Time for the West to take off the blinkers in Syria

Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

The U.S. and its Western allies see Russia's military involvement in Syria as an opportunity to whitewash their silence, which led to the continuation of the Syrian civil war, and thus by blaming Russia alone but not themselves, they turn the civil war into a proxy war in the region

Western squealing regarding direct Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has once again thrown the hypocrisy of Western foreign policies into sharp relief. Indeed, the West has long been engaged in the very same activities that Russia has recently commenced in Syria. Moreover, the West is doing so with only a fraction of the legitimacy of Russian actions. With this in mind, let's have a look at Russian actions in Syria through the lens of realpolitik rather than the sanctimonious posturing of Western powers invoking long discredited notions of spreading democracy and human rights. Cozy relations with beheading, Wahhabism-spreading Saudi Arabia and coup leader, crowd-massacring President AbdulFattah el-Sissi in Egypt, among others, have ensured that Middle Eastern populations are in no doubt of the (in)sincerity of Western powers when it comes to spreading democracy and human rights in the region.

To begin, let's be clear. Russia is not responsible for the present pandemonium engulfing Syria and Iraq. A short roll call of those complicit and/or responsible might include the United States and its Western allies, the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Turkey and, of course, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It is true that Iran and Russia have been complicit in sustaining the civil war by arming and supporting Assad, but let's remember that Syria is a long-time strategic ally of both of these countries. In this light, Iran and Russia are merely walking the walk in demonstrating their commitment to a historic ally. Are Russian actions supporting Assad not similar to Western measures in support of the central government in Baghdad? Indeed, as the Russian government pointed out, the Syrian government requested Russian support, meaning that Russian actions are legitimate in terms of international law. In contrast, Western powers have received no such invitation for either airstrikes or special forces operations in Syria, which despite their covert nature, periodically surface in the international press, thereby highlighting the dubious legality of such measures. Moreover, given the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's (ISIS) brutal treatment of minorities in Iraq, including the massacre, rape and enslavement of Yazidis, the actions of Iran and Russia may have prevented an even greater bloodbath had the Assad government collapsed in Syria.


The U.S. and its allies had no such justification when invading Iraq in 2003 in what is widely regarded as an illegal war. The destruction of Iraqi institutions embodied by the de-Baathification of the government and its services and the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army engendered the following repercussions. One, that the incoming Iraqi administration was devoid of any personnel possessing experience running a country, and two, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men trained in the use of firearms found themselves unemployed, yet still in possession of weapons. These actions alienated the Sunni Arab population in Iraq. This alienation was then compounded by the sectarianism of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. So it is perhaps unsurprising that former officers in the Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi army are reported to be at the core of ISIS military planning. In short, Sunni Arab alienation gave rise to al-Qaida in Iraq. This eventually morphed into ISIS as the movement extended its operations to take advantage of the civil war in Syria. ISIS, a movement so brutal that even al-Qaida disowned it, now occupies a vast swath of land straddling the defunct Syrian-Iraqi border incorporating some 50 percent of Syrian and 30 percent of Iraqi sovereign territory - although it must be recognized that this is not as impressive as it sounds given that it mostly consists of sparsely inhabited desert. It could also be argued that the U.S. is indirectly one of the largest suppliers of ISIS arms due to the cowardice of the Iraq army. At the very least, the Syrian army has shown itself to be a fighting force, even if it has resorted to dirty tactics such as dropping barrel bombs. It is likely that Russian support and the intimated support of Russian "volunteers" on the ground will do much to stiffen the Syrian army's resolve. This is especially the case if we consider how effective these forces proved to be while fighting in Ukraine.

The role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in providing financial and logistical support and ideological inspiration for eschatologically inclined jihadis over the last few decades is well-known. And this support dates back to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In addition, let's not forget that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. In terms of the present conflict in Syria, one might choose to substitute Turkey for the role that Pakistan played in Afghanistan during the 1980s. While Turkey's exact role is unclear - with accusations ranging from mere complicity in allowing the transit of jihadis and arms through its territory to outright collaboration with al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, and ISIS - the results have been analogous to the earlier rise of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. What is clear, however, is that Turkey has been dragged into a new round of deadly conflict with the PKK resulting from a chain reaction of events stemming from a presumed ISIS suicide bombing in Suruç.


Western and Saudi demonization of Russian actions are thus trite at best. The West has complained that Russia is not only targeting ISIS, but also Western-backed "moderates" fighting the Assad regime. Indeed, in weeks prior to Russian airstrikes the U.S. government admitted that its efforts to create a moderate alternative fighting force had failed, and that for all intents and purposes, these fighters no longer exist, that is, if they ever actually did. It was only following Russian intervention that these chimera-like figures resurfaced. Western accusations that Russian actions are creating more terrorists is similarly disingenuous given that Western meddling and military adventures abroad have been a primary source of terrorist recruitment for decades from Iran to Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, to name just a few, especially after 9/11.

Russia also has its own agenda and concerns beyond the survival of the Syrian state. Thousands of Russians and Chechens are reported to be fighting with jihadi entities in Syria and Iraq. Thus it is prudent for Russia to engage with these fighters in Syria and Iraq lest they return to cause mayhem in Russia itself.

If the world is serious about defeating ISIS, which is a dubious assertion at this point, then increased Russian and Iranian measures should be welcomed. The Syrian army is the only fighting force in Syria that, with adequate support, could realistically roll back ISIS. Even if they had the capability to do so, the People's Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) would not move beyond areas that they consider to be Kurdish, and frankly, they would be crazy if they did because they would be viewed as foreign occupiers. The Syrian army will also form the backbone of any reconstituted Syrian state that may, theoretically, emerge from the rubble. As distasteful as the Syrian government may be, the only other realistic alternative at this stage is a totalitarian regime governed by the likes of ISIS or al-Nusra Front. In short, the West needs to take off its blinders in terms of formulating a realistic solution to the Syrian conflict. Russian intervention has not only provided an opportunity to do so, but it has also established a potential framework for joint Russian-Western cooperation against ISIS that could in turn assuage wider tensions stemming from recent conflict in Ukraine.

* Dr Tristan Dunning is an honorary research fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland in Australia and publisher of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine​

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