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Obama in limbo while Putin strikes US-backed Syrian rebels

The United States has failed to protect its allies in Syria. Russia’s airstrikes, which aim to empower the embattled dictator Bashar Al-Assad, have killed any hope for a political resolution to the conflict. Regional powers, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are likely to respond with military force to counter Russia and Iran’s influence over events in Syria.

“There’s no other solution to the Syrian crisis other than strengthening the effective government’s structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told Charlie Rose in an interview on 28 September. Two days later, Russia’s jets carried out their first strikes in Syria, declaring that Daesh was the target. Prior to the start of the airstrikes, Russia spent several weeks deploying fighters in Syria and building up military bases in the western coastal region.

According to its foreign minister, Russia intends to “weaken” Daesh by targeting the group’s strategic positions in coordination with the Assad regime. However, Russia’s airstrikes have not actually hit the militants; instead, they bombed positions held by opposition groups in Homs and Hama, some of whom are believed to have been trained and equipped by the US.

Over 30 civilians were reported to have been killed in the first Russian attack on Talbisah, Homs. Suhaib Al-Ali, the spokesperson of Homs Liberation Movement, one of the major rebel groups in the province, said that his group was targeted by the Russian airstrikes on Wednesday. “We don’t have any advanced anti-aircraft weapons, only heavy machine-guns,” he explained. “But they couldn’t make any advance on any front.”

Caption: Residents of Kafranbel in Syria protested on Saturday against Russian airstrikes. Photo courtesy of Kafranbel Syrian Revolution.

Putin is facing increasing criticism from Western and Gulf leaders over his military campaign in support of the Assad regime. US officials have raised concerns that Daesh/ISIS is not present in the areas hit by the Russians. On Friday, Barack Obama criticised the Russian involvement, suggesting that its airstrikes are only “strengthening” ISIS. However, the US president has made it clear that America is not going to confront Russia directly over its air campaign in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, added to the criticism, suggesting that Russia had committed a “grave mistake” in bombing Syria. The Russian deployment has coincided with the Pentagon withdrawing US Patriot missile defence system from Turkey’s border with Syria.

Samir Nashar, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told MEMO that there are talks between Saudi Arabia and Turkey to take joint action in Syria. “With the Russian intervention, I believe that we have strayed from the political solution,” he said. “I see that the military track is more of a possibility, as the political track is retreating.”

Russia’s presence in Syria may prevent the establishment of an ad hoc no-fly zone, a motion that has been discussed among regional and international powers to protect civilians and shelter Western-equipped opposition forces. Nashar thinks that Obama is hesitant to take any action against Russia and noted that the current US administration has no clear role nor strategy in Syria. “The United States is completely powerless.”

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, insisted that Bashar Al-Assad has no future in any resolution in Syria. Reports indicate that more funds and advanced weapons are likely to be delivered to Syria’s rebels from regional powers in order to balance the present situation. Saudi Arabia has also been weary of Iran’s involvement in the region, especially after Tehran’s re-engagement with the Russians through the establishment of a joint intelligence operations room based in Baghdad, which also involved Syria and Iraq.

Syria represents a strategic interest for the Russians. Since the 1950s, Moscow has invested heavily in the Ba’ath Party in the region and in the Assad family in Syria; arguably, it is too late for the crumbling status of the regime to be saved.

In a speech weeks before the deployment of Russia’s military personnel in Syria, Assad declared that his forces lacked manpower, even though his army has been reinforced by thousands of fighters from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah over the past two years. Some observers have argued that Russia’s support for the Syrian regime is not meant to enable Assad to regain control over the country, but to serve Moscow’s intention of maintaining a foothold in the regime’s military institution.

That doesn’t wash with Syrian opposition groups though. “The mission of the Russian airstrikes is to extend the lifetime of the [Assad] regime,” concluded Suhaib Al-Ali in Homs.

Abdulrahman al-Masri is an independent journalist based in Canada. Follow him on Twitter @AbdulrhmanMasri.

See also:

Syrian opposition chief slams Russian-Iranian ‘occupation’

Erdogan: Russia made a ‘serious mistake’ in Syria

Assad’s winning hand: what Russian involvement really means for the Syrian civil war

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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