Syria is becoming a black hole of Cold War entanglements

The chaos on the ground is providing opportunities for the Russians and Americans to come to blows, writes Alan Philps

A picture shows the scene following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 21, 2018. 
Ten civilians were killed in fresh air strikes by the Syrian regime on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, where 270 people have died in three days of bombardment, a monitor said. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA
Powered by automated translation

It was only two months ago that Vladimir Putin declared victory in Syria and announced – not for the first time – that he would start withdrawing Russian forces. It was understood that Mr Putin, facing an election campaign next month, was keen to move the Syrian war to a new stage, that of diplomacy where Russian diplomats and generals would oversee a difficult peace process.

The war has indeed reached a new stage – but it is one of escalating violence and grotesque chaos as the cast of outside powers and foreign mercenaries clash in a blood-soaked scramble for power and influence. How has this come about, and when might the longed-for endgame come to pass?

The salient feature is that Russia and the US are more deeply engaged in Syria than ever. Despite their premature claim of victory, the Russians are there to stay as the leading outside power. It had been thought that the Americans might withdraw from Syria now that the Salafi-jihadists of ISIL have been defeated there and in Iraq. But Washington has made clear that the 2,000 military personnel will remain for the foreseeable future to counter Iran.

Despite their enduring commitment, the two former superpowers are determined on one thing: not to get sucked into a full-scale war, such as was the case in Afghanistan with the Russians and Iraq for the Americans. For Mr Putin the stakes are clear: Russian history shows that losing a war topples regimes – the Tsars in the First World War and the Communists in Afghanistan.

The two big powers share another common issue: their allies are unruly, with disruptive goals inside Syria. Some of the loudest rhetoric heard in recent days is from the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a treaty ally of the United States in Nato – who has sent troops into northern Syria and is threatening to crush the US-backed Kurdish militia on his southern border. For Turkey, the Kurdish proto-state to the south looks like an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, which has battled the Turkish state for decades.

Just as tense – though not aired in public – is the relationship between Russia and its ally Iran, which persuaded the Russians to intervene in 2015 to save the Assad regime. Now the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the spearhead of Iran’s expeditionary forces, is setting up bases in western Syria under the guise of opening up a new front with Israel. Whether this constitutes a genuine threat to Israel is open to question. What is certain is that it further entrenches Iranian power in the heart of the Arab world, establishing a Tehran’s influence all the way to the Mediterranean.

Russia meanwhile maintains close relations with Israel. So when the Israeli air force goes on bombing raids against Iranian targets in Syria, the Russians who control the airspace turn a blind eye while their allies are being pummelled.

The outcome of all these contradictions is diplomatic paralysis such that the UN admits it has no peace process, a humanitarian catastrophe almost unprecedented in more than six years of conflict, and the ever-present threat that a military misjudgment could turn into a new shooting war between the outside powers.

The Syrian regime, with Russian support, has chosen this time to destroy the besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, home to 400,000 people. More than 200 have been killed in air raids and artillery bombardments over the past two days, with six hospitals and clinics targeted for destruction and no access for humanitarian convoys.

Eastern Ghouta was one of the “de-confliction zones” set up by the Russians last year after the fall of rebel-held Aleppo to reduce the violence and encourage peace talks. Now it seems that the Aleppo model is being revived, though the numbers of civilians is far greater in Eastern Ghouta than in the besieged part of that city. If the regime achieves this goal it will liquidate a rebel strongpoint which has been able to send rockets and mortars into Damascus.

At the same time as peace efforts are being abandoned, the chaos on the ground is providing opportunities for the Russians and Americans to come to blows.

In the Cold War, the two superpowers threatened each other with mutually assured destruction through nuclear weapons but it was extremely rare for US or Russian soldiers to kill each other. Not so this time. On February 7, members of Mr Putin's "shadow army" of mercenaries were killed by US air attacks when they crossed the Euphrates River near the city of Deir Ezzor to attack an oil processing plant controlled by a US-aligned Kurdish militia.

The Russian foreign ministry has acknowledged that “several dozen” citizens of Russia and other former Soviet states were killed by US forces. But the government has not been keen to talk about a “deniable” contingent of Russians who work for a Kremlin-connected private military company. The Russian press has indicated that this attack was a “commercial” adventure, hinting at the benefit which would accrue to the contracting company if it gained control of the oil facility. If this is true, it adds another tier to the armed chaos in Syria.

It also exposes a weakness of Mr Putin’s low-casualty policy. For understandable reasons, he wants to limit the deaths of Russian soldiers. Yet he is now the master of Syria and whatever happens, it is up to him to deal with the consequences. That may require much more than air power. As things look now, the winding down of the war which seemed just about possible last year is still far away.