Some rather unsurprising developments caught my eye yesterday afternoon concerning the ongoing Syrian civil war and, in particular, the not-so-secret involvement of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps September 25th will have to go down as international hypocrisy day, as the two regional powers faced intense accusations from three western powers concerning what they called ‘war crimes’ in Syria. Three news articles in particular may interest readers at this blog:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-37468080 (accusation number 1, from an American diplomat at the UN)
http://www.itv.com/news/2016-09-25/russia-hits-back-at-boris-johnsons-syria-war-crime-slur/ (accusation number 2, this time from the United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary Al Johnson)
http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-and-Russia-in-danger-of-becoming-war-crimes-accomplices-468663 (and finally a small contribution from French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault)
I must stress right away that I do not deny and have not denied the links between Iranian and Russian action in Syria and the intensifying civil war. Iran’s funding of terrorism in Syria; the tail country of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ has been a continued and deliberate ploy to further destabilise a now ravaged and desperate nation. Russia’s bombing campaigns are hardly secret, and it would seem that agreed ceasefires with the United States (which are crucial to the fostering of any kind of productive or peaceful settlement) have gone largely ignored in the Kremlin.
I am personally convinced that the Russians and Iranians are sensing that the Syrian military are growing in confidence. Israeli commentator Yossi Melman recently attributed the shooting down of two Israeli aircraft in the Quneitra region on the part of Assad’s government to this renewed confidence. It is not hard to imagine that, given recent successes in Damascus against both non-aligned rebels and Islamic State, Assad’s forces are beginning to feel a sense of control once more.
The Syrian military are coming off the heels of a slightly more successful summer. Notable gains were made in Aleppo, and three strategic locations were wrestled from the al-Nusra front (Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate) in the western province of Hama. From the perspective of Russian and Iranian foreign policy and their diplomats, this would therefore seem a bad time to adhere to any proposed plans for a ceasefire. While momentum appears to be going the way of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime, why stop now?
You can see why western powers are frustrated. It is particularly amusing to see the ‘war crimes’ line thrown out in an attempt to demonise two countries following an entirely reasonable strategic goal (though the way it has without doubt been followed has been counter-productive to peace). War crimes have become a thing in the Middle East not in recent years, but in fact many years prior to the Arab Spring. But again, the question of hypocrisy comes ringing back to me.
The United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia do not, contrary to their claims, have any principled objections to war crimes in Syria. If they did, then why, as Patrick Cockburn notes in his fantastically concise book ‘The rise of Islamic State’, would they have sought to play such an active role in laying down the fertile soil out of which ISIS would grow. More recently, in fact, United States-led airstrikes killed 28 civilians in a ruthless attack on al-Ghandour, a small town in the northwestern countryside of Manbij.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – responsible for accounting for the suffering of non-combatants in the ongoing Syrian crisis – recently noted of the 28 innocents (allegedly including both women and children): “They were killed when the warplanes of the international coalition committed a massacre in the town of al-Ghandour, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”
These points are made over and over again, but they are important. The Syrian civil war has long been a proxy for major powers to flex their military muscles in an attempt to further their own interests. How sad it is that so many young children have to pay the price for this never ending stupidity. Also stupid was the insinuation that Iran would support a ceasefire in Syria, even temporary, between the United States and Russia.
In the case of Syria, the strategic goals of Russia and the United States are in direct contravention to one another. Since Iran’s vision for Syria requires its tactical alliance with Russia to be maintained for the foreseeable future, it would appear that any longstanding ceasefire between the two major powers could threaten the political interests of Tehran in the Syrian conflict. President Rouhani said in an interview recently that to ground all planes would “benefit the terrorists 100%” as IS would be able to continue with their ‘savage killings’.
Both Iran and Russia remain adamant that Syria is stronger, at least in the short term, with Assad in power. A strong argument can be made to support this. Former CIA analyst and respected foreign policy commentator Graham Fuller has explained in the past that many Syrians (including large Sunni and minority communities) now accept that preserving Assad’s power could well be preferable to despotic alternatives. In Iraq, Sunni communities saw ISIS as a lesser of two evils, the same is not true in Syria. For Russia, it is about preserving and extending its geo-strategic influence in the region. For Iran, it is about protecting Shia communities and combating Sunni terrorism – funded and supported, in large part, by the very countries ‘seeking to establish’ a ceasefire in Syria.
The devastating effects of the Syrian civil war remain only a bloody backdrop to a posturing deadlock between major world powers. It’s about time they were pushed to the foreground.