Friday 20 April 2018

Putin's ploy could spark a war without end for Syria

Russia's President Vladimir Putin toasts during a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations headquarters earlier this week in New York Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP
Russia's President Vladimir Putin toasts during a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations headquarters earlier this week in New York Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Roland Oliphant and David Blair

For six bloodsoaked weeks, the city was flayed by artillery and air strikes. When thousands lay dead and much of Grozny had been reduced to ruins, Vladimir Putin declared that peace had been returned to this wasteland.

The fate of Chechnya's capital during Putin's first weeks in office in 2000 should serve as a warning regarding his solution to Syria's crisis. The man who began his presidency by launching the Second Chechnya War knows only one way of dealing with an uprising - the way that Bashar al-Assad has since made his own in Syria.

So when President Putin says that victory for Assad is the only way to end Syria's agony - and that the West should rally behind this effort - no one should harbour any doubts about what this would mean.

Today, Assad controls less than 20pc of Syria. Does Putin think his ally should reconquer the other 80pc? Prising Assad's grip from 80pc of Syria claimed a minimum of 220,000 lives. At least as many more would have to die for him to regain this territory. The refugee flows that Europe is experiencing would be as nothing compared with the millions who would flee the Assad steamroller.

If Putin and Iran think this is the route to peace - if they want to stand with Assad, barrel bomb for barrel bomb, gas attack for gas attack, scud missile for scud missile - then their choice is the definition of moral bankruptcy. Some say that ruthless methods are needed to deal with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). Yet the Putin-Iran manifesto for Syria is exactly what Isil wants.

Putin's portrayal of Assad as an implacable foe of Isil, who deserves support for that reason alone, is profoundly misleading. In truth, fighting Isil has never been a priority for Assad.

A study conducted by IHS Jane's, a defence consultancy, found that of 982 operations launched by the regime's forces in 2014, only 6pc targeted Isil. This was the year when Isil overran swathes of eastern Syria, seizing valuable oilfields and their de facto capital, Raqqa.

While this was happening, Assad was hurling 94pc of his military effort against the other rebel movements. When Isil advanced, they often captured territory not from the regime but from rival insurgents.

By using barrel bombs, chlorine gas and strike aircraft against the rebels in Isil's path, Assad actually helped the terrorists to gain ground.

But there is a more important problem with this path. The central goal of any campaign against terrorism in Syria must be to divide Isil from the country's Sunni majority. If Sunnis are forced to choose between Isil and the rule of Assad - a foreign-backed Alawite dictator who has committed every possible atrocity, up to and including the gassing of children - then many will make a decision that we might find uncomfortable.

Nothing would be more likely to rally popular support for Isil than helping Assad to reconquer Syria. The vision of an army backed by Shia Iran and Christian Russia bearing down on Sunnis in the Arabian heartland would fulfil the millenarian fantasies of the most ardent Isil zealot. At a stroke, its pitiless worldview would seem to be vindicated.

The only answer is what it has always been: Assad's departure allowing the birth of a united front against Isil. But the half measures of the West have created a vacuum into which Putin has stepped. If they are not prepared to back their policy with force, he most certainly is. And if it ever came to pass, Putin's plan for Syria would deliver war without end.

On Thursday, Russian forces flew 18 sorties against 12 targets, the Russian ministry of defence said, and one official said the air strikes could last "three to four months".

Russian jets hit targets including Isil training camps and command posts in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Raqqa in the previous 24 hours.

The latest air strikes came as further details emerged of the shape of Russia's military campaign in Syria, with fresh reports of an imminent Iranian and Hezbollah-backed ground offensive being planned in co-ordination with the Russian air strikes.

Correspondents with the pro-Kremlin tabloid 'Komsomolskaya Pravda' who are embedded with Syrian troops reported that Russian air power is to provide cover for a major regime offensive directed at clearing the highway between the cities of Homs and Hama.

The reports come as members of the American-led coalition against Isil warned Russia's actions could prolong the four-year war in Syria and condemned Moscow for attacking non-Isil rebel groups.

"These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalisation," seven countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States said in a statement published on the website of the Turkish foreign ministry.

"We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians," added the statement, which was also published on the websites of the German and French foreign ministries.

Russia says that its air campaign is dedicated to fighting jihadists from Isil, but western governments and Syrian opposition groups said the first air strikes targeted non-Isil rebels, including some groups allied with and armed by the United States.

Yesterday Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's chief of staff, said the campaign would run for the duration of "the Syrian armed forces offensive operation".

Evgenny Buzhinsky, a former Russian general who now heads the PIR analytical centre in Moscow, said Russian commanders would be reluctant to put a specific deadline on the end of operations.

"It is impossible to predict how long such operations would last. I'd hope it would not be much longer than a few months, but achieving the operation's aims could take longer or be quicker than that," he said. Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst, said Mr Peskov's comments indicated the Kremlin has decided to "win the war" for Bashar al-Assad's government once and for all.

"Right now they are just softening up the opposition. Then there will come the ground offensive. It will be us in the air and Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah on the ground," he said.

The length of such an operation would depend on the strength of the opposition and the response from the West, but if the objective is to restore regime control over all of Syria it could "take years," he said.

"It's going to be a terrible bloodbath, tens of thousands of Syrians will be killed, and the consequences for Europe will be even more refugees," he said.

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