Now that Russia has become an active participant in the Syrian civil war, President Vladmir Putin is calling for a coalition of forces from East and West to unite against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other extremist groups. Illinois State’s Yusuf Sarfati says that may be an option, but the objectives of the U.S. and Russia make for short-term allies in the future of a nation that will never look the same.
The United States and Russia have different goals as far as Syria is concerned. Syria is a long-time ally of Russia, and Vladmir Putin has made it clear he wants Syrian President Bashar-al Assad to stay in power. Throughout the prolonged civil war, Russia stayed behind Assad in the international arena and provided weapons to the regime. However, few would have predicted such a bold move, namely Russia directly intervening in the Syrian civil war with air strikes and ground troops. While Putin claims to be fighting against the Islamic State, and therefore talks of a possible coalition with the West, most of the Russian airstrikes hit other opposition groups, not the IS-controlled territories.
In contrast, the United States opposes the Assad regime. However, currently the U.S. doesn’t have clear goals in Syria. While the administration opposes the Assad regime, it is also wary of the major opposition forces, such as Jabat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups. The so-called moderate groups the U.S. supports have weakened considerably. The only major ally with whom the U.S. works closely is the Kurdish groups controlling northern Syria, also known as Eastern Kurdistan, yet the Kurds want to have independence on a more limited piece of land and wage battles against IS not the regime.
Of course, the question becomes, what happens if Assad’s regime does fall? The U.S. does not want it to fall too quickly, because that would leave a power vacuum that would probably be filled by jihadist groups. The example of Libya is instructive here.
I would say a break-up of Syria is inevitable at this point. Seven million people have left their homes, and more than 200,000 are dead in the conflict with no end in sight. Right now, there is no safety or social order for most Syrians, and the country is divided into realms of influence between different militia and the regime. No matter what the war’s outcome, the future of the country will not look like the Syria we know.
One possible scenario might be similar to Putin’s idea of a coalition between East and West, one that would have Putin and regional allies put pressure on Assad to come to some type of settlement with the opposition groups, while the U.S. and its regional allies using their leverage on the opposition groups. Yet no one can predict how central Russia wants to be in the conflict. For now, it looks as though the country’s intensions are to give a strong signal to its regional allies —as well as the West—that it will not hesitate to use military force to protect its allies and what it views as its interest.
Yusuf Sarfati is an associate professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, and the director of the Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies Minor program. You can follow him on twitter @y_sarfati or reach him via MediaRelations@IllinoisState.edu.