Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The End of Hope

By David G. Young

Morro Bay, California, September 15, 2015 --  

Russia's Syrian intervention will empower the Islamic State at the expense of the moderate opposition.

Reports of Russian ground troops fighting with the Syrian government mark a new era in the country's civil war.1  It's a change that has far reaching international implications as mass refugee movements are causing feuds within the European Union, and warfare between Syrian factions has drawn in a dozen other countries.

For Russia, intervening in Syria scratches many itches.  It is a chance to prop up a long-term ally dating to Soviet times.  It is a chance to promote its world view that stable, sometimes dictatorial strongmen (like Putin) are preferable to weak and chaotic democracies.  And it is a chance to poke a stick in the eye of the West, which has called on Syrian President Assad to step down.

Putin's defense of strongmen is not without sympathy in the world.  Many view America's violent removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a mistake, especially given that the Islamic State has managed to capitalize on the weakness of the successor regime by taking over the western part of the country.  Similarly, the West's intervention in Libya, another old Soviet ally, managed to topple its dictator, but left the country in the hands of a warring jumble of militias, many of which are distastefully Islamist.

In Syria, America and its European allies walk a fine line, making air strikes against the Islamic State, but trying not to aid the Syrian government with which the Islamic State is at war.   America's aid to the non-Islamist opposition in Syria has been utterly ineffectual.  Meanwhile, money flows from rich Persian Gulf states to the Islamist opposition groups that America, Europe, Turkey and Jordan now fight.

It is still unclear how extensive Russia's intervention will be.  In addition to sending new heavy weapons including tanks and warplanes, pilots and ground troops are reportedly now involved.2  Given that the West is already hammering at the Islamic State in eastern Syria, it is a good bet that Russia will focus on hitting the other opposition groups in western Syria -- some of which are the more moderate factions allied with Europe and the United States.

This is terrible news for the Syrian people, especially the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria that has formed the bulk of the rebellion against the Alawite-based regime of President Assad.   The Sunnis, who have been punished brutally for rebelling, have sent the bulk of the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of the country. Until the Russian intervention, there were signs that the Assad regime was beginning to weaken. It had admitted having trouble filling the ranks of the army and had suffered several high profile losses.  While Russian forces may not be able to defeat the rebels, they can certainly slow the erosion of the Syrian government's position and perhaps stabilize it.   The Sunnis living in western Syria will be the big losers here, probably accelerating the flight of the refugees.

The winners, in addition to the Assad regime, include the Islamic State, which will be strengthened relative to the other Syrian opposition groups by Russia's focus on destroying Assad's opponents in western Syria.

For those who once dared to dream of a democratic Syria by starting the peaceful protests against Assad during the Arab Spring, Russia's intervention marks the end of any remaining hope.  Fleeing the country on rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean may be the only alternative to dying.

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1. The Daily Telegraph, Russian Troops Fighting Alongside Assad's Army Against Syrian Rebels, September 2, 2015

2. Ibid.