The news that Russia has now bombed US-backed rebels inside Syria shouldn’t come as much surprise. The only surprising thing is that anybody would be at all surprised. This week witnessed a rare conjunction when Russian and American goals briefly aligned, though few politicians in the West would want to admit that too openly.
US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, has already called Russian actions ‘tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire’ but, as any good physicist would know (and Carter is a physicist), one way of extinguishing a fire is to make it rage hot enough to deplete the oxygen that feeds it. It might not be a truth that America is willing to acknowledge but Western backed forces are part of the fire that Russia is there to extinguish. This confrontation was always likely to happen, sooner rather than later. Russian troops and hardware were not sent to Syria to help stop the flood of refugees lining up at Europe’s border. The attack helicopters are not in Syria because Putin has been morally ashamed by brutal Daesh videos he’s seen on the internet. Russia is also not spending millions in Syria to help the west fix a problem caused by neo-conservatives with too many bright ideas and too few boring but practical plans.
Russian troops find themselves in Syria because President Putin intends to support the government of Bashar al-Assad and that is precisely what he will do until it’s neither necessary nor politically sensible to do so. And it will probably be politically sensible for some time to come as Putin exploits the unstructured Western response to the Daesh in order to reassert Russian power on the global stage.
The question now is what might America’s response be, if, indeed, there is any response at all. There is talk of cooperation to avoid accidents as two air campaigns are fought in the same airspace. Words, however, are cheap and there will be cheap phrases uttered by both sides in the coming days. American words will attempt to save face as Russia sets out to do a job that the West has thus far been unwilling to undertake. Russian words will be about minimising the extent to which their actions inflict damage on Western interests, so expect them to routinely raise the partially strawman of the Daesh. Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, initially defended the latest bombing saying that ‘the rumours that the target of these air strikes was not IS positions are unfounded’. ‘Unfounded’ is not the same as ‘categorically untrue’. Facts did eventually emerge forcing the Russians to admit that they targeted the enemies of their friends, enemies who happened to be friends of the West. Really, however, the admission amounted to nothing we didn’t already know. Much of what’s happening already lies in the shadows between diplomacy and action.
In terms of the reality on the ground, talk of Western loyalty to various factions is merely that. The history of covert operations is not without a few precedents of countries (often, quite notably, the United States) leaving allies and paid insurgents in a mess when the high-level politics change.
The maths of the Middle East now stack up unfavourably for the anti-Assad forces. With the exception of the Kurdish factions in the north, few have shown the willingness or aptitude required to eat into the Daesh territory. In Western popular opinion, however, the ‘Middle East problem’ is now almost entirely synonymous with the Daesh. The rise of hyper-fundamentalists casts different shadows across the land. Suddenly, Iran looks relatively moderate and this week we’ve already seen a few Western politicians gently float proposals that would leave Assad in power and the proposition that Iranian troops might move westwards to confront the Daesh is not being reported with the kind of heightened rhetoric that such news might have produced just a few months ago. Politicians openly speak of Syrian regime change in the future but the promise is as thin as the notion that Russia is engaged in a humanitarian action.
This week might well mark the moment when the Middle East stopped descending into chaos as a new order is imposed. There should be no illusions, however, about that new order. It will in all likelihood look very familiar and very Russian.