Putin's Bombs Add to Reasons Why Syria's War Is Here to Stay

  • Complexity of conflict leaves all sides entrenched in battle
  • Russian airstrikes to prop up ally Assad anger U.S., partners

Persuading Russia to Act With United States in Syria

As world powers are drawn deeper into Syria’s conflict, the list of reasons why the war won’t end anytime soon is only getting longer.

The recent flurry of diplomacy has been overshadowed by Russia sending its warplanes to the country to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s forces after battleground losses. The U.S. and its allies, who have been bombing Islamic State extremists, denounced the airstrikes after opposition groups they back said they too had been targeted by Russian missiles.

The direct involvement of Russia’s military further complicates an already tangled civil war. With so many groups and foreign actors vying for dominance, even the removal from power of Assad -- the main demand of the rebels supported by the U.S., much of Europe and Gulf states -- is unlikely to enable the piecing together of a country that’s one only in name after more than four years of fighting.

“We’re seeing the battlefield reality largely divorced from the diplomatic show taking place,” said Reva Bhalla, vice president for analysis at Stratfor, an advisory firm based in Austin, Texas. Any agreement would “just mark the beginning of a new phase of instability in Syria,” she said.

Complications

In Syria, Assad dismissed talk of a transitional agreement that would strip him of his powers as an interim head of state. "I say very clearly that no single Western official can determine Syria’s political future" or who’s in power, Assad told IRINN, a state-run Iranian TV network, over the weekend.

As well as Russia, Assad and his Alawite leadership are backed by Shiite Iran. The Islamic Republic supports Assad’s military through its allied Hezbollah group, Iraqi Shiites and Afghan fighters who battle alongside government forces.

Assad’s opponents, comprising hundreds of mostly Islamist rebel groups who don’t speak with one voice, are not united in their outlook on how the conflict should end. The domestic opposition recognized by Assad supports a UN-sponsored effort to end the war.

But about 70 mainly Islamist rebel groups, many supported by regional Sunni powers including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, said they’re not interested in it because it doesn’t meet their conditions, including making no room for Assad in a transitional period. The rebels said in a statement that Assad had committed an “an unforgivable act of betrayal” to the country by allowing Iranian and Russian intervention.

Deeper Conflict

“The Russian involvement has complicated the situation, it is prolonging the war," Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi government adviser, said by phone. “It will draw world powers deeper into Syria. The Saudis and the Qataris and Turks will continue to pour more arms in support of the rebels,” he said. The alternative, they argue, is “total Iranian domination over Syria.”

Two Turkish F-16s intercepted a Russian fighter jet that violated Turkish airspace from Syria on Oct. 3, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara said. Separately, Two MiG-29 jets, whose military insignia couldn’t be determined, locked on to two Turkish F-16s for almost six minutes during a patrol flight along the Syrian border on Sunday, Turkey’s military said.

Talk about a plan to end the war that’s left 250,000 people dead emerged a few weeks ago as Assad-ally Russia hosted separate meetings of world leaders and opposition figures to explore an end to the conflict and step up attacks on Islamic State.

U.S. President Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly last week that he is ready to work with Russia and Iran to find a solution in Syria. He said “realism dictates a compromise will be required,” though also that there needs to be a managed transition away from Assad.

‘Fairy Tale’

Russian President Vladimir Putin then surprised the U.S. by deploying his air force. The Kremlin said on Thursday the campaign’s main goal is to support Assad’s forces.

“This whole idea that because suddenly you talk to Assad and say kind words to him and then he would be willing to negotiate and compromise, it’s ridiculous,” said Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “It’s some kind of a fairy tale.”

Assad controls about a quarter of the country and 60 percent of the population, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war and its death toll through activists. About 45 percent of the country is under Islamic State militants and the rest is controlled by Kurds, various rebels and jihadists, he said.

The non-Islamic State jihadist groups now control "too much territory for them to be ignored or excluded and make a transitional deal work," Aymenn Jawad Al-Tami, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, said by e-mail.

The fate of Assad, 50, was the main sticking point in talks in Geneva that began in 2012 and went nowhere. Now, if he goes, opposition forces will start competing within Syria and unleash a new phase of civil conflict, said Bhalla at Stratfor.

No Trust

“There’s just a very deep level of distrust among all the factions and sectarian groups which will compel them to hold on to their arms as opposed to exchanging their bullets for ballot boxes,” she said.

On the other side, a transitional agreement will give Assad the opportunity to use the time to discredit the opposition so that all that’s left is al-Qaeda and Islamic State, said Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at Chatham House .

“The solution becomes that he stays and he rules until the end of his life,” Hassan said from London. “That’s the only thing the regime is thinking of”

Power-sharing agreements have rarely brought a clean end to conflicts in the region. The Taif accord that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990 has not been fully implemented. Yet it could be the best model Syria can hope for, said Austin Long, assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group, said a political solution can work if the new government doesn’t govern all of Syria initially. Depending on its political performance, it can give less incentive to Islamist rebel groups not to challenge it and some may be co-opted and give up their weapons, he said.

“But there’s going to be an initial violent phase,” Kamel said from London. “I don’t think anyone comes to the table right away because the Russians have deployed.”

For more, read this QuickTake: Syria’s Civil War

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