On September 30 Russia intervened militarily in the internal armed conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011. The Russian government claims that it only targeted ISIS and other personnel “looking and acting like terrorists”. NATO, on the contrary, accuses Russia of rendering military assistance to its ally, the dictator Bashar Al-Assad, in the fight against armed groups representing a greater threat for him than ISIS, that is, Syrian rebels and Al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s branch).
Aside from the discussion on the true intentions behind Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the truth is that after these attacks Russia has emerged as an influential actor in Middle East’s politics. This reaffirms the trend initiated in September 2013, when Russia brokered a deal between the United States and Syria for the latter to eliminate its arsenal of chemical weapons.
The events of the last two years, and especially those of the last few days, show that Russia is able to effectively influence the conflict in Syria, whether by diplomatic efforts or through the use of military force, a duality that recalls that of the Russian coat of arms. Its bicephalous eagle, inherited from the Byzantine Empire, originally represented the duality between the spiritual and the secular. Currently it seems to reflect the ambivalence of Russia’s international actions between war and peace.
Indeed, during the last few days Russia has resorted to war to benefit its ally, Assad’s government. However, history presents Russia with a unique opportunity to become the legitimate inheritor of a genuine humanitarian tradition that the ancient Russian Empire practiced since the late 19th century, by means of the Saint Petersburg Declaration (1868), the humanitarian motivated Russian-Turkish War (1877) and by its role in the discussion of the four Hague Conventions (1899 to 1907), at which the Russian diplomat Fiodor Martens promoted a progressive clause – which carries his name – to protect people.
After the fiasco of the false humanitarian intervention in Georgia in 2008, Russia has today the opportunity not only to unleash the head of war against the Islamic State, but also to awaken the head of peace, putting pressure on Assad for him to make political concessions to put an end to the armed conflict with the rebels and to finally exert his primary responsibility to protect the Syrian people.