Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Pitfalls of Putin troops in Syria


I previously noted the opacity of the motives of the US and its allies in bombing Syria and the potential for their actions to unnerve the Russians in the light of previous fumbled efforts at regime change in the Middle East. The Russians now appear to have acted on those concerns, strengthening their base in Tartus, reinforcing their troops there and flying sorties against ISIS and, according to pro-Western sources, other enemies of the Syrian government.

Aftermath of aerial bombardment by the Syrian government of rebel-held areas of Azaz in Aleppo governorate, 2012.As with the Western governments, the Russians are playing with fire. The risk of a misstep is high.

Given that NATO-Russian relations are at an all-time low, there is a chance of a Cuban missile-type crisis if aircraft belonging to the great powers were to fire upon each other by accident or design.

There is also the unpleasant possibility of the so-far limited air war turning into a rerun of the failed Afghanistan war if Russia felt driven by circumstances to escalate its involvement.

The Syrian government are no angels, and any more bombing raids on an already heavily bombed and traumatised population is unlikely to improve the situation for civilians. However, the American claim that the Russians have a poor record in this respect smacks of hypocrisy, given the US's admitted destruction last week of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan at the cost of 22 lives (despite prior knowledge of its co-ordinates and 30 minutes after radio requests to desist).

The Russian move therefore has most of the same moral problems as the Western intervention. On the other hand, Moscow's policy at least has the merits of legality, intelligibility and consistency. Syria has asked it to intervene (much as Iraq invited the US to assist its war against ISIS) and Russia therefore has a legitimate claim to be aiding Syria's self-defence.

The Soviet Union established its naval base in Tartus during the rule of Bashar al-Assad's father in the 1970s, and Russia has maintained that Assad, cruel though he may be, is the best of an unpalatable range of options (the others being anarchy, Jabhat al Nusra (a branch of Al Qaeda) and ISIS).

The US have argued that this is a false dichotomy and accused the Russians of directing their firepower against CIA-backed moderate rebels instead of ISIS. If true, this would suggest pinpoint targeting on Putin's part: only last month, General Lloyd Austin told Congress that just four or five such rebels remained, the others having been betrayed or surrendered to ISIS or al Nusra.

Russia itself has even better reason to fear violence from extremist Sunni elements such as ISIS or Al Qaeda than the US. Whatever one thinks of bloody Chechen conflict (which has smouldered on and off for over a century), it has recently acquired a strong religious tinge with ISIS boasting many members from the Caucasus, including one of its most senior leaders — Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen). ISIS has also issued statements threatening Russia.

Indeed, failure to take Russian information in this regard seriously may already have led to tragedy in the West — the FSB (Russia's internal security service) had warned the FBI in 2011 that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (later convicted of the Boston Marathon bombing) had links to extremist groups in Chechnya.

None of this is to say that Russia's intervention makes the Syrian conflict any easier to resolve militarily. We now have the US, Russia and various Gulf states backing different parties to the conflict with money, equipment and, possibly, troops. The Russians also seem to be playing a role in coordinating the pro-government efforts, recently establishing a joint command centre with Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Yet there are encouraging signs that Russia's intervention may have sparked a realisation among some parties that a military solution to the civil war is unlikely. None of the major powers is stupid enough to want a nuclear war — a real risk if a conflict between the various powers in the air over Syria were to escalate. A more inclusive diplomatic track aimed at a political settlement is therefore a real possibility.

One sign of this rethinking is that most of the Western governments have abandoned their insistence on Assad's immediate departure, and the Russians do not seem to be wedded to keeping him there.

It would be hugely premature to claim that a diplomatic solution is in sight — much will depend on the Syrian parties themselves. Nevertheless, it may just be that the Russian intervention (morally problematic though it be) has the effect of starting the serious search for one.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Image: Aftermath of aerial bombardment by the Syrian government of rebel-held areas of Azaz in Aleppo governorate, 2012. Wikipedia commons 

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, just war, Syria, middle east, ISIS, Russia, Putin, Bashar al-Assad



submit a comment

Existing comments

"It would be hugely premature to claim that a diplomatic solution is in sight.".......... The situation is immensely complex. However one of the essentially divisive elements is the role of the competing religions. In this, and in other conflicts, the representations, at least implicitly, of various religions to be the exclusive link to, or to be sole agents of God, exacerbates the tensions and divisions among the peoples involved. There is urgent need for agreement and concordance among all religions to end these tensions and divisions, and to find the peace and harmony befitting the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all Gods Children.

