Vladimir Putin’s rescue plan for Bashar al-Assad provides plenty of cause for alarm. Russia is reinforcing a man — and a regime — whose forces have indiscriminately and deliberately attacked civilians in opposition-held areas. Airstrikes alone have killed an estimated 20,000 civilians and are a major reason why 4 million Syrians have fled their country.
There are undoubtedly complicated reasons behind Putin’s move. He may be acting in part so his home audience — and the West — sees Russia as an important global player. Complicating life for Washington probably has its appeal for him, as well. But above all, Putin seems actually to believe that his support for Assad is the best way to curb the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other extremist groups. Yet now that Russian troops are operating in Syria, Putin has some important incentives to recognize that reining in the Syrian military’s attacks on civilians is essential to his goals.
The Kremlin has been disturbingly indifferent to that slaughter. In February 2014, Russia did support a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding, among other things, an end to indiscriminate attacks in populated areas “such as the use of barrel bombs” — but that demand was never enforced. Today, Russia is threatening to veto a new French-drafted resolution on the use of barrel bombs that would authorize closer U.N. monitoring and threaten sanctions if these attacks continue.
Such intransigence becomes politically more difficult as Russia’s aircraft fly side-by-side with Assad’s helicopters and jets as they barrel bomb and attack civilians. Putin has long backed Assad by sending arms and vetoing critical Security Council resolutions, but sending bombers — and now supposedly “volunteer” troops — against Assad’s enemies brings that defense to an entirely new level. The problem will only be compounded now that Russian planes themselves are beginning to kill Syrian civilians.
Moreover, Russians who take part in Syrian war crimes may themselves become criminally liable. Although Russia has blocked access to the International Criminal Court, national tribunals are still available, and it’s not out of the question that an international body will establish a tribunal to circumvent Russia’s Security Council veto.
With the success of Russia’s intervention now measured by its ability to bolster the Syrian government, Putin also has a very pragmatic reason to stop these attacks on civilians: the hatred they generate is the rebels’ best recruiting tool.Curtailing the risk to Russia posed by Islamic extremists was anotherostensible reason for Moscow’s involvement in Syria. But if Russia is seen to support atrocities against civilians, the hatred currently focused on Assad may soon be directed back at Russia.
In addition, the indiscriminate bombardment is a major factor in the flight of Syrian refugees. In wars fought in compliance with the Geneva Conventions, combatants shoot at combatants while civilians can find a measure of safety away from the front lines. But because Assad bombs cities and towns deep in opposition-held territory, many Syrians can find no safe place in their country. If they don’t want to endure the public beheadings and enforced rigidity of the Islamic State, or risk torture and execution in Assad’s prisons, their sole option is to flee.
Putin may hope that the cascade of new refugees will divide the European Union while diverting attention from Russia’s conduct in Ukraine. While Assad may accept presiding over a rapidly diminishing population, the exodus of millions of Syrians — including many of the most-educated citizens — could handicap the country for a generation or more. Once gone, refugees from such protracted conflicts typically don’t return for an estimated 17 years, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. That risks undermining the very foundation of the Syrian state, which both Russia and the West agree is crucial for avoiding still more chaos. No one wants to replicate the disaster that followed George W. Bush’s destruction of Iraqi state structures. Indeed, the fear that Assad’s abrupt departure might deal a lethal psychological blow to the Syrian state is one reason why Russia has clung to him.
The refugee flow will also affect Syria’s ability to rebuild a viable economy when the war ultimately ends. Because Russia will be more responsible than ever for propping up that economy, ending the attacks on civilians that spur their flight may be the only way for Moscow to avoid being left holding a very expensive bag. With Russia already suffering under Ukraine-related sanctions, low oil prices, and now the military costs of what many Russians fear will be a new Afghanistan-like quagmire, it is poorly positioned to assume the economic burden of a permanently devastated Syrian economy.
So, yes, there is every reason to fear the worst from Putin’s military embrace of so vicious a ruler as Assad. But propaganda aside, even Putin cannot escape reality. Western governments dealing with him should press him to see that it is in his interest — as well as that of the Syrian people — for the indiscriminate attacks on civilians to stop. Now that Vladimir Putin has made himself the savior of Bashar al-Assad, he should insist that the price is an end to Assad’s war on Syrian civilians.