Middle East

Oct 3, 2016

Russia is winning the Syrian war

The US is unlikely to engage in direct intervention, at least for several months, for three reasons.

Professor Damien Kingsbury

Crikey international affairs commentator

Aleppo Airstrikes
It does not take much political imagination to get to the point where the situation in Syria, particularly the battle for Aleppo, should invoke the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). When a government turns on its own people -- in this case, largely civilians -- it has lost the right to rule, and foreign intervention becomes a legitimate alternative. It could be argued that R2P has been the legitimate alternative in the case in Syria for some years. However, R2P requires UN Security Council (UNSC) authorisation, which in turn requires its permanent five (P5) members not to veto such a move. With P5 members Russia and the US using Syria as a proxy battlefield, UNSC authorisation of an international force to settle the situation in Syria has never been a realistic option. [Tenuous ceasefire brings passing relief to war-ravaged Syria] To the extent that the US has intervened in the Syrian conflict, it has been limited to air strikes against Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and in materiel support for non-jihadi anti-Assad forces. Russia, on the other hand, has directly targeted the full range of anti-Assad groups, in particular non-jihadi groups, reasonably assessing that it can leave the US to do that. Given heightened expression of US concern over the bombing of Aleppo and, in particular, civilian areas including hospitals, Russia has replied by claiming these comments are a precursor to NATO intervention. Russia’s intention is to raise the spectre of the UNSC-approved NATO intervention in Libya, which led to the downfall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi and subsequent political turmoil in that country. While there is no sense, at this stage, that NATO is likely to unilaterally intervene in Syria, there has been debate within the US administration about escalating US involvement under the rubric of UN Charter chapter VII, article 51 regarding "collective self-defence". Late last week, a leaked audio revealed US Secretary of State John Kerry saying he and others had lost a debate within the Obama administration for greater intervention. Kerry did acknowledge, however, there were no legal grounds for direct US intervention against Syria’s Assad regime. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of "tectonic" changes in both Syria and the region should there be such an intervention. The US is unlikely to engage in direct intervention, at least for several months, for three reasons. The first reason is that such a war would likely be "unwinnable" in any conventional sense and could bring the US and Russia into dangerously direct conflict. The second reason is because, in retaliation, Russia, Syria and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies could easily spread the regional conflict beyond Syria’s borders, including to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon (but probably not Israel). The third reason that unilateral US intervention is unlikely any time soon is because Obama came to office promising to reduce, not escalate, conflict. He does not want to leave an unwinnable war as his legacy. However, should Hillary Clinton win November’s US presidential election and the Syrian war is not de-escalating by the time she takes office in January, it is possible that, on past form, she may consider such an intervention. But Hillary Clinton would , like Obama, be wary about a direct conflict with Russia. Donald Trump is wildly less predictable but, as voting intentions solidify, he also seems less likely to pull together sufficient swing states to achieve office. As from the outset in this deadly game, it therefore appears that Russia continues to hold Syria’s trump cards (no pun intended).

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

14 thoughts on “Russia is winning the Syrian war

  1. Paddlefoot

    The Russians’ adventurist approach to Syria appears to have its roots in both the ‘total war’ waged in Chechnya which left Grozny a smouldering ruin, and its perceived total impotence in the 1990s Balkan War where NATO bombed Belgrade with impunity. With any internal opposition brutally supressed – Boris Nemtsov being the latest victim – he can wrap himself in the flag and reclaim the old Soviet ‘spheres of influence’ by whatever means he deems fit. His use of human misery to undermine Western collective resolve has all the hallmarks of Stalin’s cynicism and his misinformation blizzard following MH17 is right out of the totalitarian handbook. He has visceral allies in the West who ‘admire’ his strength – again echoes of the 1930s abound.

    1. Dave Black

      I’m sorry to say, Paddlefoot, but you are shockingly ill-informed. In an age of information – ignorance is a choice.

  2. James O'Neill

    For an analysis of what is going on in Syria and the likely future I recommend that people read http://www.thesaker.is. There is more fact and insight there than anything yet produced by Crikeys commentator. As for Padlefoot, the kindest suggestion would be that he crawls back under the 1950s bush he clearly inhabits.