Robert Liddy | 06 October 2015  

An excellent and timely anaysis. Having read and watched Putin speak on this over recent weeks, he conveys calm assurance that he has right and international law on his side. And I believe he does. It was a failed US policy to try to set up a democratic armed opposition to Assad. The 'democratic anti-Assad forces' in Syria had become a sick joke, sipping tea in cafes in Turkey as American-supplied arms were scooped up by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and as America's allies Turkey and rich Sunni regimes to the south turned a blind eye to blatant weapons and manpower pipelines to ISIS. As for the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz - those coordinates were targeted precisely because of the hospital's longstanding policy of treating wounded from all sides. After the Taliban overran Kunduz, the hospital became in the eyes of the American-supported Afghan Army a Taliban hospital andf thus a military target. An appalling tragedy, of an ally out of control and careless American targeting. Not 'collateral damage' by the normal military sense of the term - the target was wounded Taliban soldiers in the hospital. I know what the Geneva Conventions call that. Back to Syria: it is welcome that the Western rhetoric - including our own Julie Bishop - towards Assad (and Putin) has softened lately - whether to attrribute this to the shock of the huge refugee outflow to Europe or to the stepped-up Russian military involvement I am not sure, maybe both. Finally - the critique that Assad was making cruel war as head of a sovereign state on some of his own people is matched by the fact that Poroshenko with total NATO encouragement and material support did the same in east Ukraine since April 2015. Major cities Donetsk and Lugansk were laid waste by Ukrainian Army or irregulars' heavy artillery sheling and over 500,000 refugees were created from that devastated region . In both cases, terror bombing of civilians is not the road to peace : there must be inclusive peace talks involving all groups. I agree with Justin that the Russian air intervention makes that prospect a little more feasible now.

tony kevin | 06 October 2015  

Aside from humanitarian interests, the Australian interests are surely not to get involved with an accidental bombing of a Russian convoy or even a single vehicle. It will be a whole lot more serious than a shirt fronting. Saddam Hussein's regime had to have been one of the worst ever, but had he not been removed, chances are that less people would have died in Iraq. If the Free Syrian Army, al Qaeda and IS are left to fight it out post Assad, then Libya will look like a picnic in comparison. No easy answer, that's for sure

Digby Habel | 06 October 2015  

The effect of divisive religions, in this and many other conflicts, seems to be the elephant in the room that everyone wants to ignore, even though ultimately it is religion that could be the game-breaker in achieving the universal peace and harmony so desperately needed by all the peoples of the world. The reluctance to face this, is sited in the out-dated traditions that assumed that there is only one path to God. Everyone is convinced that they have it, and do not want to concede that there are many paths to God, who calls each person and each community along a path adapted to their degree of development. If we each respond to God's call, we will find that with progress, all the paths converge at the top of God's Mountain, and we will look back and wonder how we could have been so short-sighted and self-absorbed.

Robert Liddy | 06 October 2015  

Thank you Justin for you do step in where others fear to tread. As the Holy Father says, "Who are we to judge?" I hope others too will pause to ponder what it is we believe and Why.

Roy Fanthome | 06 October 2015  

The hardest 3 words to say ..'I don't know'.... I think we can draw on inygos advice to the first companions attending the council of Trent.. .always open to what we don't know and ensure that tone for everything we write or say about syria lest we inflict more harm on the dignity of the country and its people......there is still far too much that we don't know to be conclusive....with the one exception perhaps of the concrete evidence of barrel bombs falling from the sky.

noelle fitzpatrick | 19 November 2015  

Similar Articles

US gun law change can't come soon enough

  • Jim McDermott
  • 07 October 2015

In July, an NRA article entitled 'Australia: There Will be Blood' described Australia's gun buyback as a 'mass confiscation' that left guns in the hands of criminals and everyone else defenceless. Meanwhile, America has experienced more than one mass shooting per day so far this year. My hope is that we are in that time of unsustainable stasis Malcolm Gladwell talks about, during which nothing seems to be changing, while beneath the surface stability is being eroded, leading to sudden, permanent change.


Search for truth continues 50 years after Indonesia's purge

  • Pat Walsh
  • 01 October 2015

Like Tony Abbott before him, Malcolm Turnbull is slated to make Jakarta one of his first overseas ports of call as prime minister. His visit will occur as calls grow louder in Indonesia and elsewhere for the truth to be told about the massacres of up to 1 million Indonesians 50 years ago this October. It is assumed that at the time Canberra did not protest the massive miscarriage of justice and international law that occurred. It can now compensate in a small way for that silence by making public what it knew.