Putin in Syria

Jonathan Steele

Flanked by his ministers of defence and foreign affairs, Vladimir Putin looked characteristically stern as he went on television on 14 March to announce a significant reduction in Russia’s military presence in Syria. Putin rarely smiles in public but on this occasion he could have been forgiven some inner gloating. In less than six months he had reinvigorated the forces of his ally Bashar al-Assad and helped them to make strategic advances, thereby preventing a repetition of Western-backed regime change on the pattern of Iraq and Libya. He had dealt severe blows to Assad’s jihadi opponents in Islamic State and the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as to US clients in the so-called moderate anti-Assad opposition. He had effectively put an end to Turkish hopes of setting up a no-fly zone in northern Syria. He had persuaded the Americans to support a cessation of hostilities and a new attempt to negotiate an end to the five-year-old civil war. He had recast Russia as a decisive player in the region, leading to a string of visits to Moscow by monarchs and ministers from the Gulf states. He had revived Russia’s image as a major rival to the United States in the management of global affairs. He had even succeeded in sidelining two years of tension over Ukraine and raised the possibility of an end to sanctions against Russia.

Such is the demonisation of Putin by Western governments and much of the mainstream media that what he actually says and does tends to be brushed over unless it fits the received narrative of Kremlin aggression and expansionism. So Putin's decision came as a shock to the outside world (as well as to Assad, who was informed of the withdrawal just a few hours before the announcement). Yet on 12 October last year, two weeks after Putin’s aircraft started bombing Syrian targets, Russia’s Channel One broadcast an interview with him in which he clearly stated that Russia’s military intervention would be short-lived. ‘Our task is to stabilise the legitimate government,’ he said, ‘and establish conditions that will make it possible to look for political compromise.’ He described Assad’s regime as being close to collapse and badly in need of help. ‘When you have IS and other such groups of international terrorists right next to the capital,’ he said, ‘who is going to want to look for a settlement with the Syrian authorities, sitting practically under siege right in their own capital? However, if the Syrian army demonstrates its viability and, most important, its readiness to fight terrorism, and if it shows that the authorities can achieve this, this opens up much greater possibilities for reaching political compromises.’ It was ‘out of the question’ that Russia would send combat troops to Syria. Russian airpower could help the Syrian army to regain lost ground, though Russia didn’t expect it to win a total military victory. ‘We cannot commit ourselves to more than is reasonable,’ he went on. ‘I said from the start that our active operations on Syrian soil will be limited in time to the Syrian army’s offensive.’

Despite Putin’s statement of caution, Russia’s bombing campaign had elicited a storm of hostile Western comment from the moment it began. Obama said that Russia was entering a ‘quagmire’, a word designed to invoke the Soviet Union’s entrapment in Afghanistan as well as the US’s own defeat in Vietnam. ‘An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire,’ he said, ‘and it won’t work.’ Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, warned that the air strikes would ‘have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attacks. In coming days the Russians will begin to suffer casualties.’ Western officials and analysts told the media that in aligning itself with the Shia forces of Hizbullah and Iran as well as Assad’s Alawite regime, Russia was bound to inflame its own largely Sunni Muslim population. It was almost as though the Pentagon chief and other Putin critics were actively hoping for revenge killings against Russians. They weren’t to know that within days, a Russian airliner flying from Sharm el Sheikh with 224 civilians on board would be brought down over Sinai by an IS bomb hidden on board.

The European reaction to Russia’s intervention was equally portentous. On 12 October, the day Putin’s interview went out on Channel One, EU foreign ministers issued a collective statement declaring that ‘the recent Russian military attacks in Syria … are of deep concern and must cease immediately.’ Not one of the 28 ministers saw fit to consider the hypocrisy of their position. Their ally in Washington had been bombing targets in Syria for more than a year without UN Security Council authorisation. France had started doing the same two months earlier. The Cameron government in Britain was impatient to follow suit. No one seemed to notice the double standard. Why were Russia’s actions illegitimate when those of Western air forces were not? Russia, after all, had been invited to intervene by Assad’s government, which still holds the country’s seat at the United Nations. The US and French governments had no such invitation and their actions had no basis in international law.

