On the first day of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, both >U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin took the stage. Mr. Obama spoke for twice the designated length, but little in his speech was new.Then, he said, hauntingly, “Nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria.” The antidote to this test came in one sentence, “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.” That was that. It suggested that the Western policy toward Syria had failed. Another approach was needed.
Mr. Putin did not offer many details of the alternative direction, but he did propose another view of things. The central crisis in West Asia, he suggested, was the emergence of the >“Islamic State” (IS). What caused IS, Mr. Putin argued, was the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. “It is now obvious that the power vacuum created in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa led to the creation of anarchic areas which immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists.” Mr. Putin has sought a UN Security Council resolution to clarify the main enemy in Iraq-Syria. In doing so, he has put the West on the back foot.
In February 2012, when the conflict in Syria had just begun to become brutal, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told the Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari to carry a message to the Western capitals. The Russians, Mr. Churkin said, would be willing to broker a deal between the government and the opposition, including the eventual removal of Bashar al-Assad from the presidency. The West, Mr. Ahtisaari recently said, rejected the deal. They seemed to want nothing less than the humiliation and removal of the >Assad government . Their slogan at that time was, “Assad must go.” Three years later, Mr. Assad continues to control the most important urban centers of Syria, but he is much weaker. Mr. Assad, in many ways, is already gone. The military support of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Iran and Russia makes it clear that the Syrian army is no longer capable of holding its own against the rebels and IS.
The IS has indicated firmly that it is not prepared to negotiate. It will need to have its support base undercut so that its least ideological followers will dissipate. For this, pressure on Turkey to close its border and pressure on the Gulf Arab Sheikhs to stop their individual donations to well-known jihadi financial networks will be essential.
The shadow armies Mr. Assad’s army has not moved directly against IS. Its enemies are closer — the proxy armies of Turkey (Ahrar as-Sham) and Saudi Arabia (Jaish al-Islam) as well as al-Qaeda’s ferocious affiliate (Jabhat al-Nusra). The Russian entry into Syria will also not directly take on the IS. Between the Russian troops and IS lies a swathe of land held by these proxy armies. The reaction from Riyadh and Ankara to the eventuality of a conflict of their proxies with the Russians will reveal the future course of action in Syria. The entry of the Russian troops seems both to protect Moscow’s interests in western Syria and to put pressure on the regional powers to rein in their proxies. If these groups lose their external supporters, they will wither. That seems the likely Russian gambit. Moscow does not want a repetition of the Afghan humiliation and is aiming to use its military presence to drive a diplomatic process amongst Syria’s regional adversaries — Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
What is certain is that the narrative on Syria of the Gulf Arabs, the Turks and the West has collapsed. The extremists now control the fight. It is a dangerous situation that allowed the growth of IS — itself a product of the 2003 illegal war on Iraq. The expansion of IS has threatened Turkey’s integrity and its domestic politics. The chaos has spread to Europe through the massive refugee crisis. Russia and Iran have placed a new narrative on the table, to concentrate on the destruction of IS and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra. It is a narrative that has become increasingly appealing even in the Western capitals.
Even the Russian narrative is, however, limited. It has to acknowledge that whatever government is formed out of the ceasefire between Mr. Assad and the regional proxies must be a broad-based government of all the Syrian people. More generosity is needed. More democracy is essential. More imagination is needed for Syria, which will need generations of energy to rebuild out of the chaos created by a dangerous and misguided war.
(Vijay Prashad teaches at Trinity College and is the Chief Editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi.)