Russia Enters the Syrian Conflict

Yarmouk Camp, Damascus, Syria (Image: VOA)

The growing number of foreign players in the Syrian conflict is making the chances of any conclusion of the conflict evermore distant. The past few weeks have seen an intensifying of the campaigns of many of the countries already involved, alongside the starting of campaigns by others.

Russia’s entry into the fray will also further complicate any attempts to end the conflict with diplomacy

France has joined America and Turkey in launching air-strikes against Islamic State in Syria, making the skies over Syria that bit more crowded. Adding to that, Russia has also launched cruise missiles from its ships in the Caspian Sea and there have some indications that the infamous ‘volunteer’ battalions which swarmed into Ukraine may make another appearance. This might be applauded by some if these strikes hit at Islamic State, the global pariah is not the Kremlin’s main target however, with the Turkish Prime Minister telling a newspaper that only two out of 57 Russian airstrikes had hit Islamic State targets.

This suggests that Russian strikes are aimed more at shoring up the crumbling regime of President Assad, who had experienced a number of defeats in the past few months. Such action will win Russia no favours with the West and further complicates an already deeply complicated conflict. Turkey continues to strike both Islamic State and Kurdish forces, the latter of which are seen as American allies in the fight against Islamic State. Britain is also mulling the possibility of sending its Air Force into action over Syria to bomb Islamic State targets. 

Despite persistent attack Islamic State continues to expand its borders

The arguments that Western bombing would halt and eventually ‘erode and destroy’ Islamic State are looking increasingly thin. Despite persistent attack Islamic State continues to expand its borders, albeit slower than the lightening pace which caught the world’s attention when it took the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, American attempts to train ‘moderate’ rebels have been openly mocked after it was revealed that after spending over $500 million only half a dozen fighters were actually in the field. The program has since been cancelled. 

Indeed, Russian action has only highlighted American inaction and handed Putin an opportunity to present Russia as a preeminent world power and loyal ally of Iran and Syria. Russian action also secures it a role in any negotiations around peace deals in Syria and has forced the White House to engage with the Kremlin following a two-year freeze following the Ukraine Crisis. Not only a diplomatic victory for Putin, the entry of Russia into the conflict has allowed it to strengthen its strategically important control of the port at Tartus on the Syrian coastline, one of the few foreign Russian military bases. The move has also helped the Assad regime on the ground. Launching a new wide-ranging offensive in the past week, the government had managed to wrest back control of territory it had lost to an increasingly capable and co-ordinated rebel alliance. 

Despite the old adage, for Syria, more definitely isn’t merrier

In the short term,the growing number of players in the country’s civil war will undoubtedly lead to an escalation in violence, both as the newly emboldened regime steps up its attacks, but also as all rebel groups and Islamic State seek to expand and survive whilst under renewed attacks. It has also put pressure on both NATO and the American led air campaign. For NATO the challenge came as Russian jets strayed into Turkish airspace, leading the alliance to issue warnings that Russian provocation would not be tolerated. This comes amid already heightened tensions between Russia and NATO over the Ukraine crisis. The American led campaign, including Gulf states have also come under pressure to do more to aid rebel groups and destroy Islamic State. 

In the long term though, the move may prove costly for Russia. The failure of the American coalitions’ attempts to destroy Islamic State proves that aerial bombardment isn’t always effective. This may mean Russia is dragged into defending the Assad regime in other ways, something it can ill afford to do as its economy teeters following Western sanctions and the fall in the price of oil, Russia’s chief export. Russia’s entry into the fray will also further complicate any attempts to end the conflict with diplomacy, with many Western governments already altering their demands that Assad had to step down as part of any peace deal. Despite the old adage, for Syria, more definitely isn’t merrier.

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