Russia has a clear aim in Syria – to support President Bashar al-Assad and protect its interests – and anything else that comes of this may be just as important but is of secondary concern right now. Turkey, too, has a clear aim – to keep weakening the Kurds, within its borders and beyond. The United States is confused – it wants to destroy Islamic State but it can’t concentrate all its power on this because it doesn’t want to benefit Assad and doesn’t want to anger Turkey by using the Kurds, who are its most reliable ally in the war against ISIS.
And so, within a few days, Russia has become a protagonist in the Syrian tragedy’s latest chapter; Turkey faces the threat of Islamist extremists crossing its border to hide and of Russian planes on its borders; Assad is emboldened to try to retake territory; Iraq, too, would like some Russian intervention; the Americans declare in anticipation that Moscow will pay (in the form of Islamic reprisals) for its entry into Syria. The United States, of course, is well aware of the cost of involvement in such conflicts: The distance that Barack Obama kept from Syria is a direct result of the lessons of catastrophic intervention in Iraq in 2003. But the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 also, despite being justified at the time as a war against a force that had unleashed major terrorist attacks in the United States, has turned into America’s longest war, with no end in sight. The recent, deadly mistake of the attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz also drives home the danger of carrying out attacks from a distance. Perhaps that is why the United States Thursday announced that four Russian missiles, launched from the Caspian Sea, fell in Iran while on their way to Syria. The Americans know that “collateral damage” has a huge political cost, something which the Russians appear to have forgotten after their own long, self-destructive involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Russia’s involvement in Syria makes it a player in the region and sets in motion a chain of events that will have lasting effect. It brings Moscow into direct confrontation with Ankara, which sees Russian aircraft not only operating in northern Syria, where Turkey wanted a buffer zone under its influence, but also violating Turkish air space. Turkey has called on NATO to guarantee its borders. The alliance, which stood by throughout the Syrian crisis, has begun to pull together, reinforcing members in Eastern and Central Europe, notifying Moscow that it will stand by every member.
NATO wants to stress that it will not forget Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nor Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. It also wants to show that it has a reason to exist, and a clear target. That is why a resurgent Russia looks like a gift from above. In the confusion, it is comforting to have a clear target. Comforting but deceiving. Because in today’s matrix of interests and clashing alliances, the greatest danger is the carelessness which all powers are displaying, both big and small.