I apologize, but it looks we have to stay on the subject of Syria today. This is because if you saw the news at all yesterday, you were likely exposed to some very questionable coverage of this. Let’s take one of the leading arguments: that Russia attacked non-IS targets.
You could have heard this story almost anywhere, but here it was in the NYT. Disclaimer: this isn’t really worth reading, I’m just providing an example:
Okay, so what we learn from the NYT is that Russia attacked non-IS areas. Let’s assume that’s true. Since no one is claiming the Russians bombed the Kurds (our allies in the north of the country), that would mean Russia targeted the other main rebel group, which is Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. If you read the NYT article carefully, you’ll notice they don’t actually deny this. They refer to the Syria rebels and emphasize they were non-IS so they’re not really lying. The NYT article even acknowledges the existence of Al-Qaeda, but suggests Russia attacked some other moderate rebels instead. So the question becomes, who are these “moderates” they speak of?
To put it bluntly, they don’t really exist. But you don’t have to take my word for it, take President Obama’s. In an interview with the same New York Times a year ago, Obama was trying to defend his policy of not taking more aggressive action against Assad in Syria. This is a quote from the write-up that followed (emphasis is mine):
With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
Ironically, the CIA actually was arming rebels in Syria when he made these remarks, just not enough to really matter. But let’s set that aside. President Obama is acknowledging an obvious but important truth in this quote—moderate people aren’t going to be good fighters, if they’re even willing to fight in the first place. They have no training or combat experience, but they’re going to take on a trained and equipped modern military force and win? Of course not. And frankly, most of them probably aren’t going to try to take up arms in the first place. Because if you’re a moderate person, you value your life. You might join peaceful protests and try to create political change that way, but you’re not very likely to join an armed revolution that has very low odds of success and quite high odds of getting you killed. If you even think about this for a minute, you know this has to be true. When was the last time you time you seriously contemplated armed insurrection against your government? I’m going to guess never. (And yes, I get that Assad is an awful, corrupt dictator and it’s not at all same; I contend that the thought experiment is still a useful one.) If you were a moderate opponent of Assad at the beginning of the conflict, you’re probably one of the many refugees that has fled to Lebanon and Europe at this point.
All of this is probably why the US’s prominent $500M effort to train and create a new moderate group of rebels in Syria was an utter failure; recently, we had to admit there were about 4 or 5 of these rebels left out of an initial batch of just about 60. And we were offering training and weapons to them as an incentive. The people who fight an armed rebellion are going to be dominated by extremists who already have experience. That’s what we’ve seen in Syria. After all, the two main groups fighting the government, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, are comprised primarily of the same insurgents that fought against the US when we were occupying Iraq. They have the experience to fight, and they’re not afraid to die fighting for a cause.
Bringing it back to the Russia question, none of this means that the Russian airstrikes are a good thing for Syria. They’re probably killing some civilians too because that’s what airstrikes do. But the notion that Russia is intentionally attacking the moderate rebels in Syria does not stand up to scrutiny and certainly should not become a new point of conflict between Russia and the United States.