Before launching his intervention Putin had tried to persuade the Americans to work with him. The problem with the US-led coalition’s air strikes was that they were highly selective. They helped the Syrian Kurdish ground forces, the YPG, to liberate the border towns of Kobani and Tal Abyad from IS last year, but did nothing to protect the Syrian army when it came under threat from IS. When IS forces laid siege to Palmyra last May and drove Assad’s army out after a week-long battle, not a single American plane was seen. Similar selectiveness was exercised in Hasakah a month later, as I was told by a local YPG commander. The city is divided between a largely Arab district, where the Syrian government has a base, and a largely Kurdish part where the YPG is strong. When IS attacked the Arab district the US took no action. But as soon as IS moved to attack the Kurdish districts, US air raids were launched.

Many analysts saw this strategy as flawed. They argued that IS should be seen as the greater evil, and that Assad’s forces should be assisted if that was what it took to defeat IS. Even Syrian Kurds agreed, among them Saleh Muslim, the leader of the PYD, the YPG’s political arm. In Britain David Richards, the former chief of the defence staff, called on Cameron to accept that Assad’s army was best placed to take the fight to IS. ‘At the moment we’ve got contradictory war aims,’ he told the BBC. ‘We want to deal with Isis but we also want to get rid of Assad at the same time. I personally don’t think that’s plausible.’ Senior American generals, including Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency between 2012 and 2014, had been warning the Obama administration for some time that allowing jihadis to topple Assad would have dire consequences.[*]

Apparently hoping that this line had gained traction in the White House, Putin used his speech at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in September to issue an appeal for a global coalition against IS. By then it was clear that Russia was preparing for some form of military action in Syria. Russian crews were seen at Khmeimim airbase near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite regime, lengthening the runways, renovating the control tower and installing air defence systems. Military supplies were offloaded from Russian ships at the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. Huge Antonov transport planes and Sukhoi fighter-bombers were touching down at Khmeimim.

At a one-on-one meeting with Obama in New York on 28 September, their first bilateral talk for almost a year, Putin explained the objectives of his military build-up. He said he was planning military action to support Assad’s forces, though gave no clue as to when. Obama rejected the idea of joining in. A senior American official who briefed US reporters after the meeting told them that the president was not against Russian military action in Syria as such. If it was directed solely against IS, the White House could welcome it. But it opposed any Russian military support for Assad. The president’s position that Assad must be removed had not changed, despite the progress IS had been making across Syria. Dismayed but not discouraged, Putin still hoped Obama would have a change of heart. Within days of the first Russian bombing raids, and in spite of the furious criticism from Ashton Carter and other Western officials, he offered to host a US military delegation in Moscow. The aim, as Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, put it, would be ‘to agree on a whole number of joint steps’. Dmitri Medvedev, the prime minister, he said, would go to Washington to extend the co-operation.

Rejecting a prime ministerial visit is a snub of considerable proportions. Washington turned down both the Kremlin’s offers nevertheless. All it was willing to discuss with Moscow was ‘de-confliction’, an ugly term for an exchange of advance and real-time information on combat sorties so as to avoid mid-air collisions between Russian and US warplanes in the skies over Syria. Lavrov went public to reveal just how angry the Kremlin was with Washington’s cold-shouldering. In an interview with the Russian channel NTV on 14 October, he called on the Americans to ‘transcend themselves’ and decide what was more important: ‘misguided self-esteem’ or getting rid of the ‘greatest threat’ – Islamic State. Lavrov is well practised in low-key sneering. Speculating on US motives he suggested that ‘it is probably not very nice [for them] to see how effective[ly] our military is working compared to the more than a year-long operations [of] the coalition created by the United States of America, which has carried out, in my estimate, about sixty thousand sorties, half of which were supposed to be fighting missions, yet the positive results on the ground are not visible.’

