As the British Newspaper Independent's Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writes, “The first strikes – far from being aimed at the “moderates” whom the US had long ago dismissed – were directed at the large number of Turkmen villages in the far north-west of Syria which have for many months been occupied by hundreds of Chechen fighters.... Other strikes were directed not at Isis but at Islamist Jaish al-Shams force targets in the same area.”
The US-led coalition is angry that Russia – apart from the bombing raids against IS in the East – is bombing targets in Idlib Province, bordering with Turkey and taken over in March by islamist insurgents. The insurgents are in this area united in the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah in Arabic, which consists of a number of mostly Islamist factions, including the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and Ahrar al-Sham, another large group, and some other minor groups, among these rebel factions receiving arms from the US. It is worth mentioning that Al-Nusra has a leading role in this coalition, and that Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups with which the US has had diplomatic contacts, as the US apparently considers that they constitute a populist revolutionary force and the most powerful non-IS islamist rebel faction. If the Russian air raids turn out to be effective (a big if) and permits the Syrian army to advance on the ground, these gains made by our Islamist allies could be reversed.
So there the civil war goes on, we and our Turkish, Saudi Arabian and Qatari allies supporting the Islamist insurgents, and the Russians, Iranians and Iraquis supporting the Syrian Government. This raises the question, what it is exactly we want to happen in Syria by supporting the Islamist insurgents. Or, with the latest (horrible) term favoured by strategists and journalists alike: what is the “endgame”, we foresee?
Before the Russian intervention, the stated “endgame” foreseen by the alliance of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and several European countries was that the advance of the Islamist insurgents would force Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, to step down and leave the power to.... - yes to whom? As the conservative US magazine “Foreign Policy” writes: “…..a victory for either the Islamic State or the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front will leave Damascus in the hands of a radical and extremely hostile regime. The creation of a “moderate” rebel regime in Syria remains mostly a figment of the imagination of some very optimistic U.S. officials.”
As the Islamist advances have slowed down the last couple of months, Turkey has advocated strongly for a Libyan-style “no-fly” zone in Northern Syria, where the insurgents would be secure against air attacks from the Syrian army. According to Financial Times, the US, who is worried it would be a nest for Islamist extremists, had finally acceded to the Turkish demand, but the Russian bombing campaign “scuppered the US coalition plans”.
There is no doubt that the stepped-up support to the Syrian rebels, led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia (apparently without clear US consent), has weakened the Syrian Government. The common command centres in Jordan for the Southern front and in Turkey for the North-Western front seem to have improved coordination between the Islamist factions. But still, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the non-Islamist Syrians just will give in and lay down their weapons, taking into account the ferocity and extremism of their adversaries, IS and non-IS alike. The “moderate” Islamists who took over Idlib apparently did not take prisoners. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-rebel monitor based in the UK, the rebels executed at least 56 government troops after overrunning a strategic military airport in Idlib (Abu al-Duhur) in mid-September – and posted the executions with all the blood splattering details on the internet, IS-style. Or the massacring of Druze vilages. These are, it appears, our non-IS guys, whom we are defending. Or “CIA-Assets” as they are also called.
The Russian intervention may, as Obama states it, be a blunder, dragging Russia more directly into a long, endless war with Saudi- and Western-supported holy warriors. The US-led coalition complains that Russia's intervention will prolong the civil war. But what “end-game” do the Russians have in mind? Apparently they don't think the Syrian Army can win back all the Syrian territory. Their official position is that they want a negotiation process between the Syrian Government and elements of the opposition followed by internationally monitored elections with participation of moderate Islamic groups. If the US-led coalition against the Syrian Government decides to go on supporting and financing the rebellion, the civil war can go on for years, however. Perhaps the perspective of millions of refugees heading for Europe will make this scenario less plausible as the Europeans will insist on seeing an end to the war in the near future. But, on the other hand, I am not sure the Europeans count at all.
The US foreign minister, John Kerry, has said that the Iranians and the Russians are absolutely irresponsible as they let the Syrian carnage go on because of one man: Bashar al-Assad. I think that actually who is insisting obstinately on the fate of one man as a condition for ending the war is the US-led coalition. It is unlikely that Bashar wields much power in Syria – the army does. They need a figure to unite around and this figure turns out to be Bashar, at least for the time being. It is also unlikely that the Russians and Iranians are particularly interested in Bashar, but they simply can't see any alternative for the moment. Neither have the US, the UK and France, who have been the most insistent on getting rid of the man, presented any plausible post-Bashar scenario. As it stands, the “end-game” of a Western-backed Islamist victory would be Libya all over again. It may be argued that the Libyan scenario is to be preferred to the present criminal and repressive regime in the country – but I am not sure that the majority of Syrians will agree on that.
The situation now is extremely dangerous. Belligerent politicians in the US want confrontation with the Russians. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and ex-presidential candidate John McCain want a “no-fly zone” established immediately, even if that implies shooting down Russian war planes. McCain also wants to arm the Islamist rebels with anti-aircraft weapon “as we did in Afghanistan”. And former CIA director, David Petraeus is now advocating that the US should arm Al Nusra. Really? The US-led coalition arming Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra with advanced weapon with the goal of turning Syria into another Afghanistan? Why is it that we always end up as allies of Mujaheedins, Al Qaeda and other holy warriors? The argument is that our enemy's enemy is our friend - and then we will find out how to deal with these new friends of ours afterwards. That is how we ended up supporting Islamist extremists in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and experience shows it is not that easy afterwards to deal with the monsters, we have nurtured.
Civil wars are brutal and horrifying. Air-strikes, be that with “smart” or non-“smart” bombs, are a blunt weapon, particularly in a civil war, where civilians and fighters necessarily intermingle. Just take the Israeli air-strikes in Gaza, the ongoing, largely ignored Saudi-Arabian air raids in Yemen, the NATO air-strikes in Afghanistan, the Syrian Army's barrel bombs or the Syrian rebels' “hell-canons”.
Sadly, there are few angels in the Syrian civil war, and too many devils and demons. All the countries supporting the different factions of the civil war insist they do it to weaken the other part so it is forced to the negotiation table and that the others are hindering a negotiated peace. Get serious!