Nearly five years of civil war in Syria has produced more than 300,000 war victims, and unleashed an exodus of Biblical proportions, with four million refugees converging on Europe and neighboring Middle Eastern countries and almost eight million displaced internally.
Meanwhile, large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq have become ungovernable by the legal authorities and thus fertile terrain for terrorists such as Daesh (also known as ISIL, ISIS, IS) and al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), among a myriad of armed groups representing greater or lesser degrees of extremist ideologies.
The world has confirmed the use of chemical agents, as well as universally condemned crimes such as infanticide, female slavery, beheadings, public crucifixions, elimination of icons of world cultural heritage and suppression of any form of diversity and dissent. Fed by a continuous influx of extremists from the world basin loyal to the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and despite nearly constant bombardment by the US-led international coalition, Daesh and its worldwide cell network expands and remains a serious threat to international security.
Facts to Face
There is no credible alternative to the currently existing institutional structures. There is no united opposition promoting a political program and the institutions capable of instituting one. Any truly moderate, independent opposition would require more time to form and grow.
The Syrian army, despite sustaining significant casualties, is loyal to the current regime, which continues to operate and is supported by Iran-linked militia with boots on the ground. Turkey, after much hemming and hawing, declares its decision to fight Daesh, while in reality launching bombs against the Kurdish forces fighting Daesh. The US-led coalition's Arab allies are linked ideologically to some of the extremist factions. US-trained moderate forces have produced de facto nothing to date; rather, many simply surrender themselves to the extremists, bringing along their American weapons.
President Obama correctly declared his Degrade and Destroy policy a long-term campaign. Cognizant of the heavy legacy of two debilitating wars in the Islamic world (Afghanistan and Iraq) and unwilling to undertake a third, knowing well the impossibility of trying to end another nation's civil war, the US president likely is pursuing a strategy of less involvement. The president told the UN General Assembly that the US had learned it "cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land." Thus, considering America's de facto disengagement, a Russian intervention could fill the vacuum and promote pacification in Syria and Iraq - but only if carried out in coordination with the European Union and the US; otherwise it could make a bloody war even bloodier.
Despite conflicts with the west on Ukraine, economic sanctions and oil price competition with regional allies of the US, Russian President Putin has a real interest in supporting Obama's Degrade and Destroy program. Ideological terrorism, and Daesh in particular, pose a direct threat to Russia's borders and national security, especially within the framework of Putin's posture of power projection. Russia has skills and deep political-diplomatic ties in the Middle East, as well as effective and efficient tactical allies (Iran and the Iran-linked militia). Moreover, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have agreed to share intelligence on Daesh.
As announced by Israeli Intelligence, the Russian-Iranian build up in Syria could garner Chinese support. Despite pro forma dissent from the West, Russian intervention alongside other actors could come to be viewed favorably even in the US. According to Dmitry Trenin, the head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, "Syria provides a useful distraction from Ukraine, but strategically it is about America." Putin will have to accept collaboration with a wider coalition of states and seek rather to work with, and not against, the US.
The Russian military buildup places the international community between a rock and a hard place, forcing the disquieting choice between a brutal authoritarian regime and the brutal, criminally authoritarian Daesh terrorists. Choosing the former is clearly a strategy aimed at defeating ideological terrorism by establishing security through support for current institutions of state and granting current national borders in both Syria and Iraq.
But even if it seems as though "Only Russia Can Bring Peace to Syria," as Vali Nasr claims, Russia by itself, even in this new alliance, cannot perform miracles. Hassan Hassan in The National points out how difficult it is to reconquer territory from Daesh. In his UN speech, President Putin declared his main goal in Syria to be the defeat of the Islamic State/Daesh. The international community and world leaders must take him at his word, and since Russia and Iran seem to have accepted the burden of this war - which could prove long and costly, yet with benefits for the entire international community - perhaps the international community should support as they attempt to wage it.
Face to Face
A proxy war, with the US coalition facing off against the one headed by Russia, would be the worst scenario imaginable. Rather, both coalitions should move face-forward in a spirit of collaboration, not competition. The devastating terrorism of Daesh and similar groups is rooted in an ideology utterly unable to recognize modern institutions. An ideology cannot be defeated militarily. What is needed is international action through the UN to develop a diplomatic settlement based on some process of managed transition. The best outcome for the international community and human civilization would be a de facto collaboration between the two powerful coalitions and specifically between President Obama and President Putin.
De Facto Cooperation
By far the greatest threat to international security is the ideological terrorism of Daesh and its ilk, backed by extremist clerics who continue to order the masses to "give all moral, material, political and military" support to what they consider "holy war" in Syria. In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has declared (al-Monitor): "There must be political change in Syria." It appears that President Obama is prepared to consider working with Putin to broker a transition.
It is reasonable and even necessary to consider that de facto cooperation among the US, Russia and Iran might prove extraordinarily productive.