Putin’s comments that Damascus was practically under siege from IS and that Russia wanted to stabilise the legitimate government had given the impression that the air campaign would be focused there. As he sought authorisation for military intervention from the Federation Council, the Russian parliament’s upper house, Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s chief of staff, said on 30 September: ‘The operation’s military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against IS.’ An increasing number of IS volunteers, he said, were citizens of Russia and its Central Asian neighbours: ‘There are thousands of them and some have returned to Russia. It does not take a clairvoyant to realise that such people will keep on coming back to Russia. So we should pre-empt them and act while they are far away, rather than put off dealing with the problem for later, after they have returned to Russia.’ IS, Assad’s main enemy, was, he implied, the only real target.

When Russian warplanes were seen to be concentrating on bombing non-jihadi rebels at the opposite end of the country from Damascus, in Latakia and Idlib, Putin was accused by Western governments and much of the media of deception. Last week the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank, published a report, Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria, which called into question some of the videos of bombings released by the Russian Defence Ministry in the early weeks of the campaign. According to the Russian military the strikes in the videos were on IS targets; the report claimed the footage showed that the hits were in different parts of Syria entirely.

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It certainly made sense for Putin and Ivanov to stress the threat from IS in their appearances before Russian as well as international audiences, though in fact the immediate military priority was to bolster Assad’s forces. The two goals were not in contradiction. Russian bombing around Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo would allow the Syrian army to hold the line in northern Syria, which was essential if it was to have a realistic chance of moving east towards Raqqa, the capital of the IS caliphate. Russia’s hatred and fear of IS are unquestionable, given that close to three thousand Russian citizens (mostly Chechens and other North Caucasian Muslims) have joined the caliphate. The downing of the plane in Sinai by an IS bomb was fresh in Russian minds. But other groups also posed a threat, and it made little sense to distinguish between jihadi groups and so-called moderates on the battlefield. Idlib city, for example, is held by Jaish al-Fatah, the ‘army of conquest’, an Islamist coalition that includes Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as other groups that the Americans consider moderates. IS was active in eastern Aleppo around Kweiris, a government-held landing strip that had been under siege for three years. The Syrian army made the relief of Kweiris from IS one of its first objectives as soon as the Russian air strikes began.

The Russian bombing campaign was a major blow to those rebels who received support from Western governments and their Gulf allies in their quest to topple Assad. They knew the West would not commit combat troops beyond some special forces but they hoped for a prolonged air campaign like the one that defeated Gaddafi in 2011. Russian involvement made a Western intervention much less likely. So the rebels started claiming that Russia’s bombing was overwhelmingly targeting civilians and causing massive casualties. As government forces under cover of Russian air strikes began to encircle Aleppo, creating the possibility that all escape routes might be blocked, some fifty thousand people from the northern outskirts of the city converged on the Turkish border. There they were filmed by Western news channels as they tried to cross. General Phil Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, argued that Putin and Assad were ‘weaponising’ the refugee crisis in order to destabilise Europe. This was an extraordinary remark: hadn’t he read the secret Nato analysis of Russia’s bombing which – according to a leaked version seen by the German magazine Focus – described it as ‘precise and efficient’? The report made no mention of civilian casualties. This doesn’t mean Nato thought there weren’t any, but it certainly called the rebels’ wilder claims into question.

The Russian bombing undoubtedly added to civilians’ distress. War always forces people to flee, sometimes out of fear of the consequences of staying put and sometimes because their homes have been destroyed. At the end of last year in Iraq there was an exodus of desperate people after US aircraft mounted dozens of raids on the IS-occupied city of Ramadi. Iraqi army artillery joined the assault by firing hundreds of shells. IS was driven out but Ramadi was pulverised. When the victorious Iraqi army entered the city, which once had a population of 450,000, they found that 80 per cent of the buildings had been flattened. Many of Ramadi’s residents had left when the city fell to IS six months earlier, and the US air force and Iraqi army bombardment drove out the rest. In cars or on foot, thousands moved east towards Baghdad or across Anbar province. There were few reporters around to film or catalogue their plight. Unlike the displaced residents of Aleppo, who could be described as the victims of Russian and Syrian government cruelty, Ramadi’s homeless were too far from any international border to create a diplomatic crisis over asylum, and could safely be ignored.

