Following an icy interaction with President Barack Obama at the U.N. General Assembly last month, President Vladimir Putin initiated a series of airstrikes against Russian-identified terrorists in war-torn Syria on Sept. 30, hitting a number of U.S.-backed militias. Carrying out a barrage of strikes in the past two weeks, the Kremlin claims intentions of suppressing terrorist organizations, particularly Islamic State group, to create conditions conducive to the conflict’s resolution. While the United States and Russia cite similar aims for involvement in the country, Russia’s accelerating role in Syria, particularly its support for President Bashar al-Assad, has drawn ire from Obama and other Western leaders, who insist that al-Assad must step down to facilitate the conflict’s resolution.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Obama has seemed reluctant to entrench the U.S. in a complex conflict involving, in addition to countless anti-government rebel groups, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The conflict commenced around the time that Obama started withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and finished removing forces from Iraq
With Americans weary of foreign intervention after these prolonged wars, Obama sought to avoid extensive involvement in Syria, even after investigators confirmed that Assad’s forces had employed sarin gas against rebels. But, after years of noncommittal action, the U.S. government, in response to Russia’s offensive, increased its aid to anti-government militias, providing 50 tons of ammunition last week and declaring it would use funds from the canceled rebel training program to provide weapons for powerful rebels.
As Russia continues its campaign against both prominent terrorist organizations and militias opposed to Assad, the possibility of a resolution, already improbable, further decreases. Preceded by fraught tensions between the Kremlin and Washington resulting from recent Russian actions in Crimea, Putin and Obama are now caught in a power struggle in Syria, trying to assert dominance and shift the country’s power balance, but only contributing to the vast death toll.
The irony of the situation traces to the results of the power struggle — not the one between the forces of Assad and rebels, but between the U.S. and Russia — occurring in Syria. While both claim they seek to combat terrorism by fighting groups who carry out atrocious acts while inciting misplaced religious faith, their intervention inflicts death, destruction and fear characteristic of terrorist groups. The conflict in Syria is far from over. But until the United States and Russia stop using the civil war as a means to establish global dominance and demonstrate military power, their involvement cannot lead to the diplomatic solution they both proclaim to endorse.
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