Earlier this week the talk had been of a Russian campaign against Isis, providing aircraft and heavy weaponry to blow the terrorist group out of its Syrian strongholds. The first Russian sorties in Syria have struck at areas not under the control of Isis but of the moderate Syrian rebels whose cause the West once vociferously backed. One of the groups hit had been vetted by the CIA, no less, and provided with American anti-tank missiles.
Shocking in itself, the development nevertheless reveals little about Russia’s ambitions in Syria that was not already known. While the West reacted in horror to the Assad regime’s massacre of peaceful protesters in 2011, the Kremlin stood by its long-time ally and client, and has since used its UN veto on four occasions to keep Bashar al-Assad in place. It should come as no surprise, then, that Russia’s military assistance has thus far slotted in to Mr Assad’s war plan – which has long targeted the remnants of the popular rebellion over and above Isis.
Bedraggled and fragmented as these rebels no doubt are, their demise has been exaggerated. They still occupy more territory than appears to be recognised in the West, particularly in the north and south-west, and count on the support of thousands of Syrians. The erasure of these groups from debate over the country’s future amounts to a convenient form of ignorance. It involves less moral compromise to ally oneself with Mr Assad – as Western nations have gingerly begun to – when one supposes none of the original rebel forces remains in the country, entirely overrun by the rise of Isis and other Islamist militias. The presence of moderate groups in the crosshairs of Russian warplanes should at least remind the West of their existence.
At this stage, however, there is little the US can do but sit back and watch. Despite Barack Obama’s backing of the rebels’ cause at the UN General Assembly, he will not seek to confront the Assad regime with force – as he did in 2013 – when to try again now would involve a conflagration with Russia. To all intents and purposes, the lead in Syria has been left to Russia and Iran, which will ensure Mr Assad stays in place. Iranian troops are reportedly ready to enter the fray against the rebels in Idlib and Hama.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped is that Moscow and Tehran’s intervention will hasten the end of the civil war, by supporting the Syrian army to crush the rebels once and for all. Even that, however, would not remove the problem of Isis: so long as Mr Assad remains in power, its black flag will retain its lure.
Needless to say, the prospect of a diplomatic end to Syria’s nightmare has receded almost to its vanishing point. So disappointed is the Syrian opposition, it is rumoured to be close to withdrawing en masse from any UN-mediated peace process. There are options, still, for a bold reply from the West: opposition leaders have indicated they would work with the Syrian government to maintain basic services if the US were to establish and patrol “safe zones”. Yet again, though, the appetite is lacking.
Russia and Iran will decide Syria’s future. That may be good news for Isis, which will attract more support from Sunni Muslims, and bad news for the rebels the West wanted to back but never quite figured out how. As the horror of this beautiful nation unfolds, we are seeing the moral and military exhaustion of the West laid bare. That is yet another regrettable result of the Iraq War this paper so strongly opposed – and a betrayal of the Syrian people.
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