The view from Russia.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria is largely a war of choice marketed as a necessity to defeat the terror of Islamic State. It brings Russia back from the cold as an indispensable power.
Sending forces into combat allowed Moscow to muscle its way to the centre of global diplomacy on Syria, while turning the conversation away from Ukraine. Displays of new military prowess and power diplomacy have become the primary sources of popular legitimacy for the Russian leaders. Moscow launched airstrikes in Syria on 30 September with only 15% of Russians paying attention but a month of relentless TV coverage has focused people’s minds the way the Kremlin wanted. Public support for the operation has risen to 53%, 47% endorse the official objective of preventing Isis from attacking Russia, while 29% think Russia is protecting Assad’s regime from a US-sponsored revolution.
Yet a sense of apprehension is palpable: 22% of Russians disapprove of the intervention; 66% are against deploying ground forces; 17% do not understand what Russia is fighting for in Syria; 39% fear the war will result in Russian casualties; while 41% believe it would divert resources from Russia’s economy.
Russia’s public debate on Syria is heavily skewed to favour Assad’s regime, depicting it as the last defence against Isis. Putin’s plan, borrowing heavily from his Chechen template, centres on the need to split the anti-Assad opposition and co-opt those of its elements who would agree to hold the transition talks with Assad and stop fighting the regime, while turning their arms against Isis. It’s a cynically clever plan to create a new reality in Syria by turning its civil war into a counter-terrorist operation.
Vladimir Frolov is a Russian political analyst.
The view from the US.
Moscow and Tehran see Isis as their barrel bomber’s ticket back to polite society and the tool that can force President Obama to eat his August 2011 words calling on Assad to step aside. They know that the Assad regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity produce recruits for Isis. Not a problem for them.
The ultimate solution involves political legitimacy: inclusive, non-sectarian governance based on consent of the governed and rule of law. That solution may be decades away. The first order of business is to alter the trajectory that has transformed Syria’s internal agony into a regional crisis and now a demographic tidal wave washing over western Europe. How to do it? The United States should take the lead.
First, offer a modicum of protection to Syrian civilians inside Syria. Without it no productive diplomatic process is possible. Yes, limited military counter-measures will be required, unless Russia and Iran muzzle their client. Russian assets need not be engaged. Indeed, Russia, Iran and the regime should be given a chance to stop the slaughter before carefully targeted retaliation becomes necessary.
Second, undertake a major diplomatic initiative to organise regional ground combat forces – infantry, armour, artillery – supported by western European combat support elements to work with American special operations forces and coalition aircraft to sweep Isis from Syria. This would be a diplomatic heavy lift of the first order. But given enough time Isis will sink deep roots in Syria. The current military campaign against it lacks sufficient ground forces to be decisive. Beating Isis would enable Syrian nationalists to establish decent governance in eastern Syria and would turn the tide of battle against Isis in Iraq.
Nothing good – dialogue, negotiations, compromise, elections, or a new constitution – can happen in Syria so long as civilians are on the bullseye in the west and Isis is riding high in the east. It may take decades for Syria to get to the promised land of political legitimacy. It will get there never at all until the country’s current downward trajectory is arrested and redirected. Time is of the essence.
Frederic C Hof is a former US State Department special adviser on Syria.
The view from Israel.
Syria has become the epicentre of regional turmoil, emitting waves of refugees, terror and instability far beyond the Middle East. Of all Syria’s neighbours, Israel has been the least affected. But while it is neither part of the war nor the diplomatic efforts, Israel remains a stakeholder in the future of its northern neighbour.
Developments in Syria are judged in Israel mostly by the direct danger posed by the Iranian-led axis. Iran is a regional power deeply hostile to Israel that commands the region’s most heavily armed sub-state actor, Hezbollah. Assad’s remaining territory in Syria serves as a vital conduit for replenishing Hezbollah’s huge rocket arsenal, aimed at Israel.
Any potential diplomatic outcome for Syria will primarily be dictated by developments on the ground and these do not bode well for a solution. Syria is deeply fragmented, with none of the major players strong enough to overwhelm the other, nor weak enough to be eliminated. External powers are vying over the end game with conflicted goals.
They all agree Isis must be defeated, yet are divided on how and whether Assad is part of the problem or the solution. Western policy-makers should therefore focus on each of the various fragments in Syria, as well as on specific challenges.
First, the military campaign against Isis should be stepped up. To that end, the west should boost its support for the Kurds, the only ground force capable of defeating Isis and select Sunni tribes. Second, more moderate local rebel groups in the south should be enabled to prevent Iran, its proxies and Sunni jihadis from establishing a foothold. Third, urgent humanitarian solutions must be provided, so as to mitigate the human tragedy.
