Leader comment: Syrian crisis not yet on the wane

There have been complications in Obama's attempt to find peace in Syria. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
There have been complications in Obama's attempt to find peace in Syria. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Refusal of US president to deploy ground troops coupled with Putin’s continuing military operations make peace impossible

Recent reports from Syria have suggested progress: a series of slow but significant withdrawals inflicted on the regime of Bashar-al-Assad, while the forces of the so-called Islamic state have also been ceding ground. The indications were that the days of Assad’s grip on power could be numbered, offering hope across Europe that the massive stream of refugees from this war-torn country could at last be on the wane.

But continuing diplomatic and military support from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin suggest little by way of a long term resolution of the Syrian conflict is in sight. And yesterday US president Barack Obama ruled out deploying US ground troops in Syria and forcing regime change, declaring that military efforts alone cannot solve the country’s problems. He added for good measure that he did not expect that the war against Islamic State was going to be won any time soon.

That pronouncement may well turn out to have greater consequence for the UK and Europe than his remarks that we should vote to remain in a globally influential EU. But there is little sign that the EU enjoys much influence in Syria while the flood of desperate migrants have brought chaos, confusion and policy disarray at Europe’s borders.

The geo-political ramifications of President Obama’s statement are formidable. It confirms the view that Putin’s intervention to back Assad has worked, dealing a blow to American power and prestige, not only in the Middle East but world-wide.

Indeed, Putin’s continuing support for Assad is working to undermine the fragile anti-government coalition on the ground. Peace talks have stalled and are on the verge of break-up.

Obama’s problems have been compounded by the pronounced difficulty in determining what motives are behind Putin’s actions in Syria, when it has been clear that Russian firepower has been directed not only against IS but also against other anti-government forces – effectively working to sustain the Assad regime. Is it to check US influence in the Middle East and advance Russian concerns across the region? Is it to create a bargaining chip that could be of value in advancing Putin’s objectives in Ukraine and eastern Europe generally? Or is it designed to bolster political support at home, enhancing the impression of Putin as a strong leader who has halted the erosion of Russian influence on the world stage?

Whatever the objectives, the signs are that a war that has reduced large parts of Syria to rubble and posed Europe’s biggest and most intractable problem – controlling the huge influx of refugees amid growing apprehension of the ability of countries to cope – is not going to be resolved quickly. IS may be forced to concede more of the ground that it controls over time. but that is not the same thing as eliminating IS as a force for regional instability and global terrorism.

Efforts must now be redoubled on the diplomatic front – but a vital requirement now is that Putin makes a positive contribution to ending the conflict in Syria and forcing serious concessions from the Assad regime.