After the latest Syrian ceasefire deal had been violated through a reckless airstrike on a UN-convoy which headed into the encircled Aleppo, more than 560 people were killed (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights). London and Washington called for Russia and its Syrian ally Assad to face war crime investigations, accusing them of deliberate bombing of civilian targets. Starting from Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, new sanctions might now be on the table due to Moscow’s actions in Syria, possibly deepening Vladimir Putin’s international isolation even further.
Meanwhile, photos and videos from besieged Aleppo are reaching Western audiences on social media, showing the unimaginable scale of destruction and human suffering, and thus revealing the failure of diplomats. Five years into the Syrian conflict and with no peace deal in sight, what is now known as the European refugee crisis has shown European leaders that a conflict of this scale in the relative proximity to EU’s borders cannot be ignored. Germany’s unilateral decision to welcome an unlimited number of refugees in 2015 has been popular, especially with the younger groups of the German society and praised by the international observers, such as the Roger Cohen of the New York Times, yet it also left the German Chancellor unprecedentedly isolated alongside her European peers and exposed the lack of solidarity within the Union. At the same time, right-wing populist parties across the EU are utilising this momentum. Eurosceptics who seek to undermine Brussels’ authority and lead the calls for national referendums to leave the EU all seem to sympathise with Mr Putin, seemingly in a quid-pro-quo of sorts.
Putin’s Syria Gamble
As Russia’s economy and its currency plummeted, more due to the low oil prices the Russian petrostate depends on, the Kremlin’s most recent – sudden – intervention, this time in Syria, caught many by surprise. Syria’s dictator Assad remains the key ally in the Middle East and Russia’s only Mediterranean military naval port is located in the Syrian city of Tartus. The intervention targeted the Syrian opposition, which is being supported by the West, although officially, Russia claimed to only target the ISIS. By doing so, Putin demonstrated what he is willing to do in order to further protect his geopolitical interests, restore Russia’s major international role and force the West to negotiate.
The brutality of this civil turned proxy war makes experienced analysts compare the destruction of Aleppo and the military tactics used by the Kremlin to that of the Second Chechen War. After the fatal experiences of the Russian military during the First Chechen War in the 90’s, Mr Putin, the former director of the FSB who found himself in the role of the Commander in Chief, ordered his military to bombing Chechnya’s capital Grozny, both through airstrikes and multiple rocket launcher systems of the “Buratino” type. In his recent article for the Foreign Policy Magazine, the latter were described by Mark Galeotti of the NYU who specialises on Russia’s security policy, as “…second only to nuclear weapons in their capacity to level city blocks and blast houses to rubble”. Based on this perspective, the brutality of the warfare in Syria and the deliberate targeting of civilians appear to be part of a broader Russian military strategy.
But all of this is no news to the people directly involved. Already back in March 2016, six months after Russia’s intervention on behalf of Assad, the Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International, Tirana Hassan, described Russia’s involvement as the following:
“Hospitals in opposition-controlled areas around Aleppo became a primary target for the Russian and Syrian government forces. This eliminated a vital lifeline of the civilians living in those embattled areas, leaving them no choice but to flee”.
In support of this claim and in regard to Russia’s actions in Syria, NATO’s top commander in Europe, Mr Philip Breedlove, accused the Kremlin of weaponizing migration, essentially adding fuel to the fire of the Syrian civil war, as the refugee influx to the EU had reached an unprecedented degree throughout 2015. Both these statements were made prior to the most striking report published in July 2016 by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, elaborating on how Russian airstrikes are responsible for more civilian deaths than the ISIS, killing more than 2700 civilians since 30 September 2015.
Overcoming the European Paralysis
Meanwhile, the EU attempts to cope with the aftermath of the main phase of the refugee crisis in 2015 which, apart from the sheer numbers offered the most fruitful ground for the right-wing populist parties’ political campaigns. After the European debt crisis, the Euro-crisis and the following rise of the Eurosceptics who seek to revive the nation-states and abandon the European project, European leaders are being threatened by the domestic far-right, thus struggling to develop a united foreign policy to deal with external crises. Moreover, they especially cannot allow themselves to back Merkel’s open door policy towards refugees while fighting for their own political survival, not to weaken their position further. This is a major dilemma, as it undermines the very humanitarian principles the EU was founded on and hence is also weakening the EU’s credibility.
Nevertheless, up until recently, Germany seemed to be relatively immune to these developments, thus being in the unique position and opening its doors to the refugees, partly in reference to the historical responsibility most Germans still feel they have. The price for this decision has been paid, first and foremost, by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who suffered a humiliating defeat in a regional election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September 2016, coming in third with 19%, after the Social Democrats took the first place with over 30% and the right-wing populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) arrived second with almost 21%.
At the same time, most of the rising far-right leaders expressed their admiration for the authoritarian Putin, while some of them, such as Marie Le Pen from the French Front National, were accused of receiving their funds directly from the Kremlin. Needless to say, as far-right parties utilise the fears of the common populations across Europe, the refugee crisis turned out to be a god’s blessing for both – those parties and Putin.
Consequently, there appears to be an established symbiosis of sorts between Mr Putin and his seemingly natural far-right allies across Europe. Possible new sanctions targeting Kremlin’s inner circle are a logical step, necessary due to Russia’s violations of international law, its aggressive foreign policy and continuing atrocities in Syria. Yet more importantly, they would also show the EU’s recognition of the threat Moscow poses to its unity with the hybrid warfare tactics that now also includes deliberate airstrikes on civilian targets such as those in Aleppo, causing mass migration to destabilise the EU. Ultimately, it is highly important to acknowledge this causal chain and not to decouple Moscow’s actions in Syria from the lifeline those actions create and uphold in favour of Kremlin’s advocates across Europe.