After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s landmark speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September, in which he declared that Russia could “no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world”, it was only a matter of time for the Kremlin to follow up with concrete action. “Do you realise what you have done?” was the question that Putin posed, to his American counterpart in particular and to the West in general. Putin was referring to the chain of events precipitated by the West that has led to the emergence of a de facto terrorist state in the region. As Putin pointed out in his speech, the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya provided a springboard for terror groups to morph into the potent Islamic State (I.S.).
Putin called for a coordinated effort by world powers to confront the threat posed by terrorist groupings like the I.S. He said that the need of the hour was “a genuinely broad international coalition” to fight the I.S. in Syria and Iraq. A meaningful fight against terrorist groups in Syria was only possible if the Syrian government and its army were on board, he said. “We think that it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting the enemy face to face,” he said. “No one but President [Bashar al-] Assad’s forces and the Kurdish militias are fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations inside Syria.”
He asserted that the creation of the I.S. was a direct result of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States. Russia had made the mistake of allowing the establishment of a U.N.- mandated no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians during the fighting there. The French and the Americans used the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution to militarily intervene in the country. Russia abstained in the UNSC vote. “It is now obvious that the power vacuum created by some countries in the Middle East [West Asia] and North Africa led to the creation of anarchic areas which immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists,” Putin said. In Syria, the West and its allies rode roughshod over the country’s sovereignty by pumping in arms, money and radical Islamists.
“After the end of the Cold War, a single centre of domination emerged in the world, and those who found themselves on the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that they were strong and exceptional,” Putin observed.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at the U.N. suggested that he was still possessed by the pipe dream of regime change in Damascus. The havoc that the West under American leadership had wrought on the countries it had occupied was apparently not enough. Obama, unlike Putin, does not seem keen to see order restored in the region and instead is opting for a policy of “creative chaos”, disregarding the suffering of the people.
Obama insisted that Assad would have to go, though he was careful to not specify a time frame. He spent much of his time criticising the Syrian President and his use of “barrel bombs” against terrorist targets. But he did not mention the carpet bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia. The attack on a marriage party in Yemen by Saudi planes, which killed more than a hundred civilians in late September, has been condemned by human rights organisations worldwide. The U.S.-supplied Saudi Air Force uses smart weapons and laser-guided bombs to target civilians. A few days after Obama addressed the U.N., U.S. planes bombed the only functioning hospital in the Afghan town of Kunduz as the doctors were busy treating the wounded. Kunduz had fallen to the Taliban in late September.
The decision by the Russian government to deploy its air force in Syria days after the frosty meeting between Obama and Putin has no doubt taken the West and its allies in the region by surprise. They realise it could be a game changer as the Russian government, unlike the West, does not distinguish between good and bad terrorists. Russia was aware that the U.S., in cahoots with Turkey, was planning to step up the heat on Syria. Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has staked his political future on the overthrow of the Syrian government. While allowing the U.S. to use the Incirlik military base near the border with Syria, he seems to have got a commitment from the Obama administration that regime change in that country would remain on top of the agenda. The U.S. looked the other way as the Turkish air force concentrated its attacks on the Kurdish forces fighting the I.S. inside Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. and its allies have been quick to blame Russia for targeting terrorist groups such as al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and others aligned to Al Qaeda, concentrated along the border with Turkey. U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said that Russia’s bombing campaign was akin to “pouring gasoline over fire”. He naturally glossed over the fact that it was the U.S. and its regional allies who were responsible for starting the fire in the first place. The U.S. is especially angered that Russia had targeted the “Free Syrian Army (FSA)” force of 10,000, trained and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Most of them have either joined or are now aligned with the various terror outfits waging war against the secular government in Syria. Carter said that the Russians were also attacking sites where the I.S. was not present.
