Russia’s Intervention and Syria’s Future

Gilbert Achcar

[The following is excerpted from an extensive interview with Gilbert Achcar by Ilya Budraitskis. The text is online at]

THE INITIAL OFFICIAL reason for [Russia’s] intervention was designed for Russia to get a Western, and especially American, green light. Before Russian planes started bombing, the statements from Washington were welcoming Russia’s contribution to the fight against ISIS.

This was completely illusionary, of course — a pure deception. But I would really be surprised if, in Washington, they really believed that Russia was deploying forces to Syria in order to fight ISIS. They couldn’t have possibly ignored that the real goal of Russia’s intervention is to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The fact is, however, that Washington agrees even on this true goal of Moscow’s intervention — preventing the collapse of the Assad regime. Since the early phase of the uprising in Syria, the U.S. administration, even when it started saying that Assad should step down, always emphasized that the regime should remain in place.

Contrarily to what simplistic critics of the United States  believe, the Obama administration just wanted the Assad regime without Assad himself. This is the “lesson” they drew from the catastrophic U.S. failure in Iraq: in retrospect, they believe that they should have opted for the “Saddamism without Saddam” scenario there, instead of dismantling the regime’s apparatuses.

There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the present complaint by the Obama administration that most Russian strikes are directed against the non-ISIS Syrian opposition. And yet, Washington’s hope is that Putin will not only prevent the regime’s collapse and consolidate it, but also help in reaching some kind of political settlement of the conflict. For the time being this is more wishful thinking than anything else.

The key goal of Russia’s military intervention in Syria was to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime. There is a second goal, however, which goes far beyond Syria, and translates in the fact that Russia sent to Syria a sampling of its air force and launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea. This looks like the “Gulf moment” of Russian imperialism. I mean that Putin is doing at a reduced scale what the United States did in 1991 when it showcased its advanced weaponry against Iraq in the first Gulf war.

U.S. imperialism needed to reassert the function of its hegemony in the global system. What Putin is doing now with this show of force is saying to the world: “We Russians also have an advanced weaponry, we can also deliver, and actually we are a more reliable ally than the U.S.” Putin is winning friends in the region. He developed relations with Egypt’s counter-revolutionary autocrat Sisi, and with the Iraqi government.

Iraq and Egypt are two states which were regarded as being part of the U.S. sphere of influence, and yet both of them are supporting the Russian intervention, both of them are now buying weapons from Russia and developing military and strategic relations with Moscow.

Obama is confronted indeed with a terribly negative balance-sheet of his policy on Syria. It’s a total disaster from whichever point of view you look at it, humanitarian or strategic. The Obama administration is trying to console itself by saying that Russia is falling in a trap, that it will be its second Afghanistan.

The Opposition

It is important to be aware that whatever one can say about the reactionary character of a big section of those who are fighting the regime, it is the regime that has produced them in the first place. More generally, by its cruelty, the regime has created the resentment that bred the development of jihadism, up to ISIS. ISIS indeed is a barbaric response to the regime’s barbarism, in what I call a “clash of barbarisms.”

The Assad regime is now quite worse than it was before the uprising. Syria is now not only a dictatorial state but a country in which murderous unrestrained gangsters, the shabbiha as they are called in Arabic, are running the show. And they are terrorizing the population, which is why a major part of the recent wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe came from regime-controlled areas. Those are the very many who can’t suffer any longer to remain subjected to those criminal gangsters that the Assad regime has nurtured.

The Syrian population has no faith at all in the future of the regime. And therefore all those who could afford it decided to flee to Europe. Many of the refugees fleeing to Europe, as you could see from television reportages, are not from the poorest parts of the population. There is a significant proportion of middle-class persons among the refugees.

They often sold everything they possessed in Syria because they have no hope in coming back! This will have a huge cost for the country’s future. Those who remain in Syria are either people who can’t do otherwise, or war profiteers.

The situation is very gloomy. No one can blame Syrians for deciding to leave their country for good, as it takes a lot of optimism indeed to maintain any hope in Syria’s future. Nevertheless, we have seen dramatic situations even worse than that in history followed by recovery, even though it may take many years.

The first condition for the cessation of the war and the beginning of any recovery process in Syria is, however, Assad’s departure. As long as he is there, it won’t be possible to end this terrible tragedy.

To be frank, I am not optimistic at all with regard to the existing forces — all of them. For now the best one can hope is ending the war. Stopping this terrible bloodshed and the destruction of the country is the priority. A progressive alternative will need to be rebuilt from the potential that still exists.

Although there aren’t any significant organized forces representing a progressive alternative, there still is an important potential composed of many of the young people who initiated the uprising in 2011. Thousands are in exile now; others are in jail. And many others are still in Syria, but can’t play a determining role in the civil war.

ISIS’s spectacular expansion took place more than one year ago, and neither Russia nor the Assad regime did anything serious to fight it. Putin’s main concern, like Assad’s for that matter, is the regime’s survival. By shoring it up, Putin is prolonging the war. And that is criminal.

Eventually, of course, one can only wish that the West’s wishful thinking would prove true and Putin force Assad to step down. It is difficult to tell what Putin’s perspective on this is. It is true, however, that Russia runs a high risk of getting stuck in a “quagmire,” to use Obama’s term, if the war doesn’t end in the short term.

We need the war to stop first. Whatever the end of the war can bring, it will be positive from that point of view. But it will take the emergence of a new progressive alternative on the basis of the existing potential in order for the situation to inspire any optimism.

May/June 2016, ATC 182