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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Syria's Ongoing Turmoil

Oct. 14, 2015

On The Focus tonight we look into the civil war in Syria, where Russian airstrikes have transformed the conflict and made a complex situation even more complicated. As the turmoil enters a new phase after four and a half years, we ask whether what began as a domestic conflict is turning into a proxy war between two of the most powerful nations in the world.

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down last month to talk about how to end the crisis, but they couldn't narrow their differences. The sticking point is whether Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad needs to step down.

Within days of those talks, Russia began airstrikes on targets in Syria, with warships firing cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea. Russian military officials say they've destroyed more than 150 Islamic State targets.

US leaders say Russia hasn't only been hitting the extremists. Obama says they're attacking all anti-Assad groups, including ones that the US sees as moderates. Obama said "we're not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr. Assad's behavior."

The US-backed groups say they've become targets. Syrian National Coalition President Khaled Khoja says "The areas targeted by Russian air raids today were free of ISIL, free of al-Nusra, free of extreme fighters. Though the Russians are aiming to target the Syrians and prolong the life of Bashar Assad."

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad says he believes Russia will support Syria's stance that all anti-government groups are terrorists. "Unlike the Americans, who differentiate between so called moderate armed oppositions and other terrorist groups, we believe all of them are the same," says Mekdad. "And we are confident the Russians will definitely attack those terrorist groups."

The Russian airstrikes have given Syrian government forces cover to launch a major ground offensive. They're trying to regain areas they've lost to the militants. Leaders in Washington have pivoted too, abandoning a plan to train anti-Assad fighters and create a ground force. Instead, they're airdropping weapons for armed groups already fighting Islamic State militants.

As fears grow that the conflict is escalating into a proxy war, the UN sent an envoy Staffan de Mistura to Moscow. After meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Staffan de Mistura calls Russian military intervention "a new factor" and says it "certainly has changed the dynamic of the whole situation. We have to take that into account and to make sure that at the same time we don't forget the fact that there is no military solution to this conflict." De Mistura will join talks in Washington as he searches for a political solution.

Islamic State militants have reacted with a call for young Muslims to join their "holy war" against both the US and Russia.


Sho Beppu was joined by Koichiro Tanaka, an expert in Middle East affairs with the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.

Beppu: Why do you think Russia has intervened? And why now?

Tanaka: First of all Russia has been very concerned about the extremist influence to the Russian Federation, especially to Chechnya. I think that was one reason. They thought that some intervention was needed. Also, I think they had some pretty good information or intelligence that Assad's forces are losing ground inside Syria. I think that they have come to this idea that it is now or never if they are to intervene.

Beppu: The initial target of their airstrikes was quite close to the Mediterranean. The Islamic State's stronghold is in Raqqa, in the eastern part of the country. There was concern that they were targeting what the US calls moderate forces.

Tanaka: I think the targets were quite clear, at least for this initial stage. I think the Russians wanted to contain the rebels and not have them advance Latakia or Tartus, which are strategic interests for Russia. I also think that there is a precedent set by the Turkish military intervention in July. They were calling for airstrikes against Islamic State, but in reality they were also pounding Kurdish rebel forces in the north of the country. I think that they may have thought they could get away with this in the same way.

Beppu: On the other hand, the US has started to airdrop weapons to what they call moderate rebels. Wasn't it the policy of the US to train rebel groups to fight against the Islamic State militant group? What happened to that strategy?

Tanaka: I think that was a failure. I think that they have come to the sense that it was a complete failure for them. The idea of sending in weapons to the rebels is one thing, but we have to be very careful. Meaning they might end up in the wrong hands, meaning the Islamists or even ISIL fighters. This is a very sensitive moment that we are facing now. After Russian intervention, we see that some people who were members of the so-called moderate rebels are joining the Muslim Front, which is an offshoot of Al Qaeda. So this is another concern.

Beppu: Talking about the shift of the US policy, Obama spoke at the UN last month. He sort of hinted at a compromise. He did not say that Assad needs to immediately leave power, but that it could come after a transitional process. Do you think that compromise is possible now?

Tanaka: I think that could have been a pragmatic approach from the beginning, but that never happened. But now with the Russian intervention, I think that idea has been totally lost. It is even difficult for the Americans or the Europeans to convince their allies in the region like Turkey and the GCC countries to change their positions and now have Assad forces as their allies.

Beppu: Is there any key to deescalate the current situation?

Tanaka: We have a dual track that is required to end a conflict like this. First is the de-escalation of the intensity of the fighting. And then there is supposed to be a political dialogue to go along with it. But what we are seeing in Syria now is an escalation of the fighting. Also, there is a total lack of a political process. With these two happening there is no way that we can see an end to this conflict in the near future.