Russian officials’ claims that no civilians had been killed by their bombing in Syria were of course absurd. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which collects data from more than two hundred monitors inside Syria, calculates that in the six months of Russian bombing until the end of March 5081 people died, including 1869 civilians. But bombing by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria is also assessed by non-governmental monitoring organisations to have caused considerable loss of civilian life. According to the international team of journalists Airwars.org, air strikes by the US-led coalition caused at least 1004 civilian deaths between August 2014 and the first week of March 2016, roughly half of them in Syria and half in Iraq. The US admits to killing 21 civilians; Britain and the other members of the coalition deny causing any civilian casualties.

Whatever the impression given by the media or by messages issued by the Syrian rebels, the record does not confirm that most people who are dying are civilians. SOHR figures for January 2016, when the Russian bombing was at its height, show that 4680 people were killed throughout Syria in war-related incidents. Of these, 1345 – about 30 per cent – were civilians. Among fighters, the death toll on both sides was roughly the same: 1590 government troops and members of pro-Assad militias; and 1683 anti-government fighters, including Syrian Kurdish forces as well as jihadi and non-jihadi rebels. The casualty figures show that what is going on in Syria is a classic civil war: men with guns are the main victims, and both sides are dying in roughly equal proportions.

The Russians have seen this stalemate at first hand, and their generals will have reported it to the Kremlin. One can safely assume it was a major factor in Putin’s decision to announce the withdrawal of most of his warplanes last month. He could see the huge losses sustained by Assad’s forces even with the protection of Russian air cover. They had gained ground around Aleppo but it would clearly be too costly for them to regain control over the whole of Aleppo, let alone the Damascus suburbs where IS and other rebel groups were also strong. Putin’s initial objective of using his bombing campaign to press for a political compromise rather than a military victory seemed to be justified.

This was not to Assad’s liking. In an interview with Agence France Presse on 12 February he had described retaking the whole of Syria as ‘a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation. It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part.’ It would take a long time, he said, but if the supply of arms to the rebels from across the Turkish border was cut it could be done within a year. He was promptly slapped down by Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. Speaking to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Churkin urged Assad to accept a ceasefire and join in political negotiations. ‘I heard President Assad’s remarks on television,’ he said. ‘Of course they do not chime with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is undertaking … The discussions are about a ceasefire, a cessation of hostilities in the foreseeable future. Work is underway on this. Russia has invested very seriously in this crisis, politically, diplomatically, and now also in the military sense. Therefore we of course would like Bashar al-Assad to take account of that.’

Churkin’s rebuke to Assad was by no means the first sign of gaps between his line and Putin’s. When Assad visited Moscow shortly after Russia launched its bombing campaign, Putin in his public remarks repeatedly praised ‘the Syrian people’ for their courage and determination in resisting terrorism. He did not praise Assad personally. Referring to the rebel leaders who will have to be involved in any political settlement, Lavrov has spoken of ‘armed groups, opposition groups which are not terrorist’. The Russians have invited members of the US-backed Free Syrian Army to Moscow for talks. They have let the Syrian Kurds’ political movement, the PYD, open an office there. Meanwhile, Assad and his people continue to describe all their armed opponents as ‘terrorists’.

Although it didn’t produce an immediate change in US military strategy, Putin’s bombing campaign helped show those who backed the Syrian rebels that defeating Assad on the battlefield was no longer a serious possibility. The Americans agreed with the Russians to start a new effort at negotiations (the third attempt since the war began). In October the International Syrian Support Group was set up with representatives of all countries in the region involved in the crisis, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. The group held two long sessions of talks in Vienna, which produced a framework for a peace settlement; the details were to be thrashed out by the Syrian parties themselves. The guiding principles were ‘a commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and non-sectarian character; to ensuring that state institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination’. Within six months a credible and inclusive transitional government should be in place, which would start the process of drafting a new constitution. Within 18 months free, fair and internationally supervised elections should be held on the basis of that constitution. Jordan was asked to draw up a list of the rebel groups which could be described as being connected to terrorism, and therefore ineligible to take part in negotiations.

