Russia on Thursday refused to comment on reports it has sent combat troops into Syria as an attempt to bolster the armed forces of President Bashar al-Assad, which continues to wage violent battles with the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant factions in a civil war that long ago metastasized into a regional crisis.
On Wednesday, Reuters cited "Lebanese sources familiar with the political and military situation" on the ground in Syria to report that Russian President Vladamir Putin had ordered at least a "small number" of combat troops and new shipments of military supplies to the Assad government.
"The only way to wind down the conflict is through a negotiated settlement involving all the regional powers."
—Seumas Milne, GuardianAccording to the report, Moscow confirmed it had "experts" on the ground in Syria to support its long-time ally in the Middle East, but Russian officials declined to comment on the scale and scope of its military presence. Damascus, for its part, denied Russians were involved in combat, but one Syrian official told the news agency that the presence of Russian military advisers had increased in the past year.
While Putin has made it clear that he believes Assad must be included in the necessary political negotiations to bring the fighting to an end, the U.S. continues to demand that the Syrian president should step aside. Even though both the U.S. and Assad share the same declared enemy in ISIS, the White House continues to frown on Russian efforts to bolster the Syrian army and has rebuffed diplomatic overtures that would include Assad.
"We would welcome constructive Russian contributions to the counter-[ISIS] effort," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told Reuters on Wednesday, "but we've been clear that it would be unconscionable for any party, including the Russians, to provide any support to the Assad regime."
That position, however, infuriates foreign policy experts who argue the U.S.-led military engagement in both Syria and Iraq—which includes a nearly year-long bombing campaign in both countries—is prolonging the war and creating more instability in the region, not less.
What is certainly clear, according to the Guardian's Seumas Milne, is that "the US-led bombing campaign against Isis in Iraq and Syria clearly isn’t working. Thousands of Isis fighters have reportedly been killed, along with hundreds of civilians. But a year after the raids began, the terror group has actually expanded the territory it controls."
And at the heart of the issue, according to critics like Milne and many others, remains a question that the current leadership of the U.S., most of its NATO allies, and the Gulf monarchies refuse to acknowledge and rarely discuss: Why, despite the publicly articulated belief that the rise of ISIS has become the primary threat to their own national security interests and the civilian populations of the region, is there no concerted effort underway to bridge diplomatic differences with Assad in order to bring the Syrian civil war to an end?
As the Australia-based independent researcher and analyst Greg Maybury explains at Consortium News, the U.S. and its allies continue to operate with an "Assad must go" attitude at the expense of what a chorus of outside experts—not to mention the United Nations and most Western diplomats—say is a situation with no military solution. Writes Maybury:
Of course, as we all know, Assad is presented as either the New Gaddafi or the New Hussein, the latest evil dictator incarnate who has to be removed from power. Yet we can also ask the following question: Assuming this is their endgame, who would the Americans prefer to negotiate with in terms of reaching some kind of resolution that reduces the violence, neutralizes the terrorist threat, and stems the tide of refugees — the Assad regime or ISIS?
The complicating factor since the outset of the Syrian conflict has been the rise and rise of ISIS, which putting aside the reality that the “organization” is the blowback personified by America’s previous, well documented interventions in Iraq and Syria if not a direct creation of the Americans, has paradoxically prevented them from achieving what appears still to be the overarching goal: To get rid of Assad irrespective of the consequences.
It seems then the American foreign policy elites want to have their cake, and eat it at the same time. Despite the incoherence and absurdity of the policy agenda in Syria and the Greater Middle East, this “incoherence” and “absurdity” still fails to resonate with the architects and proponents of the policy.
All parties — the U.S., the U.K., Australia and others involved in the conflict — all keep crashing the same car, albeit into a different wall, hoping against hope that the next time it will be the wall that sustains the most damage.
"Western bombs won’t defeat ISIS," argues Milne, who expresses near disbelief that despite "one disastrous western military intervention in the Arab and Muslim world after another" the U.S. and its allies continue to demand the military escalations and bombings "keep on coming."
"To try to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, without having any idea how to stop the advance of Islamic State sounds a bit absurd."
And as Middle East expert Michael Lüders told German channel N24 this week, the ouster of Assad would likely make matters much worse, not better. "He still controls a third of the territory of Syria. If his regime falls, then the power in all likelihood will pass into the hands of Islamic state militants. That is, to try to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, without having any idea how to stop the advance of Islamic State sounds a bit absurd," he said.
Lüders further stated that the effort by Western powers and the Gulf monarchies to overthrow the regime is dangerous as Russia, Iran, and China come together in order to prevent such an outcome. These proxy battles, he warned, "means the growth of confrontation."
According to Milne, the "only way to wind down the conflict is through a negotiated settlement involving all the regional powers. Syria has long been a proxy war, pitting the Assad regime’s Russian and Iranian backers against the Gulf dictatorships, Turkey and the western powers that stand behind the myriad rebel groups. Talks between the main players have picked up in recent months, aimed at such a deal."
However, he concludes, "ISIS thrives on war and sectarian conflict across the region. It will be marginalized and eventually defeated when that conflict is brought to an end. That will need pressure from the west on its Gulf clients, not a new bombing campaign. It’s true the refugee crisis can be solved only in Syria—but it will be by peacemaking, not more western war."