Similar to how the Russian-US Chemical Weapons agreement in 2013 enabled Obama to step back from strong rhetoric (i.e. red lines) & gave an extension to Assad’s rule, the current Russian intervention breathes new life into the regime and extends the Syrian catastrophe.
Assad, now little more than a proxy figurehead, will be carried through this next phase of the struggle for Syria on the backs of his foreign masters – what the Russians are calling a “war on terror” (terrorists defined as anyone opposing the regime). Putin himself acknowledged that this recent escalation was aimed at rescuing Assad. In addition to the intervention, Russia has taken the lead to coordinate an intelligence agreement with Assad, Iraq and Iran to support this escalation.
For the US administrations’ part, they have found the opportunity to backtrack from their position that Assad needs to immediately step down as part of a future political settlement – something they never had the political will nor interests to help achieve. As Kerry most recently put it, “we’re open” to a timetable for Assad to leave. While Obama & Putin may take shots at one another on the public stage, a “managed transition” with no timetables nor requirements is something both can support.
We’ll continue seeing messages from around the world about rallying behind this “war on terror” and the necessity to keep Assad in power – Many Western leaders for example have already communicated their acceptance of Assad while perpetuating the false choice between Assad or ISIS – in their view Assad being the lesser of two evils.
This rhetoric is actually catching up to the reality of actions with Western powers focused on “degrading and destroying” ISIS. For example, the US and coalition partners have controlled the skies of Syria for over a year and have flown hundreds, if not thousands of bombing missions; not one sortie has targeted the regime. And the world has witnessed the spectacular debacle that is the US train and equip program focused on fighting ISIS (not Assad).
Of course, this lesser evil (Assad) is directly responsible for the maddening scale of the Syrian catastrophe – and despite overwhelming foreign intervention coming to its aid, the regime only controls ~20% of Syria. Irrespective of intervention, the struggle will continue and evolve as it has at every phase since 2011 and the brutality (think Chechnya in the 90s) will increase as Russian (and Iranian) operations expand to solidify a state within a state.
I shudder at the thought, but these days maybe the beginning of the bloodiest phase of the struggle for Syria.