President Putin has caught the west flat-footed with his intervention in Syria, showing up the dithering that has long characterised European and US policy. By throwing Russian military support into the arena Putin has immediately bolstered his Syrian ally, while affirming Moscow's global role, an approach he hopes will help overcome the isolation borne of its policies in Ukraine.
Moscow has framed its intervention as anti-extremist. But while some of the groups targeted do have Al-Qaeda connections, the nature and geography of the initial strikes make clear that the primary focus is strengthening Assad. Already Russian intervention appears to have made moot the question pre-occupying western capitals of whether or not to include Assad in negotiations: With Russian force behind him Assad is clearly not going anywhere and it is hard to see how he can now be excluded from any renewed international attempts to initiate a political process.
For optimists – including some western governments bereft of ideas to end a conflict which is increasingly spilling over into Europe in terms of both refugee numbers and terror threats – the hope is that having secured Assad's position, Moscow will pivot to a political approach, deploying its new leverage to force meaningful compromises out of a long intransigent Assad. Moscow has recently facilitated government-opposition talks and made clear that it accepts that Assad will need to make some concessions, suggesting that it recognises that a military push can only achieve so much.
But as Russia digs in, these hopes are likely to be quickly disappointed. If there is any window for a political pivot it is shutting rapidly and it will likely not take long before Moscow comes to see that it has bitten off more than it can chew. Rather than facilitate a settlement, Russian involvement can be expected to add a new layer of intractability to the conflict, while drawing Russia itself into the crosshairs of a devastating local and regional civil war.
Not only is Russian military intervention likely to fuel further radicalisation – in part by drawing parallels with the perceived victorious jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s – but it will almost certainly provoke counter-escalation by regional states – namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – who remain absolutely committed to ensuring Assad's demise. For these states, pitted in a regional war against Assad and his Iranian backers the stakes are simply too high to accept Russian attempt to militarily shape the peace.
The reality is that while Moscow may project confidence today it is hard to see how it can transform its intervention into a sustainable strategy.
This article was originally published on El País on 3rd October 2015.
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