David Watts examines the escalating war in Syria and the increasing dangers it presents to the wider world as Russian actions create new divisions within the EU and NATO.
The war in Syria is at least four wars in one: religious, geo-political, ethnic and a war of terror on local populations, as has become apparent over the last few weeks.
But its most dangerous element is the increasing involvement of outside major powers in a chaotic, unpredictable situation which could easily lead to a wider war.
It is hard to imagine now that just five years ago Syria was a Middle Eastern backwater known for its rich history and the purity of it spoken Arabic. The Alawite regime was considered so unthreatening that even the Israelis wanted to maintain it as a buffer against others. Now its major cities are piles of rubble, its people are fleeing or homeless in their own land and its prospects for survival limited.
Air strikes against two Syrian hospitals, with devastating consequences for Médecins Sans Frontières and their patients, and the deliberate targeting of cities for intensive bombardment appear to be part of a calculated attempt to create new facts on the ground. Another MSF affiliated hospital was destroyed in Idlib. ‘This appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure,’ said Massimiliano Rebaudengo, the Doctors Without Borders head of mission in Syria. ‘The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict.’
Russia’s flat denials of responsibility for the bombings have cut no ice in Ankara. Senior Turkish officials say Vladimir Putin and his Syrian allies are shamelessly using increased refugee outflows resulting from these and similar attacks as a means of putting pressure not only on President Bashir al-Assad’s opponents but on Turkey as it struggles to deal with increasing refugee numbers, and on European nations beyond as the crisis threatens Europe’s political unity.
Turkish security officials likened Russia’s bombing of civilian targets, such as the raid on an MSF hospital, to the ‘Grozny model’ used in the first Chechen war—in other words, using humans as a weapon of war.
In Chechnya population centres were deliberately laid waste so as to make them uninhabitable, and the civilian populations driven out. Once this was achieved, heavy weapons were deployed to eradicate opposing forces, entailing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure.
Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, categorically rejected claims that Russian forces, acting in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Syrian Kurd militias had committed war crimes in mounting the strikes, which killed about 50 people in the middle of February. ‘Those who make such statements are not capable of backing them up with proof,’ Peskov said.
Reacting to Moscow’s denials and its decision to seek UN security council condemnation of Turkey’s cross-border shelling, Turkey’s prime ministerAhmet Davutoglucalled Russia’s behaviour ‘shameless’and ‘insolent’.
Turkey would not allow a new influx of refugees from northern Syria, he said, and would take ‘every step necessary’ to prevent such an eventuality.
‘If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organisation and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response,’ Mr Davutoglu said. ‘Those vile, cruel and barbaric [Russian] planes have made close to 8,000 sorties since 30 September without any discrimination between civilians and soldiers, or children and the elderly.’
More than 50,000 people have been displaced by recent fighting around Aleppo. Turkey is increasingly concerned by territorial gains by militia fighters of the Syrian Kurd Democratic Union party (PYD), whom it regards as terrorists and mercenaries in league with Moscow. The Kurdish advances, including the seizure of an important air base, were supported by Russian air strikes. Excerpts from a report by Turkey’s security services, highlighted Turkish suspicions that Russia was purposefully attempting to ‘weaponise’ the refugee crisis.
Given Assad’s previous documented use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, airstrikes and heavy artillery against civilian areas, Russia’s alleged tactics hardly seem new. What appears to be different is the deliberate creation of tactical refugee emergencies to influence outside actors who must deal with the fallout.
The Turkish government warned that ‘regime forces and allies are trying to create a new refugee wave by moving towards Azaz [in northern Syria]… There are ten refugee camps between this town and Turkey’s town of Kilis, approximately along an eight-kilometre line. The residents of these camps will likely flee and seek shelter in Turkey while these camps would be taken by the PYD or Assad forces’.
US senator John McCain, a fierce critic of the Obama administration’s policy of non-intervention, said Russia’s strategy was ‘to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project’.
European politicians confirm McCain’s concerns, saying shops, schools and hospitals were being targeted in an attempt to force the local population to capitulate and increase the flow of refugees towards Turkey and Europe.
