Russia’s direct intervention in Syria has firmed up the Assad regime, but it hasn’t strategically wounded the United States, the West or Israel. None of them had a national interest in getting rid of Assad, and none of them is damaged by Russia putting boots on the ground to keep him in power. Russia’s direct intervention changes only one thing: it makes it highly unlikely that Daesh will ever control Damascus or the Levantine littoral.
Russia has, in Syria, a client state on the Eastern Mediterranean. For three years the West and its allies have made half-hearted attempts to bring its regime down. The most significant result has been the ascent of Daesh in Syria’s and Iraq’s rural hinterlands.
Since the beginning of the insurgency in Syria the Russian government has made it clear that they would not permit Ducky Assad’s regime in Syria to fall. For four years Russia has been happy to support Assad indirectly. Now Russia is giving Assad direct support, arguably more support even than they gave his father during those years when he was preparing for the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
The United States and its allies recognised that, unlike the hapless, friendless Muammar Ghadafy, Assad could not be dumped from power by application of Western air power and special forces. The United States and its allies supported the anti-Assad insurgency even though it has had no hope of succeeding in its aim to overthrow the Syrian regime. Some of the proxies in that insurgency evolved into the Al-Nusra Front and Daesh.
Before the now-tragic Arab Spring moment we were all content to have Assad running Syria. We suddenly decided he had to be overthrown and, in the absence of compelling strategic reasons to risk a great deal, we gave the shambolic insurgents a small measure of support (against my consistent advice in these pages, of course).
Some who view Russia as an enemy of the West were content to see the Russian navy stop using its home port facilities at Tartous in the face of insurgent threat.
Those who imagined an Iranian-controlled Shia Crescent from Tehran through Baghdad to Damascus (which requires us to make ‘Alawites honorary Shiites) were happy to see the previously shadowy Iranian proconsul Qassem Soleimani thrust into the glare of publicity as he scrambled to muster his resources to limit Daesh massacres.
Those who (rightly) view all Iranian policy as a vast elastic sheet of give-and-take were happy to see Soleimani expending his Hezbollah cannon fodder against Syrian insurgents rather than Israelis. Iranian defeat in Iraq and Iranian proxies’ defeat in Syria force Iran to react rather than act, and that’s a good thing for those who would rather see Iran reacting.
It has, however, not served the vital national interests of America, Britain or Israel to hang Mr and Mrs Assad, especially if doing so required punching Russia in the nose. It arguably serves Jordanian national interests, it very likely serves Lebanese national interests (if one takes the trouble to imagine what they would be if Lebanon functioned as a state), it possibly serves Qatari national interests and Turkish interests.
For more than a generation Assad was a problem for Israel in his support for Hezbollah in the Lebanon. This is unlikely to change. For more than a generation Assad kept his border with Israel quiet and secure. With Russian forces present in and around Damascus this could likely be the case again.
Some American pundits have said that Russian pilots and air defenders will make it hard or impossible for Israel to conduct air operations against Syria. Because Israel has rarely had to conduct air operations against Syria this century, this point is largely moot.
The one reason that Israel might want freedom of the skies to blast a target in Syria is to destroy a nuclear research facility. Arguably, Russians on the ground in Syria are better protection against Syria seeking secretly to develop chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons than the threat of Israeli air superiority.
Israel has, however, operated against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in recent years. If Iran’s favourite Lebanese militia can ever return its focus from Syria to the rapacious Zionist enemy, Israel’s air force will once again seek to operate close to the Syrian border. Syria has in the past allowed its air defense umbrella to extend into Lebanese airspace. If Russia simply provided advanced air defense radars and missiles to Assad then this would certainly be the case in future. It is far less certain that Russian-manned air defense missiles would fire on Israeli aircraft flying missions over Lebanon.
It is certainly far less likely that a Russian aircraft will wander into Israeli airspace than a Syrian aircraft.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that this is not your Pappy’s Russia. We are no longer in the Cold War world of zero-sum foreign policy where every Eastern Bloc gain was a Western loss. Because Russia is behaving like a 19th century Great Power (with some success) and not like the Stalinist superpower bent on world domination that we imagined (with partial justification) last century, we can be relaxed about Russia propping up its proxies. Russia rightly does not fear the American Sixth Fleet tying up at Haifa, nor should the US fear the Russian Black Sea Fleet tying up at Tartous.
Israel in particular has little reason for anxiety at the presence of Russian forces. While Russia has been ready to support and arm Syria and Iran in recent years, Sergey Lavrov’s foreign ministry has also been prepared to discipline both countries. The strings attached to Russian aid and military assistance are long and strong, and Israel’s relationship with Russia is arguably just as good as Syria’s or Iran’s. Evidence for this is Bibi Netanyahu’s imminent visit to Moscow to remind Russian Tsar V. V. Putin to keep his equipment in Syria firmly gripped and out of Hezbollah’s hands.
For those who were content to see the Arab Spring narrative preserved at the cost of every last drop of Sunni blood in Syria, Russia’s intervention will be the final confirmation that Assad will not go down without Lavrov’s say-so.
Those who say that more robust American intervention some time in the past three years would have replaced Assad with a less awful regime are guilty of thinking with their hearts.
If they say that Russian intervention is a strategic defeat for America they’re wrong: Syria was Russia’s before, it’s Russia’s now. The status quo is preserved.
It’s entirely likely that Daesh will be badly damaged in process, caught between the (so far ineffective) American and regional operations, Iranian operations, Kurdish defenses and Russian operations in support of the Assad regime. It is also possible, though unlikely, that Russia’s presence will accelerate Daesh’s metamorphosis from wild apocalyptic entity to stable Sunni state.
As I’ve said in these pages since the insurgency began, Assad is a bastard. He deserves to be deposed. The Syrian insurgency has been incapable of getting rid of him since Day One. He doesn’t deserve to still be running the great chunk of Syria he still controls. It’s unpleasant, but realist foreign policy never promised anyone a happy ending.