A quagmire for everyone
As predicted, Russia started to feel the ugly face of the Syrian quandary. After a flashy entrance, Russian forces are settling in for a long haul and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) affiliates are biting them.
The most direct attack, befitting a radical extremist group, came on Oct. 31, when a Russian passenger plane en route to St. Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, exploded over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 aboard. Although the investigation is still ongoing to determine the exact reason for the explosion, the usual suspect, an ISIL affiliate, already claimed responsibility and U.S. President Barack Obama, along with several other senior Western officials, raised the possibility of a bomb, despite denials from both Russia and Egypt.
As a result, several countries, including Russia, have immediately suspended flights to the region. Even though Russia highlights security related issues, rather than directly acknowledging a terrorist attack, as a reason for its suspension, it is pretty clear that the main source of threat is ISIL ever since it launched its first airstrike in Syria on Sept. 30th. Just last week, the head of the Russian Air Forces has confirmed that Russia has now deployed antiaircraft missiles to Syria to safeguard its jets involved in airstrikes against ISIL forces. And according to U.S. intelligence, Russia has also doubled its troops in Syria to about 4,000.
Although Russian bombing so far is not mainly focused on ISIL targets, as many in the West and in Turkey have criticized, its deployment has nevertheless had serious repercussions on the ground in terms of political and military equilibriums. While they failed to make any significant change on ISIL positions in Syria, they have somewhat empowered the regime forces, and various power transition scenarios, citing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an important actor, are again being circulated both in Syria and internationally.
While the latest incident might force Russian President Vladimir Putin to refocus his country’s efforts towards ISIL forces instead of rebel groups that are fighting against the regime, the international community, lacking any other creditable alternative, has yet again started tentatively to discuss transition scenarios. In any case, a dismal situation emerged in Syria and neither the half-hearted U.S. involvement against ISIL for more than a year nor the Russian presence in more than a month nor the meddlesome intrusions of neighboring countries have been able to produce any concrete results towards ending the conflict.
The only positive development movement on the ground has been the revival of the diplomatic talks about Syria’s future. After a meeting between the representatives of the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Vienna on Oct. 23, a following, more inclusive meeting was proposed, which took place a week later again in Vienna with the participation of 17 countries along with the EU and the U.N. Even Iran was represented for the first time. Unfortunately, the attendees stuck where they have since the beginning of the civil war; that is, what would be the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. While Arab countries along with the U.S., the U.K. and Turkey insisted on his removal, Russia and Iran opposed any solution that excludes him, at least during the transition period.
This was where exactly the previous diplomatic efforts were ended. This time, as Iran has sustained a number of casualties in recent months and Russia tastes the bitter side of ISIL, the negotiating table might become a better alternative for everyone. One hopes that the involved parties finally agree on a solution for their own sake, if not for the sake of millions of Syrians who have been suffering for years.