Air strikes similar to those in the middle of last month have happened before. US officials say Russian and regime forces have already destroyed both of Aleppo’s main hospitals. In total, there have been 14 known attacks on medical facilities this year alone.
If Russia really is using refugees to gain advantageous political and military leverage, it may be working. Turkey is under intense pressure from the US to stop shelling the Syrian Kurds, whom Washington supports. For this and other reasons, relations between the two NATO allies have hit a new low.
In a policy shift, Chancellor Merkel is now backing long-standing Turkish calls for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to halt the exodus by protecting civilians in situ—an idea repeatedly blocked by the US. For its part, Turkey is pressing all its western and Gulf allies to join in a more ambitious, military ground operation inside Syria—another escalatory option that, judging by past performance, will be opposed by the risk-averse US president.
With the Sunni-backed opposition on its last legs in Aleppo and under near constant bombardment by Russia from the air and Hezbollah on the ground, Ankara and Riyadh have a decision to make: intervene or allow the rebellion to be crushed.
But this is a difficult call. It would represent a key victory for Iran at a time when the country is already on a roll. International sanctions have been lifted, oil revenue is set to quintuple by year end, and Tehran’s grip on Iraq’s military and politicians is stronger than ever.
A victory in Syria would be an embarrassment for the Saudis, who have funded and armed the opposition, and a win at Aleppo would give the Iranians sectarian bragging rights at a time when tensions between Riyadh and Tehran are already running high thanks to the execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
And so, with the stakes high, the Saudis sent warplanes to Turkey’s Incirlik air base and Turkey promised an imminent ‘escalation’.
Turkey claims this is about self-defence. Erdogan equates the YPG, People’s Protection Units (supported overtly by the US) with the PKK, Ankara’s arch enemy that is recognised by Washington as a ‘terrorist’ group.
The YPG have consolidated gains in northern Syria and are essentially trying to bridge the territory they hold east of the Euphrates with their territory in the west. That, Turkey says, isn’t going to happen. ‘YPG elements were forced away from around Azaz. If they approach again they will see the harshest reaction,’ said Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu. ‘We will not allow Azaz to fall.’
Of course Azaz already ‘fell’—to Islamist rebels backed by the Turks who are aiming to usurp the government of a sovereign state.
But in the fog of Syria’s war, one thing appears clear: Russia is running rings around the US and its allies, militarily and diplomatically. While Washington clings to hopes of a negotiated settlement, Putin is changing facts on the ground, just as he did in Ukraine. It is Putin’s game. And, so far, he’s winning.
When Russia’s president waded into the conflict in support of Bashar al-Assad, Barack Obama said a ‘quagmire’ awaited him. The opposite has happened.
Russia’s military campaign has gradually taken off. Its air power has given Assad’s forces the edge. An effective coalition with Iranian, Lebanese and Iraq Shia militias has been forged on the ground.
A raid offensive this month in the area around Aleppo in the north took anti-Assad rebels by surprise and severed a supply route. More than 500 people have been killed by Russian air strikes and 50,000 have fled towards the Turkish border.
A bullish Putin, recently seen sipping champagne at an awards ceremony in the Kremlin, plainly believes he can ensure the regime’s survival. In the meantime, his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, keeps up the appearance of genuine diplomatic engagement.
Desperate to get a deal, John Kerry, the American secretary of state, has all but dropped his previous insistence that Assad must stand down. He has muted US criticism of Russia’s preference for attacking anti-Assad rebels rather than Islamic State jihadis.
The outgoing French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, suggested the US lacked commitment. Turkish leaders are more outspoken. They accuse Kerry of naivety over Putin’s intentions. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, said US mistakes were creating a ‘sea of blood’ and Russia was engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’.
Putin’s wider strategic objectives are served by his Syria campaign. In the increasing flow of refugees heading north, Putin—and Assad—have found a weapon they can use to frighten, weaken and divide the EU and NATO, a long-standing Russian aim. The Syria intervention is also helping re-establish Russia as an influential player in the Middle East, even as American influence declines.
Putin’s game is not yet won but surely even a man of his arrogance cannot believe his luck.