In 1958 a young pilot in the Syrian Air Force (SAF) by the name of Hafez al-Asad journeyed to Russia for ten months of intense technical training. The SAF was emerging as a modern aerial force, but the planes wouldn’t be worth much without trained pilots to fly them. Moscow would sponsor a contingent of Syrian officers to take part in an accelerated study abroad program. A new friendship arose.
The relationship between Syria and Russia was fraught with difficulty after 1948 when Russia rushed to recognize Israel. The rivalry for Russian aid on the regional level between the Israelis and Arabs was simultaneously occurring on a domestic level, inside Syria. The Baathist’s saw the Communists as a direct threat to Arab nationalism, so many street battles were fought between the two. Russia, though a Communist power, reoriented its position in favor of Arab aspirations after the death of Stalin. This changed regional dynamics and finally gave the Arabs a superpower patron. Russia proved to be Syria’s most important ally in the region. A close bond was built, symbolized by a Russian naval base in Tartus. The relationship was to some degree special. It was not uncommon for Syrian men and Russian women to marry, as a result of warm ties between the two.
The time Asad spent in Russia, though short, helped solidify the relationship. It became something more than temporary or transactional after he reached the presidency in 1970. Which is why it’s not surprising to hear Russia is now considering taking on a combat role in Syria. Recent reports have indicated that a Russian military buildup on behalf of the embattled Syrian Government of President Bashar al-Asad has taken place. Sources familiar with developments in the civil war are suggesting that Russian forces are now taking part in ground operations alongside the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and targeting rebels through airstrikes.
The development was not well received in certain circles of American Foreign Policy. Policymakers who continue to search for regime change in Syria will find only disappointment, so long as Russia stands behind its ally. Many regional experts and indeed the White House have voiced concerns about the alternatives to the Syrian Government. ISIS is the strongest rebel force operating in the region. Al Qaeda is coalescing the remaining Islamist forces behind it. And the “moderate forces” are so incompetent that it’s a wonder the program to train and equip them hasn’t shut down.
Despite fear of the radical alternative, the United States can’t gather the political capital necessary to pivot in favor of the Syrian Government, which is the strongest anti-ISIS ground force, without a firestorm of criticism from regional allies. It’s not realistic to expect the United States to do so, despite continued Islamic State gains and a worsening humanitarian crisis that is now hitting the heart of Europe. But why should that mean the U.S. can’t accommodate Russia for doing the heavy lifting (and receiving the criticism we don’t want) in Syria for us? Yes, the United States generally seeks to prevent Russia from gaining influence anywhere and everywhere, whether we have vital interests there or not. But Russian influence in Syria cannot be dislodged without putting something far worse in its place.
The United States has sent advisers and conducts airstrikes on behalf of its ally in Baghdad. So why is it so shocking that Russia would take the same steps for its ally in Damascus? A Russian military buildup in Syria could be a boon for regional stability if it aids in degrading ISIS. What’s constructive about the U.S. bombing ISIS in Iraq and Russia bombing ISIS in Syria is that both the U.S. and Russia are bombing the same enemies. Whether we acknowledge we have common interests is immaterial. By bombing the new forces rising against the establishment, we are preserving the status quo. The White House may rail against Russian intervention (and they mean it, unaware of the irony that they are doing the same thing in Iraq), but I don’t doubt that they have already built this into their worldview. Russia is not gaining any new allies by doing this, only protecting the one they already have. If they succeed, we know what we’re getting in Syria, because it’s the same devil we’ve been dealing with for decades. Let’s not waste more time and effort trying to train some mythical moderate, pro-American force that can defeat Islamist’s and negotiate a settlement with the government. The destabilization is occurring faster than that timetable allows. If the United States and Russia put pressure on ISIS from opposite sides of the border, perhaps we can send the terrorists running back to the heart of their Caliphate, with no exit.