Faculty Editorial: Russia and Syria

By Dr. Amir Azarvan – Assistant Professor of Political Science

Russia’s Involvement in The Syrian War: What Are We to Make of It? When viewed through the lens of the Western media, Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian war seems like a troubling development. We’re told, or are led to believe, that Russia has “demanded” that “American warplanes exit Syrian airspace immediately;” that Russian jets have largely attacked “opposition forces”, not ISIS; that Russia is concerned more with keeping Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, in power than with fighting terrorists; and that dozens of civilians have already been killed by Russian airstrikes.

But there are three points that ought to be borne in mind as we consider these claims and insinuations: First, the distinction drawn between ISIS and “opposition forces” is giving the false impression that the latter is an assemblage of secular, moderate, and pro-democratic groups. Included among them is Al Nusra, the al Qaeda-linked group designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. As for the Free Syrian Army — you know, the “good rebels” — we’re not in agreement on whether it even exists anymore, let alone has the capability of taking over Syria. There are even government reports that the FSA has provided Al Nusra with military equipment issued by the US-led coalition.

It is telling that even the BBC (which normally purveys anti-Assad propaganda) acknowledges that “Washington’s efforts to arm the so-called moderate Syrian opposition have descended into near farce.” Second, civilian casualties are inevitable in times of war (in fact, it’s frequently argued that civilians comprise the majority of those killed in wars fought today). Americans should be well aware of this fact. The initial assault on Iraq, alone, resulted in an estimated 6,716 civilian deaths. Isn’t it sort of awkward for the U.S., of all countries, to criticize Russia for committing the same tragic mistakes (if, indeed, it truly has)? Third, Russia requested, not demanded, that “U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace,” according to a US State Department spokesman.

This is not a mere semantic difference. A demand would imply an attempt to intimidate the U.S., whereas a request is consistent with the more likely explanation that the Russians were simply seeking to avoid an accident that might worsen an already tense situation between two nuclear powers. With respect to Syria’s political future, the choice is ultimately between jihadists and Assad. Should we condemn Russia for having chosen the latter?

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