Russia aims for the Syrian opposition's jugular

Russia aims for the Syrian opposition's jugular
Comment: The Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war can be countered by the opposition if they win the confidence of Syrians and international public opinion, argues Burhan Ghalioun.
5 min read
16 Oct, 2015
Russian airstrikes have mostly targeted the opposition, not the Islamic State group [Getty]
Moscow's intervention in the Syrian civil war to shore up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad poses an existential challenge for the Syrian opposition.

It will be difficult for the opposition to rise to this challenge and prevent Russia imposing its own solution to the crisis.

The Russian plan is to liquidate the opposition and force Syrians and the world to choose between Assad and the Islamic State group [IS]. 

Russia's intervention may well make the West's preferred solution to the crisis, removing the regime from power, untenable.

The Russian plan is to liquidate the opposition and force the world to choose between Assad and the Islamic State
If it does move decisively to eliminate the "moderate" opposition, Russia will force the West to defend its allies or lay bare its failure and the insincerity of its commitments to Syria.

However, the Russians have not harmed the West's strategic interests directly, and could even be helping divert attention away from the Syrian humanitarian crisis caused by the West's blunders.

The Russian attack could help Western leaders get out of the commitments they made to the Syrian people, much the same as Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council gave them an excuse to avoid their responsibility to protect Syrian civilians, and help rebels achieve goals the Western leaders said were legitimate.

This does not mean Russian unilateral action will upend the balance of power in Syria, or that Russia's actions will not provoke a response.

On the contrary, it is likely to lead to greater involvement by the US in support of the rebels, to thwart Moscow and involving it in a protracted war.

Barring as yet unforeseen developments, Russian-Western tensions are unlikely to lead to a direct confrontation over Syria.

In any case, the Russians will press ahead with their plan. 

While the West will probably bet on Russia becoming bogged down and is once again willing to make concessions to secure Western cooperation.

This way, the West will not need to make concessions to the Russians, or recognise them as an equal partner in shaping global policy agendas.

One thing is certain: Moscow is unconcerned by the fate of Syria and its people. For Russia, Syria is a chance to take revenge on the West, flex its muscles, settle scores and undermine US global prestige and credibility.

Global ambitions

Russia wants to impose itself as a world power, on a par with the US and China, and force the West to back down on sanctions, the war in Ukraine, and on the eastward expansion of NATO.

Putin is using Assad and Syria as a means to achieve these goals. Because the crisis in Syria means nothing to Putin in itself, he has not proposed a realistic solution to the crisis.

Putin refuses to consider an alternative vision for a solution, merely repeating the mantra of opposition to foreign intervention and of the need to let Syrians decide their fate, which actually means letting Assad decide the fate of Syria and its people.

I noticed that Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and Putin's Middle East advisor, downplayed the hopes some have pinned on his country's military intervention in ludicrous fashion, claiming his country's main objective was to eliminate the Russian jihadis fighting in Syria before they returned to Russia.

In my opinion, this pretext means the Russians will keep their objectives in the intervention vague and will not restrict themselves to any set commitments.

On the ground, this means that Syria, and especially the northwest region of the country, will see a major military escalation and unprecedented levels of destruction. The Russians may resort to extreme force without clear criteria as to what constitutes victory or loss to inflict the heaviest possible losses on the opposition.

This has been Assad's policy from the beginning, and was the policy Putin used in Chechnya.

Responding to Russian intervention

The Russians are keeping the goalposts vague, and do not want to restrict themselves 
Unlike the US-led coalition's campaign against the IS, Russia's intervention in Syria is directly opposed to the strategy of Turkey and the Gulf states, which focuses on the removal of Assad as a prelude to a political transition.

These countries now have no choice but to increase their coordination and cooperation, and step up support for the armed Syrian opposition. This support will help the opposition survive the Russian onslaught and let them claim to still be a serious player in the Syrian crisis.

However, the biggest challenge may be the one confronting the Syrian opposition itself. Russia's intervention is going for the opposition's jugular.

Rather than eliminating the extremist groups that believe war against Russia is a holy duty, the Russian intervention could empower them.

It will also exacerbate the refugee crisis and deepen rifts among Syrians themselves.

The Russian will not succeed in imposing their will on a people defending their rights on their land, but they can kill more people, increase suffering and delay the end of this crisis. They will aggravate sectarian conflict and increase regional and international tensions.

Moscow has already succeeding in rallying factions of the Syrian opposition to unite around more radical groups. Remarks by the Russian Orthodox Church about the holy war in Syria will do little to prevent this.

However, the possible failure of Russian intervention is not consolation enough for Syrians, and should not be the goal of their historical struggle.

The Syrian opposition is not required to repeat what the mujahideen achieved in Afghanistan, or the Vietcong in Vietnam. The opposition's goal must be to stop the disaster, end the war, rescue what is left of Syria and save its people from their long nightmare.

This cannot be achieved without addressing the most salient issue, the main reason we lost the support of countries and international public opinion, despite the sacrifices of the Syrian people.

That issue is the divisions and internal conflict that has undermined confidence in the revolution and the ability of the opposition to rebuild the Syria they claim to desire.

Syrian opposition factions must do more than unite in one bloc under a joint military command. They must become a political force with a clear objective acceptable to all its component elements.

Only then will the opposition win back the confidence of the international community.

Without the confidence of the international community, we will not be able to secure peace and rebuild Syria.

Without it, in the absence of a real and trustworthy representative of the Syrian people and rebels, any push by the international community to find a solution in Syria will undoubtedly come at the expense of the Syrian people.

Burhan Ghalioun is a Syrian professor of sociology, and the first chairman of the Syrian opposition Transitional National Council.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.