The Syrian Civil War is possibly about to transition to a new phase. If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed proclamations that Russia has, at least, provided air cover for the Free Syrian Army are proven true, the policy shift away from what the US-led Coalition forces believe was a pro-Assad campaign against Western-backed rebels should be praised.
Although the official spin on Putin’s statements suggests the Russian leader may have overplayed his overly complex propaganda game, support of the Free Syrian Army could be Putin’s way of hedging his bet in Syria. It could also be a means of controlling Syrian President Basher Al-Assad, who has recently said he will not negotiate with armed groups even as the so-called Riyadh conference officially unified rebels in the ouster of Assad.
Furthermore, the cooperation with Free Syrian Army President Putin is referencing could very well be strikes on Islamic State targets following the October 1st IS bombing of a Russian Metrojet Airbus A321. What this suggests is that someone within the loosely affiliated “Free Syrian Army” probably passed along information regarding the location of the Islamic State strongholds to Russian forces.
It also demonstrates Russian forces either fully understood they were not bombing Islamic State targets at the onset of Russian intervention and/or the Assad regime was providing information that intentionally avoided Islamic State targets.
Given the Assad Regime has been accused of working with IS before and the majority of Islamic State oil is sold to the Assad regime, even as Russian airstrikes have largely targeted IS oil entering Turkey, it demonstrates Assad is trying to use a divide-and-conquer-strategy against his enemies with Russia acting as its unwitting pawn.
On the other hand, Assad would be wise to recognize Putin did not intervene in the Syrian Civil War for Assad’s interests. Diminishing the threat of terrorism, strengthening future ties with Syria, as well as the rest of the Middle East, and making Russia indispensible to the West are Russia’s interests. To be blunt, a US-led Coalition does not need Russian airstrikes.
What makes Russia valuable to the West is its ability to ensure Assad will leave power. If Assad will not fulfill this requirement for the sake of Russian interests, Russia has no interest in supporting Assad.
Unfortunately for Putin, the willingness of Turkey and rebel groups to shoot down Russian aircraft leave him no clear alternative allies in the warzone.
The Iraq-Turkey dispute over the deployment of a few hundred additional Turkish troops in Iraq, which Iraqi officials frame as an invasion, is reminiscent of the struggles the US faced when providing for Iraqi security and working with Iraq’s highly dysfunctional leadership. It also suggests Iraq is trying to use Turkey’s dispute with Russia over the downing of a Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet to either broaden Russian military intervention to include Iraq or use the Western-Russian dispute to attract greater US military support.
Clearly, these latest developed only add to the already complex situation on the ground. Unfortunately, global powers have a tendency of being manipulated by their allies on ground to the point they become entangled in wars that run thoroughly contrary their own interests. This has certainly been true for the United States and its involvement in the Middle East.
Instead of allowing itself to be manipulated to serve the interests of minor regional powers in the Middle East, the Putin government would be wise to focus its attention on its broader, long-term interests. This means moving away from support for Assad and moving toward actually supporting Western-backed rebels.
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