In February, Russia and the US persuaded their clients to accept a cessation of hostilities. This wasn’t too hard for the Americans and their friends in the rebel camp to support, since the anti-Assad forces were losing ground thanks to the Russian air campaign. The cessation continues to hold in spite of increasingly serious violations. The opposition was pushed into lifting its preconditions that the Syrian government would have to release prisoners and end the sieges of all encircled towns before negotiations could begin. Substantive talks on a transition government are due to start soon.

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Much now will depend on what concessions Assad is willing to make in forming a government of national unity with full executive powers. Discussion of his own future as president has been postponed. When Putin talked of the need for political compromise as he announced his decision to start bombing last autumn, he was implying that Assad should be among those prepared to compromise. Now that the Syrian government’s fortunes have improved and the balance on the battlefield has been regained, the question is whether Putin can succeed in getting Assad to make genuine political concessions.

By announcing only a partial withdrawal Putin has kept his military options open. He can withdraw further – or resume bombing if and when he thinks fit. The infrastructure for re-escalation remains in place. When he revealed his drawdown, he made it clear that Russia would keep its military facilities at Khmeimim air base in Latakia intact. All that was happening was a reduction in the presence of Sukhoi fighter-bombers. They can, if required, easily fly back to Syria to resume bombing. During the campaign Russia launched long-range cruise missiles from Russian territory and the Caspian Sea to hit rebel targets in Syria. More long-range strikes can be launched at any time.

Putin also said Russia would continue its military operations against IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the two groups that all members of the International Syrian Support Group unambiguously define as terrorist. As proof of that, heavy Russian air strikes in the last two weeks of March enabled the Syrian army to retake Palmyra from IS, a powerful morale boost for Assad as well as a signal to the outside world that he holds the initiative.

While still refusing publicly to admit that it might help the Syrian army in operations against IS, the US appears quietly to have dropped its objections. Alongside Russian aircraft, US warplanes bombed IS targets around Palmyra as the Syrian army advanced towards the ancient city, a clear change from the previous US strategy of non-involvement when Syrian government positions came under attack. If the ceasefire holds between Assad’s forces and the non-jihadis, the way will be open for a public acknowledgment of a switch in US policy. Joint US-Russian action against IS’s capital in Raqqa would then be conceivable, with the Syrian army and the YPG providing the boots on the ground.

A question lingers around the political future of the Syrian Kurds, whose leader, Saleh Muslim, recently came out with a proposal for turning Syria into a federal state – much as in Iraq, where Kurds run their own autonomous entity in the north. Turkey is deeply concerned at the prospect of another autonomous Kurdish statelet, and in deference to President Erdoğan the Americans have blocked Russian efforts to let the PYD join the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. Russia hasn’t expressed a firm opinion on federalisation, though its deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, recently said it could be a solution. Rejecting federalisation is one issue on which Assad and his armed Arab opponents have no trouble agreeing. Uncertainty hangs, too, over the attitude of Iran, which has financed and armed Syrian forces and deployed a substantial number of troops in support of Assad. Was Tehran happy to see a ceasefire and will it encourage Assad to break it if the Geneva talks get bogged down? Can it accept a coalition that dilutes Alawite dominance of Syria and perhaps cuts the government’s close ties with Hizbullah?

But the biggest question is what happens if Assad refuses to compromise over a transitional government in the next few weeks. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, who has done the heavy diplomatic lifting in getting the International Syria Support Group and the Geneva talks going, is said to have urged Obama on several occasions over the last year to fire American missiles at certain Syrian government targets under cover of night. The US wouldn’t announce the attacks but it would be clear who had launched them. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, who has conducted several illuminating interviews with Obama for the Atlantic in recent months, Kerry wanted to ‘send a message’ to Assad to negotiate. As for Putin, what message he would choose to send Assad if the talks fail to proceed won’t be known for some time yet.

8 April

[*] Seymour Hersh wrote about the White House's treatment of intelligence about the Syrian war in the LRB of 7 January.