Syria is quickly turning into a full-fledged proxy war in the Western-Russian conflict over the Ukraine Crisis. Despite Russia’s support of the Assad regime throughout the Syrian Civil War, the United States, Europe, and Russia have been able to avoid allowing events in Syria to escalate the conflict in Ukraine. With the deployment of Russian forces in Syria, which will be forced to defend the Assad regime against Western-backed forces in addition to Islamic State militants, the enemies of the Assad regime are now the enemies of Russia.
This means Russia is at war with Europe and the Middle East. Another way of saying it is Russia has decided to open a second warfront against the United States. Recognizing the difficulty Russia’s traditional military forces have had in their campaign to crush Ukrainian independence, there is an obvious strategic disadvantage for Russia in starting a war with three continents. This is particularly true when considering the collapsing Russian economy in the wake of falling oil prices. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy must, therefore, rely on the unwillingness of the West to risk the two conflicts escalating into a third world war or a nuclear attack.
It appears that Putin hopes to leverage the risk of escalation to force a Russian-approved resolution to the Ukraine Crisis. Such a resolution would most assuredly benefit Russia at the expense of Ukraine. Adding pressure on the West to settle is China’s domineering behavior toward its neighbors, which is demonstrated by the South China Sea crisis, as well as China’s increasingly confrontational stance against the US. The recent flare up in the Korean War, of course, fuels concerns that the world is on the verge of armed conflict. Russia’s attempts to foster closer ties with both China and North Korea suggest there is a new power Axis threatening to start the next world war, unless the International Community submits to their influence.
On the other hand, the Chinese government has traditionally viewed civil unrest, economic instability, and major armed conflicts as serious threats to their ability to maintain their power and control over the Chinese People. Despite their willingness to use the potential for conflict as leverage in the pursuit of their interests, the Chinese leadership fears escalation as much as the West. At the same time, China and Russia are traditional adversaries while Russia’s outreach to North Korea threatens China’s unilateral influence over the Kim Jong-Un regime. Because Kim Jong-Un resents China’s ability to control his government, as well as US and Russian influence, the North likely sees Russia as an ally of convenience.
Where North Korea is most likely to choose escalation, Russia cannot risk going to war without China and China cannot risk drawing its neighbors, i.e. India and Pakistan, into a major war. The appearance of a united enemy prepared for battle is convincing, but the United States and its allies are far more united by their common security interests. Recognizing China faces the potential for catastrophic economic failure like Russia, it is in the interests of China and Russia to force resolutions to their conflicts with the West sooner than later. Their aggressive stances afford them artificial leverage. Time is against China and Russia, so the West should not give into Chinese and Russian threats.
In the case of Syria, however, the growing Russian military presence means the West and Middle Eastern powers are working against the clock. As more and more Russian forces setup camp in Syria, the riskier it will be for the West to confront the Assad regime. In tandem, the Assad regime will feel increasingly secure as Russian forces bolster their defenses. Throughout the Civil War, the Assad regime has demonstrated a willingness to ignore threats like the Islamic State, which is easily preoccupied with fighting other insurgent factions, in order to suppress the long-term threat of pro-Western rebels and civilians. Before the West losses its ability to freely engage the Assad regime, before the Assad regime redoubles its efforts to crush the allies of the West, the West must neutralize Assad’s airpower and bomb ground forces attacking pro-Western rebels.
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