Should we cry or rejoice as Russia steps up in Syria?

Russia's Vladimir Putin has vastly different objectives in Syria than Western nations have. For one thing, he wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. But if Russian military might can end the fighting and hem in ISIS, isn't that worth considering?

Vladimir Putin has vastly different objectives in Syria than the West, but not much has worked so far

British Prime Minister David Cameron says Russia's decision to back the Syrian president's military offensive will 'make the region more unstable.' (Bassam Khabieh/ Reuters)

Such is the torment of Syria's ongoing war that the idea of Russia sending in its forces to attack ISIS have caused a rare diplomatic mix of alarm and excitement.

I mean, really, would that be truly bad news? Or something to be hoped for, given all the recent disasters there? Would more direct Russian involvement prolong the fighting, or shorten it? Do we even have a clue?

We know only that intelligence reports have Vladimir Putin's Russia stepping up large transport flights of new military equipment for Syria, as well as barracks for personnel on the ground.

And now Reuters is reporting that Russian forces have begun participating in military operations alongside Syrian government troops. 

The U.S. had warned Moscow against any such move, even if meant to fight ISIS, a common enemy.

Washington's position is that more direct Russian involvement, beyond the military advisers it's had in the country, would further escalate the fighting, increase refugee flows, and risk even broader extension of a conflict now destabilizing much of the Middle East.

Certainly Russia's responsibility for the bloodshed there over these past four years is substantial as it has been, along with Iran, the primary supplier of arms and diplomatic muscle to the besieged Assad government.

Until now, at least, no boots on the ground, but plenty of planes and ammo.

Always Syria's friend. A Syrian election poster last year on a micro-bus shows, from left, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. (Reuters)

On the other hand, what has the West's own vague, often distracted and mostly hands-off policy achieved?

"It is difficult to imagine how a civil war that has lasted four years, and by most accounts killed 300,000 people and created millions of refugees could become any more expansive in its effect," Canadian military strategist, retired colonel George Petrolekas wrote this week.

"Paradoxically, if the increased Russian presence is true, it may in fact hasten an end to the conflict"

'Strange hysteria'

Geopolitics will warn, of course, that adding Russian troops to the Syrian quagmire would bring a hefty price tag, including the spread of Russian influence inside the heart of the Middle East, something the West struggled to contain throughout the Cold War.

For now, Moscow is still denying, sort of, that it intends to send in its forces, dismissing Washington's nervousness as a "strange hysteria."

On the other hand, since the Crimea and Ukraine crises erupted, Moscow's denials carry limited weight.

What's more, the Kremlin doesn't actually deny that events are pushing it in that direction, even conceding it may adopt new measures to fight Islamic jihadists, including ISIS, "if the conflict worsens," which of course it has been. 

And clearly something is afoot. Keep in mind Russia tried only a few months ago to sell the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on a Syrian peace deal, which would involve a continuing Assad government, along with Iran and other outside forces, in a new anti-ISIS coalition.

There were no takers then, but this new move, assuming it's substantive, might be a way to up the ante.

Speculation is also building around Putin's appearance at the UN later this month.

That could be his opportunity to launch a Russia-backed initiative in the full glare of global publicity.

He knows many in the West are desperate — the right word these days — to see the war ended, the refugee crisis staunched and ISIS firmly checked on the ground.

Different objectives

Any end to the nightmare would have to involve compromises by many factions, and almost certainly other international involvement.

Notably, British Prime Minister David Cameron hinted this week that he might deploy troops to protect civilian safe havens in and around Syria, if other allies were willing to join in.

It makes you wonder if a new European-Russian-U.S.-Iranian-Arab coalition might be stitched together under some kind of humanitarian/military mandate.

Cementing alliances? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif meet in Moscow last month to discuss Iran's nuclear program and possible peace efforts in Syria. (Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters)

Winning kudos in the West, and perhaps even some easing of Western sanctions, is likely a side motivation for Putin, but he also has more profound issues to grapple with.

First, he will have to work fast to shore up the crumbling Assad regime, which now holds barely 18 per cent of the country, largely areas of Alawite and Christian populations who have largely supported the government.

Putin — like Iran, but unlike the West and others in the anti-ISIS coalition — wants Assad to survive in order to play a role in future peace talks and so is rushing more help to him.

The Russian president is old enough to remember, though, the U.S. humiliation when South Vietnam quickly crumbled once American support ceased in 1975, and he won't want a similar Damascus collapse with Russian advisers fleeing by helicopter.

Putin clearly wants influence in any future Syria, including continuing naval rights, important for Russia's expanding fleet presence in the Mediterranean.

It will expect large commercial benefits and to continue as the main seller of arms to Syria, as it has been since the depths of the Cold War.

Another motivating factor is that there are strong links between Russian orthodox churches and the much endangered orthodox Christians in Syria, who the now overtly religious Putin likely sees as his role to protect.

More importantly, Putin knows that any expansion of ISIS and similar groups that would follow the collapse of Assad will ignite jihadist rebellions within Russia's own southern flanks, especially deeply restless Chechnya, where Putin, early in his presidency, suppressed one long-standing rebellion.

Neither Russia nor the West have ever wanted to send troops to Syria, but now that it seems mired in a hurricane of total chaos there may be little choice in the near future.

For the rest of us, fresh thinking seems to be required, for what clearly hasn't worked is everything we've tried to do and not to do up to this utterly sad point.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.