Obama warned that Russia was walking into a military quagmire. Senator John McCain said that the U.S. should shoot down Russian planes. Hillary Clinton indirectly blamed Obama for giving Russia a free hand. She wanted the immediate creation of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. Hillary Clinton, as newly released documents have shown, had played a key role in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died,” she had casually remarked after the violent lynching of the Libyan leader.
Assad, on the other hand, has said that the military campaign by Syria, Russia and their allies is vital to save West Asia from destruction. “It must succeed, otherwise we face the destruction of the entire region, not just one or two states,” he said. According to him, the joint operations by Syrian and Russian planes have in a week’s time achieved more than what was accomplished in the year-long air campaign by the U.S. and its allies. He expressed the hope that the Russian-led campaign against terrorism would succeed as it had broad international support.
On the record, Russia says that it does not consider Western-sponsored rebel groups like the FSA as terrorist outfits. Both Russia and Syria have expressed willingness to participate in negotiations once the scourge of terrorism is uprooted from Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the U.N. that the Russian air strikes “do not go beyond the ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], al-Nusra or other terrorist groups recognised by the U.N. Security Council and Russian law”. The Russian intervention in a way is aimed at foiling the West’s game plan to use so-called “moderate” terrorists to overthrow Assad’s government. When questioned by the Western media about the issue, the Russian Minister said that attacks by his country were targeting terrorists of all stripes. “If it looks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it is a terrorist, right?” he told the media in New York.
It is also not surprising that the Syrian Kurds have welcomed the Kremlin’s intervention on behalf of the Syrian government. Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Unity Party, has said that the Syrian government’s defeat at the hands of the “Salafis” would be “a disaster for everyone”. The Syrian army and its allies are expected to reclaim lost territory very soon. There are reports that Iran has sent around 500 combatants to help the Syrian army. The Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris will try to foil the Syrian army’s advance by supplying the terror groups with sophisticated arms and sending more foreign fighters.
In the last two years, more than 30,000 foreign fighters have joined the I.S., their movement facilitated and financed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Young Muslims, enthused by the creation of a so-called caliphate, have been flocking to Syria. Many of them are from the Indian subcontinent. Russia fears that if the Syrian government falls, the thousands of Chechen terrorists fighting in Syria will return to the Caucasus to reignite the conflict there.
Israel, too, has been tacitly supporting groups like the al-Nusra Front and even the I.S. The Israeli ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, told Jerusalem Post two years ago that his government preferred “the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to those backed by Iran”. He said that it did not matter if the bad guys “were backed by Al Qaeda”. The Zionist state has allowed the al-Nusra Front to control the narrow border it shares with Syria. Injured Nusra Front fighters are being treated in Israeli military hospitals. Israel has launched many air attacks on Syrian military targets in the last four years.
With Russian planes and radar on the ground in Syria, Israel’s military options in Syria will be severely circumscribed. Israel’s larger game plan is to ensure that secular Arab nations disintegrate and are replaced by smaller states, which will do its bidding. Israel will then be able to more effectively tackle the Hizbollah militia in Lebanon. At the same time, Israel is working overtime to construct more illegal settlements on the Golan Heights which it had seized from Syria, taking advantage of the chaos in the country.
In the first week of October, Western leaders issued a joint statement criticising Russia’s air strikes in Syria. They demanded that Russia confine itself to strikes aimed exclusively at I.S. targets. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande told the media that they had told their Russian counterpart of their “insistence” that only the I.S. should be targeted. “Both of us insisted on the fact that the I.S. is the enemy that we are fighting,” Merkel told the media in Paris. Putin stuck to his position. He said in Paris that the Russian forces were directed not only against the I.S. but also against other terrorist groupings like the al-Nusra Front. Russia has said that its air campaign in Syria will continue for four months. Moscow has clearly seen through the West’s stratagem of using al-Nusra and other Al Qaeda affiliates to harm its interests and that of its allies in the region. Now, as far as the West is concerned, Al Qaeda, now under increasing CIA tutelage, has become a useful tool.