When President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015, he had two main objectives in view – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the Middle East, and to secure his hold on both the Russian naval base at Tartus and the air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He has achieved both, and now he is leaving.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict certainly boosted President Bashar Assad’s fortunes, but if the Syrian leader expected Putin to remain by his side in a long-drawn-out conflict to regain the whole of pre-war Syria from rebel forces and Islamic State (IS), he has been sadly disillusioned. Putin’s aim was never to ensure total victory for Assad, nor to defeat IS.
With Putin’s main objectives gained, he is now keen to consolidate them, and for that to happen the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva need to yield positive results – possibly an end to the Syrian civil war. This is why Moscow, along with Washington, pressed hard for the resumption of the talks on March 14. It also explains the growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government in recent weeks. Assad and his supporters have been steadfastly maintaining that new presidential elections are not up for discussion – a “red line” declared Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem on March 12 – but Putin has been noticeably equivocal about Assad’s future. The most he has hinted at is the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as a candidate – a possibility that US Secretary of State, John Kelly, has not wholly vetoed, but which has been flatly rejected by France and the UK.
Putin’s withdrawal of Russia’s military support at the very moment that peace talks are due to resume is clearly an intentional weakening of Assad’s position overall. The Syrian regime suddenly appears much more vulnerable. If Assad’s representatives had been planning an unyielding stance on their demands regarding Assad’s future, hoping to negotiate with the threat of continued Russian bombardment of the anti-Assad forces as their trump card, the ground has been cut from under their feet. Putin’s withdrawal means there can be no stone-walling from the Assad side – it is no longer strong enough for that. Its recent successes achieved with Russian military support make the regime somewhat more credible, but mean little more than that.
So there is room for hope. If the ceasefire continues to hold, and if a deal can be brokered that allows the reconstruction of Syria to begin and millions of refugees to go home, that would be cause for satisfaction. Even this, though, would be something of a hollow achievement if the pressing issue of defeating Islamic State is not addressed.
Terrible though the Syrian civil war has been in the numbers of civilians killed and the massive tide of dispossessed refugees and migrants created, it is not the main problem facing the civilized world. The main problem is the brutal, inhumane, jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State, and by others Daesh, that has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and set about savagely imposing its extremist version of Islamism on the population it controls. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently reported that since June 2014 IS had summarily killed 3,967 people.
Although Putin gave lip service to combating IS in Syria, in fact his airstrikes were very largely directed against Assad’s domestic enemies – the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army. In the six months since Russian forces first began military operations they helped pro-Assad loyalists reclaim nearly 4,000 square miles of territory from rebel forces. Little, if any, was won back from IS – the 10-20 percent of territory lost by IS since its apogee in August 2014 was due to the 7000-plus US-led air-strikes, which also killed some 25,000 IS fighters.
By declaring, in effect, mission accomplished, Putin is acknowledging that destroying IS was never a primary goal. He has left that for others - the US, the West and perhaps Saudi Arabia - to fulfil. For IS is still deeply entrenched in much of northern and eastern Syria, and is continuing its self-imposed mission of extending its caliphate across the Middle East, ruthlessly annihilating people, buildings and artefacts that do not conform to its own extremist concepts of what Islam demands.
IS is not party to the Geneva peace talks, and will not be bound by any initiatives emanating from them. Though the US-led coalition in Syria is dedicated to its destruction, it is obvious that the West has not yet been prepared to commit full-heartedly to the fight. “No boots on the ground” is an understandable position, given past disastrous excursions by the West into the Middle East quagmire, but new situations need to be assessed anew. The lesson of history is that it is a mistake to fight today’s war on yesterday’s assumptions.
Saudi Arabia has signalled its willingness to commit its coalition’s ground troops in the anti-IS struggle, for no moderate Islamic state endorses the pretensions of IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be establishing a latter-day caliphate to which all Muslims must vow allegiance on pain of death. That is the existential threat that IS poses to the world of Islam.
What western public opinion has yet fully to grasp is that IS is equally dedicated to the destruction of western values and way of life, and the eventual substitution of its jihadist caliphate across the whole world. Horrific acts of terrorism in France, Belgium, Copenhagen and the United States, attacks targeting foreign tourists in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the destruction of the Russian passenger jet – all testify to the determination of IS to undermine morale in the West. So, too, does the continued appeal of IS to disaffected Muslim youth the world over, the unabated flow of recruits to its ranks, and the infiltration into Europe of indoctrinated and trained terrorists within the flood-tide of refugees and migrants fleeing the war zones of the Middle East.
Given these circumstances, “no boots on the ground” seems an outdated and inadequate policy. “Victory at all costs”, Churchill’s famous declaration of Britain’s war aims against Nazism back in 1940, should be the guiding principle underlying the West’s fight against Islamic State.
To quote him in full, for what he said is equally relevant to today’s struggle: “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all terrors - victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”