An interview with Professor Gilbert Achcar by Erica Belcher. 

For Russia, Syria is a major strategic asset and the only country in the Mediterranean with which it maintains close military and political links. The role of Russia in rescuing the Syrian regime led to a major expansion of its military presence within Syria, making it even more important as a strategic asset.

Moscow is intervening for its own interests in the first place, to defend a client state and an ally. At the same time this has been an opportunity for Russia to achieve two purposes:

  • Showcase Russian weaponry –The two major exports of Russia are hydrocarbons and arms. This, in part, stems from the legacy of the Soviet Union – the military industry was the most advanced industry developed under the Soviet Union due to the arms race with the West. Russia’s involvement in Syria allows Moscow to deliver a live demonstration of its weapons and thus make a great statement about their effectiveness. It has already translated into a rise in Russian weapon sales since September 2015. In that sense it is comparable to the 1991 US war in Iraq in which Washington showcased its new military gadgetry to the rest of the world.
  • In showing how it is willing to intervene in rescuing a client state, Russia is sending a message to other dictatorial regimes – “If you work with us, we’ll be able to help you effectively and you won’t have to incur democracy-related pressures as you encounter in your dealings with the US or Western countries”. Indeed, Russia’s intervention in Syria led to a shift by other dictatorial regimes in the region towards collaboration with Russia. The most prominent case is Sisi’s regime in Egypt.

As for the ongoing offensive in Aleppo since November, Moscow realises that there will soon be a reshuffle in Washington with the new administration. Although the president-elect made statements that are music to the ears of Moscow [collaboration with Putin] they know that he is unpredictable and is also surrounding himself with people of different views on such issues. Russia is therefore creating facts on the ground and trying to improve the position of the Syrian regime and its own as its backer for any future negotiations about Syria’s future. The stronger their position the easier it will be for them to get the kind of agreement that they want.

Can Russia be held accountable for its war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

The major perpetrators of war crimes (Russia, Israel and the US) are not ICC members. They do not subscribe to the ICC statutes. Internationally, it is the law of the jungle that is prevailing, not the rule of law. The law of the jungle means that powerful countries are above the law. They basically escape any external accountability for what they do during wars. The difference, however, is that the US and to a lesser extent Israel face a civil society that can hold them accountable for their actions abroad whereas this prospect is very limited in Russia.

What impact will the possible fall of Eastern Aleppo to regime forces have on the trajectory of the war?

It will enhance the regime’s position in the sense that it will achieve full control over the largest city in Syria, a site of both symbolic and strategic importance. Yet, on the one hand, the regime is showing signs of exhaustion and it remains to be seen if it can keep hold of the territory it seizes. We know that a big part of the fighting is being carried out by pro-Iran militias coming from Lebanon, Iraq and from Iran itself. Therefore, the Syrian regime’s ability to stick to what it may get hold of is not obvious.

At the same time, the opposition have had its hands tied and was deprived of defensive anti-aircraft weapons, whereas the regime is heavily backed by troops, planes, and the like. The opposition is still in control of other regions, such as Idlib, but unlike the regime it is fragmented and is not backed by anything matching the huge support of Iran and Russia to the Syrian regime. The key issue in this regard is the role of the US. Washington is a major determinant of the situation on the ground in Syria. In preventing the infiltration of anti-aircraft weaponry to the Syrian opposition, it has given the Syrian regime exclusive and free use of air means. And most of the killing and destruction are carried out from the air. You hardly ever hear of planes or helicopters being shot down by the opposition because they simply have no means.

Is this going to change? Russia and Iran are fully involved, so the question is what will happen on the side of the opposition? Had Hillary Clinton been elected, the likelihood of enhanced support by the US to the opposition would have been relatively high. Things turned out completely differently – Trump has stated that he is willing to work with Assad and Putin. If he sticks to this line, the situation will become very difficult for the Syrian opposition. If he doesn’t and tries to push for a compromise then the question is – what kind of compromise? I think that Russia will go for a compromise provided it stipulates that Assad will remain in power. The US and Russia can agree on a compromise like this and attempt to split the opposition, bring part of it into a coalition government and crush the rest. The situation is pretty bad for the Syrian opposition.

In any case the most important thing is to stop the bloodshed and destruction. This is the priority of all priorities. Whatever the agreement is, the most crucial in order of priority is that it achieves an end to the war, allows the refugees to return and create a space for political action rather than just re-establishing a dictatorship. If these three issues are realised, then it would be positive. In any case, there will be no wonderful agreement leading to a democratic Syria coming out of this nightmare. For the time being, this dream has completely stalled. The issue is to preserve the ability for it to re-emerge in the future. For now, the priority is to stop the bloodshed.

How far should the international community be held accountable for failing to stop the bloodshed in Syria?

Western powers, of which the US is the decisive one, of course, bear a major share of responsibility in the destruction of Syria. The regime, Russia and Iran are doing it and Washington is letting it be done. The difference between doing it and letting it be done is not big. Obama in particular will go down in history as bearing a major personal responsibility for the disaster in Syria and having shown full indifference to the fate of the Syrian people. People can see the difference in US reaction between wars in oil-rich countries such as Kuwait, Iraq and Libya and wars in oil-poor countries such as Syria or Yemen.

Does the Syrian regime serve as a puppet for external forces?

Hezbollah and Iraqi militias are only proxies for Iran, intervening under Iranian command. Except for the coastal part, Iran is dominant in regime-controlled areas of Syria. The regime depends very strongly on Moscow and Tehran. It will be interesting to see how the new US administration will navigate between Trump’s desire to do business with Putin and his hostile attitude towards Iran and the nuclear deal. Will he try to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria? Could this succeed?

What role would the US play in the peace process?

It is in Russia’s interest to reach a deal, otherwise Syria is likely to become a quagmire and the Russians wouldn’t want to remain endlessly involved. They remember Afghanistan, which was a disaster for the Soviet Union. Their key condition, however, is to keep the regime in place because it is their ally. It is possible that they may get into some friction with the Iranians in the sense that Russia and Iran’s views do not always coincide, and one cannot exclude that Russia may go alone. But I am not convinced that Iran will obstruct Russia’s action as both want the regime to stay.

Is there hope of peace in the foreseeable future?

The situation is coming to a point where various players have an interest in seeing an end to the war, Russia included. What will remain to be seen even after a peace agreement has been reached is if it can be successfully implemented.

Today with the balance of forces as it stands and the shift in world politics, the dream of overthrowing Bashar Assad is unfortunately receding in the horizon and becoming more and more out of reach. Nobody will be fooled by a so-called “transitionary period” after which there would be an election: this can only serve to legitimise the regime’s hold to power through electoral means. The Syrian opposition must face the fact that, due to Iran’s and Russia’s intervention and the lack of US support, it is facing an impossible challenge. Thus, the priority is to stop the war and stop the bloodshed.

The dream of democracy is fading but its potential is still there. What started in 2011 is a long-term process that will stretch over many years and decades. There won’t be a new sustained stabilisation in the region for a long time to come; we will witness new upsurges and uprisings. The key point is to re-establish the political conditions where such events are possible. As long as war is raging in the region, it cannot happen.

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