The Russians in Syria: Humbug and hypocrisy

The Russians in Syria: Humbug and hypocrisy

It’s been a week since the Russians began their air-strikes in Syria and the countries that have already been bombing there for over a year - the United States and some other NATO countries - are working themselves up into a rage about it. The Russians are not bombing the right people, they are killing civilians; they are reckless, dangerous, and just plain evil.

A statement last weekend by NATO’s 28 members warned of “the extreme danger of such irresponsible behavior” and urged Russia “to cease and desist.” When a Russian warplane attacking Islamist targets in northwestern Syria strayed across the frontier into Turkey for a few minutes, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Turks would have been within their rights to shoot it down.

The weather was poor, the target was close to the border, and the Russians apologized afterwards, but NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the incursion “does not look like an accident.” So what does he think the motive was, then? Russian pilots are getting bored and are having a competition to see who can stay in Turkish airspace longest without getting shot down?

And the wicked Russians are killing civilians with their bombs, we are told. Yes, of course they are. So is the American-led coalition with its bombs. Unless you are fighting at sea or in the open desert, there will always be civilians in the same area as the “legitimate” targets. 

It’s particularly unbecoming for the United States to act holier-than-thou about the use of Russian air power in Syria, when it is simultaneously trying to explain why American planes bombed a hospital in Afghanistan last Saturday and killed 22 civilians. Neither Americans nor Russians gain anything by killing civilians; it’s just an inevitable by-product of bombing.

But the biggest Western complaint is that the Russians are bombing the wrong people. Contrary to American and European assertions, they are indeed bombing the “right” people, the troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whom Western air forces have been bombing for the past year.  But the Russians are also bombing the troops of the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. They might even bomb the troops of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), if they could find any.

Don’t they realize that these people are trying to overthrow the evil Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whereas the cruel and deluded fanatics who serve ISIL are trying - well, actually, they are trying to overthrow the evil dictator al-Assad too. This brings us to the heart of the matter.

Western propaganda makes a systematic distinction between ISIL (bad) and the “opposition” forces (all the other groups). The problem is that there is really little difference between them; they all want to overthrow the Syrian regime, and they are all Islamist jihadists, except for the tattered remnants of the FSA.

The al-Nusra Front was created in 2012 as the Syrian branch of ISIL, and broke away early last year in a dispute over tactics and turf. It is now the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham was also founded by an al-Qaeda member, and is a close military and political ally of al-Nusra. And until the propaganda needs of the moment changed, even the United States admitted that the “moderate” elements of the Syrian opposition had collapsed.

There are no reliable statistics on this, but a good guess would be that 35 percent of the rebel troops confronting al-Assad’s regime belong to ISIL, 35 percent to the al-Nusra Front, 20 percent to Ahrar al-Sham, and ten percent odds and sods including the FSA. In other words, at least 90 percent of the armed opposition are Islamists, and probably no more than 5 percent are secular, pro-democratic groups.

There are not three alternatives in Syria. There are only two: either Bashar al-Assad’s regime survives or the Islamists - really serious Islamists, who hate democracy, behead people and plan to overthrow all the other Arab governments before they set out to conquer the rest of the world - take over.

They are probably being a bit over-optimistic there, but they would be seriously dangerous people if they commanded the resources of the Syrian state, and they would be a calamity for Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims. The Russians have accepted this reality, decided that it is in their own interests for al-Assad to survive and are acting accordingly.

The United States and its allies, by contrast, are hamstrung by their previous insistence that al-Assad must go on human rights grounds. They cannot change their tune now without losing face, so they don’t bomb al-Assad themselves, but they persist in the fantasy that some other force can be created in Syria that will defeat both al-Assad and ISIL.

Moreover, the leaders of America’s two most important allies in the Muslim world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are determined that al-Assad should go (mainly because he is Shia, and they are Sunnis), and they would be very angry if the U.S. helped him survive.

That plus American anger at Russia over Ukraine and lingering hostility from the old Cold War is why NATO is condemning the Russian intervention in Syria so vehemently. But it is all humbug and hypocrisy.