The so-called Syrian Civil War is Syrian in name only. It has seen combatants from scores of countries flooding into the jihadist fanatic armies, while Israel, Turkey, the US, France, the UK, Iran, Russia, the Arab monarchies, they all have meddled, bombarded, funded their own armed proxies and contributed in many ways to destroy the country. Syria is a shame on humanity, seen by everyone as an opportunity to flex their muscles and test each other’s red lines, limits and capacities. And we’ve been surprised to see the Russian emperor come out absolutely naked in this power-game.
The conflict in Syria has, above all, demonstrated the limits of the military power of Russia. All the jingoistic rhetoric of Putin-loving elements about Russia’s military might have been exposed to the world for what it is: a sham. The emperor is naked –Russia is nothing but a rundown state with pretentions of being a super-power, which may be able to bully the Georgians, but south of the Caucasus, it is others who run the show. And the war in Syria has proved just that. Despite the massive success of the operations to defeat jihadists in Syria and to boost the government of Assad –the only leader of the only country who would be willing to give them a military base in the Mediterranean-, Russia has clashed against a formidable military force which tests the limits of its hard power. This was demonstrated by Erdogan time and again, but particularly with the Sochi meeting which made partition of Syria official, showed that Turkey wouldn’t back down to Russia’s threats and showed its willingness to protect the most back-warded jihadists imaginable. It is Erdogan, not Putin who sets the agenda and who determines what is acceptable and what is not in Syria. Russia was humiliated, proving that getting into a course of conflict with a NATO country is no option for them. Their limits were exposed for everyone to see.
It is not the first time that Turkey slaps Russia in the face. They downed a Russian fighter; their ambassador Andrei Karlov was assassinated in Turkey by a policeman whom jihadists in Idlib parade as a hero; and what does Russia do? Some economic measures against Turkey only to be back a couple of months later with a stronger than ever relationship. They drum-beat like King Kong and then do nothing. Not because they are sensible, or hold the higher moral ground, or because they try not to escalate things. They don’t do anything because they can’t. Simple as that. The outdated Russian army is efficient enough to carpet bomb –they lack capacity for precision targeting- gangs of armed jihadists who spend most of their time reading the Q’uran as opposed to military theory anyway. But confronted to a real army, such as Turkey, they will back. Sergey Lavrov, their minister of foreign affairs, yelled from the top of his lungs that the territorial integrity of Syria was out of question and they would bomb the terrorists in Idlib. In Tehran Putin was saying that a cease-fire was out of question. But Turkey only needed to move its military forces into the region to convince Putin to sit in the negotiating table one week later and accept a de-militarised zone; indeed more than what Erdogan had originally asked for. And what about the territorial integrity of Syria and the fight against Al-Qaeda? Well, now Syria has been officially partitioned and the Al-Qaeda gangs will be well looked after by their Turkish sponsors.
To add injury to insult, that very night a number of targets in Syria, including Latakia where Russia has its military base, came under attack by Israeli fighters. The highly inefficient Russian air-defences not only didn’t manage to stop most of the bombs to hit target, but they actually managed to down a cargo place with 15 Russian soldiers behind which the Israeli fighter jets had taken shelter to attack Syria. The Russian Minister of Defence comes out to say that Russia reserves the right to take appropriate measures against hostile Israeli actions… and what will happen? Guessed right. Nothing. This is just bluffing. Putin already came out to say that the Israelis didn’t mean it and in a couple of days everything will be back to business as usual. Israel will keep bombarding Syria as the please, and Putin will declare that his love for Netanyahu is eternal and that a dozen dead Russians are not that big a deal at all. They will come out of this with a relationship stronger than ever. The harder you hit Putin, the stronger the relationship will be after the blow.
But if you give him what he wants, then he will trample all over you. Look at Assad, renewing the Russian military base until 2049, when Putin accepts the partition of Syria, and actually coordinates with Israel their bombardments so they don’t hit Russians but ‘kill as many Syrians as you like, sir’ –what kind of strange alliance is that? But it is not only that Russians will not stop Israel from bombing their supposed ally –they actually can’t do anything about it. The Latakia bombings demonstrated that Russia can’t even defend the surroundings of their military bases. Let’s see if anyone would dare to bombard jihadists even miles away from the Al-Tanf US military base in Southern Syria! If Russia can’t protect even its own bases and their own military personnel, what can Assad expect in terms of protection from future bombardments and interventions?
As for poor Syria, its future looks grim as hell. Assad has been left with a partitioned country and nothing much of a say in the future of it. The Kurdish have been increasingly turned into a proxy army for the US and their dependence on them was tested with the Turkish invasion of Afrin: it fell like a house of cards. Their enclave will be turned into a US protectorate in exchange of oil and military bases –which sooner rather than later will be officially sanctioned by the US, which will never allow a Turkish military incursion where their military bases are. Erdogan’s limits are not set by Russia, but by the US and Israel. Thus, all the transformative and emancipatory potential of the experience of Rojava, the only honourable page written in this senseless conflict, will come to nothing. The US will never allow any serious challenge to ‘capitalist modernity’ in their protectorate. They will possibly allow women co-chairs all over the place to prove the world how progressive Rojava is, same as Israel and their gay parade marches, proof that they are a “progressive” country, nevermind the plight of Palestinians. But to question class relations and imperialism in Rojava? To be serious about self-government? That is really difficult to happen under US sponsorship. Possibly far more pressure will be put on them to distance from the PKK which is getting shattered in Turkey and Northern Iraq. The Kurdish are prisoners now of US presence in Syria, and no amount of PR exercises will change the fact that if your autonomy depends on the presence of a foreign empire, it is empty chatter.
Was there another possible outcome? Yes. A pragmatic alliance between Assad and the Kurds, which would have allowed for Assad to remain as president and the Kurdish to get a degree of autonomy, stood a real chance of defeating Turkey and its proxies, while keeping a certain autonomy from their foreign patrons. A far cry from the scenario every party would have wished for, but no doubt the best possible scenario that could have come out of this absolute humanitarian disaster called Syrian Civil War. But precisely the proxy nature of the conflict didn’t allow anyone to see this chance. The Kurdish thought, and still think (surprisingly, even after Afrin), that the US is their friend. The Assadists thought that Russia was their friend. Imperialism has no friends, only interests. Whether it is the proper US imperialism, or the pathetically hallucinatory Russian imperialism, they only looked for their interests. Israel has won a weak neighbour unable to defend itself and under constant threat from the jihadists pockets kept live by Turkey. Turkey will manage to keep the Kurdish at bay and annex new territories in Idlib, Al-Bab, Jarabulus, and Afrin through proxies to feed the neo-Ottomanists dreams of its caliph. The US won oil and 14 military bases Russia keep their only military base in the Mediterranean, one which they can’t even defend. But there it is. And the Arab or Kurdish Syrians? Irrevocably partitioned into protectorates and unable to have a say in their own future. What a prospect!
Welcome to the New Middle East that Bush foresaw back in 2001.