It should surprise no one that Vladimir Putin’s bombing campaign in Syria since September has focused on regions held by forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad rather than the large ISIS-controlled areas north and east of Aleppo. Meddling by major foreign powers has long played a part in making the Middle East a volatile and dangerous region. Russia in particular has been a malign influence in Syria for decades.
Bilateral relations began in 1925 and continued under a secret agreement after Syria won independence from France in 1946, Moscow and Damascus remained closely allied during the entire Cold War. Each regional conflict appeared to strengthen their bonds.
In 1971, Russia was allowed to open its naval base at Tartus, its only military facility outside the former USSR. In return, many Syrians studied in Russia from 1971 to 2000, during the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’s father.
In nearby Iraq, the U.S.-led invasions in 1990 and 2003 were followed by penetrations of Iranian Khomeinists, whose muscle-flexings worsened Sunni-Shia tensions. The main actor in propelling these frictions to the point of civil war was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His 2006–2014 government was supported to its long overdue end by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Maliki pursued an Iran-supported policy of marginalizing Iraq’s Sunnis, who had benefited from Saddam Hussein’s oppression of Shias. His many abuses of office included complicity in successive attacks on 3,200 unarmed refugees from a major Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK), at Camp Ashraf in an Iraqi desert.
After the American withdrawal in 2009, Washington handed over protection of Ashraf to Maliki’s government under authority of the Geneva Conventions. The predictable consequences have included six brutal attacks, which later followed the survivors who were forcibly relocated to Camp Liberty near Baghdad. In the latest massacre two months ago, 24 were killed and many injured when the facility was struck by more than 80 missiles.
Although implicated in the theft of $500 billion, mostly foreign aid, and fired as vice-president by his successor, Haider al-Abadi, Maliki has still not been charged criminally. These open wounds contributed to the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq and to its Baathist-jihadist offspring in ISIS, which has sought to claim loyalty from Iraq’s persecuted Sunnis from its base in Raqqa, Syria. Although Iraq is a center of Arab nationalism, Tehran has outdone itself to exert indirect control over its government.
In Syria, Iran’s mullahs and their Lebanese client, Hezbollah, provide vital support to the Assad regime. More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed over the past five years—primarily by Assad and his allies. The most successful resistance against both Assad and ISIS has been from rebel groups, particularly Syria’s 2.2 million courageous and militarily effective Kurds.
After Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last month, Putin redoubled his effort to crush the anti-government rebellion in western provinces bordering Turkey. These areas are home to millions of people, including hundreds of thousands who have already been displaced by fighting elsewhere, and about 260,000 displaced following Putin’s interventions. As the situation worsens in northern Syria from Russian airstrikes on aid routes, hospitals, and civilians, many are now fully dependent on humanitarian aid.
The world must defeat ISIS wherever it exists, although opportunities for Western cooperation with Assad and Iran’s regime are limited. Iraqi Shia militias sponsored by Iranian mullahs are committing crimes as barbaric as those by ISIS. Bashar al-Assad is a mass murderer seemingly indifferent to the catastrophic refugee problem he has helped create.
Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s world-stage power in the Syria conflict will be complicated by the U.N. Security Council’s recent adoption of a resolution to endorse a road map for peace. The unanimous resolution is the first time in the five-year-old war there has been agreement on a political transition.
Under the right conditions, the process could deepen. Another favorable omen is the loss of significant territory by ISIS for the first time, mostly to Kurds and the Iraqi government.
Both John Kerry for the United States and Sergey Lavrov for Russia failed to identify the terrorists in Syria. Will Russian jets continue to target anti-Assad “terrorists” who are at least nominally supported by the U.S.-led coalition? Who is to coordinate the fight against the terrorists in Syria? There remains a plethora of questions, with no clear answers.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”