The Russian airstrikes over the past week make Syria the latest potential flashpoint in the new battle for influence between Washington and Moscow. And, as Lawrence Pintak, the founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College Communication reports from Dubai, the strikes are also likely to destroy any lingering prospect of Syria re-emerging as a viable nation for many years to come.
Officially, the Russians say they are entering Syria to fight ISIS. But they come at the invitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s only real ally in the Arab world. Reports that Russia’s first bombing targets included areas where the Islamic State is not present bolster the betting that they will help Assad take on the mainstream opposition backed by the U.S.
That pits Washington and Moscow in a proxy war reminiscent of conflicts in Southeast Asia and Africa during the Cold War. And it limits the West’s military options in supporting the anti-Assad rebellion and forcing Assad to step down. That effectively means modern Syria is dead.
More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million has been driven from their homes. Millions languish in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Tens of thousands more are in a desperate scramble to reach Europe. And 30,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS. On the ground, the country has splintered. There are 28 separate factions, plus the Syrian army, engaged in the fighting. Each controls its own little piece of turf.
Even before Russia’s intervention, the idea that somehow it was all going to be put back together again was hard to swallow. Just look at Lebanon next door. Four decades after its own civil war erupted – with many of the same factions as in Syria and the same array of regional players stoking the flames – it still teeters on the brink of collapse.
It’s worth remembering that Syria and its neighbors were created after World War Two when the Western powers drew a series of largely arbitrary lines in the sand and declared them nations. Here in the gulf and across the Middle East, Arabs are wondering if the foreign powers are going to do it all over again. And how much Arab blood will be spilled before those new lines are drawn.