Finally, all efforts should be designed with an eye to preventing the empowerment of Iran and its Shia proxies, who might drive Sunnis into jihadi arms, and further destabilise the region.
Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defence Forces, is the Milton Fine international fellow at the Washington Institute.
The view from Iran.
Young Iranians know very little about Syria. It is different when it comes to older Iranians, who remember the lonely eight years of war with Iraq. They recall that while the entire Middle East backed Saddam’s Iraq, it was only Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, who stood by Iran. They might also remember the unwritten strategic alliance between the two countries: if one is attacked, the other must help. And the fact that Hafez Assad told Bashar in his will always to trust Iranians when he needed them, as opposed to other unreliable Arab leaders.
But what everyone talks about is how vital Syria is to Iran as its most valuable deterrent against a possible Israeli invasion. If Iran is the brain – and the pocket – of anti-Israeli resistance in the region, Syria is the heart that pumps resources into Hezbollah as Iran’s distant defensive fist.
The Iranian public didn’t care much about Syria in the beginning. It was mainly the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who kept the pledge he had given to Bashar’s father when both were presidents. To the surprise of many, even in Iran, he publicly denounced the rebellion as a US-Israeli attempt to overthrow Assad, and oversaw the dispatch of financial and military assistance to Syria to help resist the armed opposition groups.
The emergence of Isis, however, changed everything. Its medieval brutality and the unexpected advances in Iraq toward Iran’s western borders worried the public.
For Iran, a resolution to the Syrian crisis starts by calling on all parties to stop intervening. Foreign-armed and financed groups must be defeated/disabled/neutralised. It believes that once all parties drop attempts at regime change, Syria will be stable enough to think about its desired future, with or without Assad.
Hossein Derakhshan is an Iranian-Canadian author and blogger.
The view from Turkey.
The uprisings in Syria left President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party on the horns of a dilemma: between standing by the regime or supporting the rebels. Close relations with Syria cultivated by JDP governments stood as the best example of the leitmotif of the party’s discourse on the Middle East; indeed propaganda material prepared for the 2011 elections showed Erdoğan and Assad arm in arm on the front page. After the elections, anticipating the fall of the regime, the JDP veered from its policy of close cooperation with the Assad regime to a regime-change policy. Turkey played a key role in the formation and maintenance of the Free Syrian Army.
There were bigger hopes too. In February 2012, at a Friends of Syria conference, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said: “Turkey would be both the pioneer and speaker of this [new regional] order of peace.” However, while the ruling party’s policies bore fruit in other Arab countries – as existing regimes were ousted one after another – its expectations proved futile in Syria. The Syria policy has backfired on several levels. There has been the most serious refugee crisis in our history, but also a heavy toll on Turkey’s politics. Explosions in towns along the Syrian border claimed the lives of hundreds and all who did not espouse the regime change policy were demonised as Assad’s accomplices. Society was polarised and there were turf fights among Turkey’s security establishment.
Amid what one figure called “Turkey’s precious solitude” in the Middle East, Ankara’s policies have become irrelevant to the ongoing situation. Turkey is coming to terms with the reality of the Syrian theatre, but as a mere spectator.
Gencer Özcan is professor of international relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul.
The view from France.
After the attacks, most French people agree with President Hollande’s statement that “the enemy is Isis”. Past statements had put Assad on a par with Isis.
Increasingly, Syria is seen not as one of the Arab Spring countries, but as a radical Islam stronghold enticing young French-Muslims to fight a mythical jihad. Consequently, the flow of refugees landing in Europe, mainly of Syrian origin, in the past few months split the French into two camps: those who wanted to show generosity and compassion, applauding the example of Angela Merkel’s open-arms policy; and those who called it a migrants’ “invasion”. The French government tried to accommodate both sides by deciding to take, but limit, its share of the European burden.
The main beneficiary of these shifting perceptions is obviously Marine Le Pen’s National Front. President Hollande may announce tough security measures and reprisals on Isis, but still the National Front’s message spreads. Syria has become François Hollande’s nightmare. He was the first among western countries, back in 2012, to break with Assad’s regime and recognise the democratic opposition. But he has been forced to clarify his stand, designating Isis as the “enemy” and deprioritising Assad for the moment. This shift has been criticised by human rights groups and some Syria experts who blame Assad for the country’s woes, but is a logical move after the attacks.
Pierre Haski is a former deputy editor of the French daily newspaper Libération.