opposition is to discontinue airstrikes in regions where they and US-led Coalition forces operate. This will guarantee Western-backed rebels cannot be hit by Russian airstrikes, thereby building trust while also ensuring Coalition and Russian forces will not accidently engage each other.
Furthermore, the one thing Russia has to offer the West and moderate rebels is its ability to coerce Assad from office. With that in mind, the Putin government must recognize the removal of Assad and his top officials is not a Western demand. The Assad Regime must go, because the Assad Regime is the main target of the violence in Syria. After nearly five years of fighting Assad, in the wake of a brutal a government crackdown intended to crush dissent, it is a matter of life and death for all dissenters. Leaving Assad in power would mean leaving Assad to seek retribution against armed and unarmed dissenters alike.
On the other hand, Putin and Assad are correct in their assessment that a political solution cannot be successful unless all the terrorist threats are eliminated; however, the sear numbers of insurgents, which Assad considers all insurgents to be terrorists, makes this impossible. In order to suppress the most threatening groups, e.g. the Islamic State, Russia and Syrian government forces will need to unite with the opposition against their common enemy in order to create enough stability for a viable political solution to be implemented. Consequently, the Assad Regime will not have a victory in the short or long-term as civil unrest will not simply disappear as long as the Assad regime remains in power.
That said, Russia’s hypocrisy is on full display in its criticism of Western support for anti-Assad rebels when considering Putin’s total lack of concern over Russian military personnel operating in Ukraine. The deaths of over 2,000 Russian military personnel and the critical injuries of 3,200 others, which are values derived from compensations paid to military families by the Russian government as of February of 2015, suggest tens of thousands of Russians have fought in Ukraine. It also demonstrates Russia is struggling with the costs of its efforts in Ukraine and hopes to use the Syrian Civil War to disengage from the Ukraine Crisis without admitting defeat to the West.
In turn, a high failure rate of Russian equipment in Syria demonstrates the Russian military cannot maintain the long-term campaign needed in Syria. In line with the hastily organized referendum and elections in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine respectively, Russia’s push for new elections in Syria, which offers the appearance of a Russian triumph in Syria, is likely designed to limit the length of Russian intervention in Syria. This, of course, also pressures Middle Eastern and Western nations to support Russia’s alleged success. In truth, Russia is the one likely at a disadvantage, because Russia needs the Syrian Civil War to end within weeks to months or Russia needs US Coalition cooperation to continue its mission in Syria.
Unfortunately, political parties, campaigns, and voting cannot be hastily launched then expected to produce legitimate results in a relatively stable environment. Premature Egyptian elections following the fall of US-ally Hosni Mubarak demonstrate this reality. As such, Russia must recognize that hastily arranged elections within Syria will not matter to warring parties. Assad has, after all, tried this trick in 2014 and it failed him. Consequently, Russian success in Syria hinges on honest engagement with moderate insurgent forces, which can assume control of Syria; otherwise, Russian intervention will be little more than pageantry.
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