By John R. Bradley
At the outset of Syria’s brutal four-year civil war, I was an almost unique voice in the British media deploring the push to depose the secular dictator President Bashar al-Assad, especially in the absence of a genuinely popular uprising against him. Here in The Spectator I tried to point out that such a short-term strategy would have devastating long-term consequences. Assad, I argued, would not fall, because the people of Damascus would not rise up against him. The so-called secular rebels were in fact vicious Islamists in disguise. Western interests in the region would be dramatically undermined by Saudi and Iranian militias, who would fight a devastating proxy war. Syria’s extraordinarily diverse population risked annihilation as a result. And we could even end up provoking a full-blown war with Russia.
No one listened, and I tired of trying to convince them of their folly. Four years on, the suffering of the Syrian people — 250,000 slaughtered, half of the population internally displaced and millions more made refugees — is obvious. And last week, in the midst of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war (brought about in no small part by fleeing Syrians), the extent of the West’s geopolitical miscalculations became painfully evident. Jihadists of various affiliations, who are now unequivocally the only opposition, were encroaching on Syria’s Alawite-dominated coastal heartland, and inching ever closer towards Damascus. So the long-time Syrian ally Russia called Washington’s bluff by establishing military bases in the regime stronghold Latakia. In a flash its tanks, fighter jets, military advisers, warships and even its most modern anti-aircraft missile system were in place. Its engineers constructed an airport landing strip almost overnight, as its navy conducted menacing drills in the nearby (Russian-leased) Syrian port of Tartus.
This was the most brazen overseas military deployment by Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. But it caught Nato off guard. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we learnt of the Islamic State’s new caliphate — arguably the most important development in the region since the founding of Israel in 1948 — only when its leader announced the event on YouTube. Still, the question remains: why did the Russians move to guarantee Assad’s survival? The short answer is because the West’s Syrian strategy was in such disarray that Russia could expect Nato to look the other way.