    1. Grumpy Old Sod

      In addition to that excellent article by the Saker, one should read the opinions of Ray McGovern, the ex CIA head of the Soviet Branch of the CIA in the eighties and the man who gave briefings to Reagan and his staff on the USSR on a regular basis. He, along with a host of conservative US bureaucrats, politicians and highly credentialed academics are scathing in their take on the US actions within Syria (and Ukraine), most pointing to the fact that Assad’s so called acts of terror upon his own population are propaganda fueled by an uncritical western press (or is that a bought out or a stood over or an economically complicit western press?) . In addition, direct evidence of US funding and arming of the so-called ‘rebels’ along with Al Quaeda, Daesh and their fellow murderous lunatics give the lie that this is an exercise in ‘freedom’. The UN Charter specifically forbids the overthrow of a sovereign government so therefore, by what right has the US to be there in the first place? For anyone to state that the US is a harbinger of peace and liberation need only to view their actions since the end of World War 2 to be convinced that the only thing that floats their boat is world domination and the economic benefits that brings.

    2. Paddlefoot

      Oh dear .. peak troll alert

      1. Grumpy Old Sod

        OK Paddlefoot me old son, I’ll keep trolling you as it’s marvellous sport. Just to continue your education on the home grown critics within the US I suggest you also look up the following small representative sample:
        Paul Craig Roberts – in charge of the US domestic economy under Reagan. Probably attended some of those briefings given by McGovern.
        Pat Buchanan – Republican commentator, politician, well known defender of ‘classical’ Republicanism and, in my opinion, an honourable man.
        Lt Col L Wilkerson – Gen. Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff. Has a fascinating view on where the US is heading and it’s not a good destination.
        Professor Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University.

        Just a few to get you educated.
        Really Paddlefoot me old bucko, you need to get out more.

        1. Paddlefoot

          Relentless .. hope it pays well.

  3. Aphra

    Martti Ahtisaari reported that in 2012, Russia offered the possibility of getting Assad to stand down. Ahtisaari said that the US, UK, France etc all believed that Assad would fall within a few weeks so did nothing.
    Since the offer was made, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war. I can’t begin to imagine what the suffering and misery is like in Syria.

  4. jimpintin

    Can anyone tell me roughly what percentage of Aleppo is under siege? On google maps it looks like a huge city. I had read only a few outer suburbs were affected by the bombing. Most media coverage gives the impression the whole city is being bombed. What are the facts?

    1. Dave Black

      Its in East Aleppo that (approx 200,000-25,000, figures vary) civilians are being held hostage by terrorist groups. the latest is that when civilians try tp leave terrorist snipers in derelict buildings pick them off ) If you follow the work of Vanessa Beeley & Canadian journo Eva Bartlett (with of whom have FB pages) and our own Prof. of Uni of Sydney, Tim Anderson, author of the insightful tome, ‘The Dirty War of Syria’ – you should be able to keep abreast of developments from decent, reputable sources.

      1. Dave Black

        *200,000 – 250,000

  5. Michele Cochrane

    There are an estimated 150,000-200,000 civilians in terrorist-controlled East Aleppo. Meanwhile there are upward of a million civilians living in the government controlled suburbs of Aleppo, who are daily subjected to indiscriminate shelling and rocket attacks from East Aleppo. We don’t hear about these majority people or their suffering at the hands of the terrorists in biased accounts like Kingsbury’s.

    Given that the demographic proportions I have described are roughly the same all over Syria, it’s a bit rich to start talking about “R2P.” Eighty percent of Syrians support their government, their President, and the preservation of their culture and secular society as a sovereign state. The minority of the population – who support destruction of the things the majority hold dear, and who wish to impose beheading, sexual slavery, child rape and the murder of religious minorities as an alternative to those values – are ultimately answerable to the rule of Syrian law, not so-called international law (which is conveniently silent on the daily bombing of cities and civilians in Yemen by the US-backed Saudi military).

    Hell is about to be visited on East Aleppo. The Syrian government will claim the civilians there are being used as human shields by the terrorists. The terrorists will claim the civilians are being murdered by their own government in a ruthless suppression of popular revolt. We have heard all of this before – in Grozny and in Fallujah for example. We will hear it again during the planned and upcoming assault on the city of Mosul by the United States in concert with the Iraq military.

    Unless the United States declares war on Syria and its allies, I imagine the Syrian government assault on East Aleppo will be carefully focused and brutal; what else would you expect, when the stakes are so high? After the initial shock there will be a pause and the government will give the civilian population of East Aleppo a final chance to leave through safe-passage corridors. After that, whatever the civilians decide to do or are permitted to do by the terrorists, the grim business will resume and along with it all of the suffering that we can only imagine. Its the reality of urban warfare, fighting a subversive terrorist force that has chosen to embed itself in the civilian population – these are the forces that should be condemned here, not the government of the people of Syria.

  6. AR

    It is a worry that a tenured, highly paid professor is either so ignorant or deliberately & intentionally mendacious as to claim that the Syrian government is warring on its own citizens.
    No mention whatsoever of who has financed, armed and given political cover to the insurgents – those fine, old democracies such as Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar & Kuwait.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details