“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” – Is Syria the Afghanistan of the 21st Century for Russia?

By Ray Starmann

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As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier today:

MOSCOW—Artillery shells hit the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Damascus on Tuesday, as Moscow escalated its bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

One shell landed on a sports facility and another on a housing complex on the territory of the embassy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Others exploded near a rally in support of Moscow’s airstrikes against opponents of the Syrian government, Russian and Syrian state news agencies reported.

The Damascus shell attack hit Russia’s Syrian embassy territory as crowds gathered outside in a show of support for the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria, according to a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-backed group that monitors the conflict via a network of activists on the ground. Syrian State News Agency SANA said thousands had gathered for the rally outside the embassy in the regime-controlled neighborhood of Mazraa.

A Russian state television reporter said the shells were launched from a part of the city controlled by opposition forces. Opposition areas in the suburbs of Damascus are controlled mainly by the Islamic rebel group Army of Islam, Al-Rahman Legion, a Free Syrian Army group, and Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

These attacks come in coordination with an ammunition airdrop for Syrian Arab groups battling Islamic State, as Washington shifts its focus to arming fighters inside Syria after ending a failed program to train a new rebel force.

In many ways a Russian/US proxy war has begun, similar in some aspects to the Russian involvement in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, but with some differences and certainly an unknown conclusion.

First, a rundown of who backs whom from The Guardian:

The US:

Washington opposes the Syrian regime but has taken very limited steps to ensure its downfall and has recently signaled it may even consider a transitional role for Assad. A US program provided small numbers of moderate rebels with ammunition and training to fight Isis on the ground but this was paused after a series of embarrassing setbacks. The US continues to head up an international coalition which is bombing targets in Syria belonging to Isis and occasionally the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as supporting Kurdish forces fighting Isis in the north.

The Russians:

Russia’s initial claim that it was only striking Isis positions was contradicted by multiple reports from the ground and it later admitted targeting other anti-regime groups. Moscow is a long-term supporter of the Syrian state and now appears willing to hit any faction, Islamist or secular, fighting its beleaguered army. This includes groups operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, which have received some training and equipment from the US.

Similarities:

As in Afghanistan in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Russians support a puppet or pro-Russian government in power. Some of their foes are US backed guerillas and a ragtag group formed by ex Syrian Army officers, called the Free Syrian Army. As in Afghanistan, the Russians have entered Syria with extreme confidence and bombasticity.

Differences:

Unlike Afghanistan in the 20th Century, the Russians are fighting not just US backed rebels, but ISIS fighters as well. And, unlike the rebels in Afghanistan, ISIS is a para-military army with heavy equipment and a detailed hierarchy and infrastructure. Unlike Afghanistan of the 20th Century, the US is engaged in an air campaign of its own over Syria.

Conclusions:

The US could intensify its support of the Syrian rebel groups, perhaps arming them with hand held SAM’s (surface to air missiles) such as with the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan. Also, another wilder scenario is envisioned where the various rebel groups and ISIS are aligned to defeat the Russians and Assad. As the ancient Sanskrit adage says, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The Russians, in the desire to project power and to prop up their old ally, the Assad family, may have stumbled into an inferno that is just beginning to smolder.

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