Foreign intervention in civil wars turns them into trials of international strength and will whose consequences can be far more damaging than the original conflict itself. That outcome could flow from Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war. Moscow's move threatens to escalate an already deadly conflict which, over the past four years, has killed at least a quarter of a million people and displaced half the Syrian population. The ghastly breakdown of order in Syria has contributed to the momentum of desperation that has driven many thousands of Middle Eastern refugees into a Europe that could burst at its humanitarian seams if the crisis continues.
Admittedly, the conflict already is an intensely international one. Rebel forces ranged against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have the material and diplomatic support of the West and its Middle Eastern partners, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Their objective is to replace the dynastic and oppressive rule in Syria with a new dispensation that will be inclusively democratic. The objective of displacing the regime is also shared by one of the most regressive and bloodthirsty pretenders to the throne that world history has created: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The irredentist ISIS, and the nascent caliphate that it is building on the ashes of the old order, already threatens the tenuous structures of power and authority in the Middle East. Its attractiveness to foreign insurgents drawn from as far away as South-east Asia signals its potential to become a globally disruptive force.
In this situation, Russian air strikes on ISIS should put it on the same political page as the West. However, international strategic objectives cannot possibly converge given that Russia's aim is to shore up the Assad regime, which the West is committed to overthrowing. Instead, the Russian initiative will strengthen the hand of Iran in Syria, a development that will elicit the heightened enmity of Saudi Arabia and other countries to which the consolidation of an Iranian sphere of influence is anathema. By entering the military fray to support a rogue, Russia has hardened regional positions. While any military contribution to the destruction of ISIS is welcome news, Moscow's intervention has raised the stakes in Syria.
This reassertion of Russia's ability to act far beyond its borders is a throwback to the days of the Soviet Union. The ill-advised and ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 resulted not only in an eventual pullout but also making that country synonymous with international insecurity. Syria's civil war has the makings of a new struggle for supremacy in the Middle East in which no player can hope for an outright military solution. Only a political resolution will do if the country is to avoid becoming a major international flashpoint. Anarchy must not hand victory to ISIS.