Putin’s Syria gambit: Who are the pawns and who are the power pieces?

Putin’s Syria gambit: Who are the pawns and who are the power pieces?

With the latest announcements of the deployment of substantial Russian forces in Syria and the execution of its first combat missions, J BROOKS SPECTOR tries to understand the motivations. It’s complicated.

Oh boy. Uh hunh. Anybody who still thought Vladimir Putin was just an old-style KGB thug in a choirboy’s costume (or the occasional martial arts kit), or a democrat of a special type has now had a chance to see the real deal. We have just seen that he is really a prestidigitator of remarkable skill and cunning. Right before the eyes of the world, and most especially on American television screens as in his extended interview with Charlie Rose, Putin has carried off one heck of an effort to make Ukraine (and the Russian-supported separatists and Russian troops with their unit insignia removed from their tunics, as well as Russia’s unlawful seizure of the Crimean peninsula) disappear in plain sight. David Copperfield: take a seat in the audience. 

Instead of Ukraine’s agonies, instead, there now will be a renewed global effort that he, Putin, will personally lead in order to defeat global terrorism in Syria (and, oh, just by the way, preserve Bashir al-Assad’s ghastly regime in Damascus to allow it to live to fight another day). And, along the way, to put some muscle and sinew on this language, the Putin regime will keep shipping in yet more fighter aircraft and support crews to Russian bases in Syria and the aircraft will now carry out combat missions, all as part of an effort to lend support to and bolster his guy, Al-Assad. This has already been one audacious performance – and we haven’t seen the end of it yet, not by a long shot.

Veteran Russian analyst Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post the other day, offered her own informed understanding of the Putin gambit. She wrote: “It is always tempting, when writing about the Russian president, to lapse into geopolitical waffle. Though the Cold War ended a quarter century ago, we are still accustomed to thinking of Vladimir Putin as a global actor, a representative of eternal Russian interests, the inheritor of czarism/Lenin/Stalin, a man who inhabits a Kissingerian world of state actors who compete against other state actors for control over territory, all of them playing a gigantic game of Risk.

To those wearing this particular set of rose-colored glasses, Putin’s recent foray into Syria makes a certain kind of sense. His amazingly well-timed decision — just before the UN General Assembly session! — to send hundreds of Russian soldiers, 28 fighter jets, helicopters, tanks and artillery has been variously described as a bid to re-enter the modern Great Game of the Middle East; to extend Russian influence to the Mediterranean; to shore up the Iranian government; and to displace the United States as a regional leader.

All of which misses the main point. For Putin’s entry into Syria, like almost everything else that he does, is part of his own bid to stay in power. During the first 10 years he was president, Putin’s claim to legitimacy went, in effect, like this: I may not be a democrat, but I give you stability, a rise in economic growth and pensions paid on time. In an era of falling oil prices and economic sanctions, not to mention vast public-sector corruption, that argument no longer works. Russians are demonstrably poorer this year than they were last year, and things look set to get worse. And so his new argument goes, in effect, like this: ‘I may not be a democrat and the economy may be sinking, but Russia is regaining its place in the world — and besides, the alternative to authoritarianism is not democracy but chaos.’”

And she went on to conclude her analysis, arguing: “But the appearance of influence is even more useful at home. You and I might assume that the prospect of a Russian street revolution is far-fetched, but Putin, having watched what happened in East Germany in 1989 from his KGB office in Dresden, and having then watched what happened to Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, clearly worries about it quite often. To stave off this fate, his state-controlled television rumbles on constantly about the fecklessness of Europe and the corruption of America — just in case any Russians are tempted by the lure of democracy — as well as the total chaos that his policies have helped foment in Syria. The arrival of Russian troops, some in transit directly from the Ukrainian border, is designed to reinforce this message: Putin is ready to help another dictator re-establish dictatorship, reassert control and imprison all of his enemies, in Syria and, if needed, in Russia too.”

The contrast of the Russian approach in Syria with the perambulations of the western powers over that sorry land could hardly be more compelling. For the past several years, in the civil resistance that broke out in Syria as one of the final chapters in the Arab Spring, the Obama administration’s exertions have ranged from declaring that abortive ‘red-line’-in-the-sand-that-wasn’t against Al-Assad, over the probable use by his forces of chemical warfare against civilians and then to bowing before the resistance by a Congress that declined to sanction military action against the Al-Assad regime (and a similar outcome in the UK). That eventually led to air attacks against Islamic State (IS), once that group swept out of Iraq and made its power grab in eastern Syria. Then there was the trickle of military assistance to the fissiparous rebel groups that had first arisen from the Arab Spring revolt against the Al-Assad regime (including some bands who have apparently surrendered their US-supplied weapons to IS forces). Then, finally, American policy has morphed into a kind of limited tacit alliance with Iran in order to fight IS.

In contrast, the Putin formula on Syria seems simplicity itself. As a policy, beyond the domestic consequences explored by Applebaum, the Putin moves could well be perceived as an exercise right out of a venerable real politik playbook. Henry Kissinger, Metternich, Talleyrand, Stalin and Machiavelli would all be quite proud of such a star pupil’s exertions.

In Putin’s logic on Syria there is the view that fundamentalist, jihadi terror, as exemplified by IS, is the real existential threat to regional stability (and any residual Russian influence there, of course), and this is the most likely exporter of terrorist activities, forces and influences to everywhere else (and not, incidentally, to the Muslim-majority regions of Russia). With this in mind, Putin went to the Russian parliament, the Duma, and, not surprisingly, got the kind of blank cheque endorsement that had earlier been well beyond the reach of his opposite number in the White House. And, of course, as the Putin administration is now arguing vociferously, dealing with IS is far more important than dealing with than any of that bleeding heart nonsense about Al-Assad’s government and military’s dreadful behaviour – and the fate of all those beleaguered refugees. This is some cold stuff.

In the process of carrying this policy forward, Russian jets have already started flying combat missions over Syrian territory, striking in the Homs area. The question hanging over that, of course, is that the area being attacked is rather distant from IS-controlled areas – and is, instead, rather closer to territory held or contested by anti-Al-Assad militias. As a result, there is a murmur that the Russian strategy actually has two halves. The first truly is to tackle IS and to help smash its fighting capabilities – given Russia’s legitimate concerns about the possibilities of any spread of those infectious ideas animating the IS-style conquest.

But the second surely is the preservation of the Al-Assad regime, at least in the medium term, both as a way of protecting Russia’s only real, remaining military base beyond its frontiers nowadays, and thereby preserving its ability to wield any actual influence in the region. In the service of this second rationale, Putin and his government have made their case that everything they are doing is fully in accord with their agreements with Syria and absolutely legitimate under international law.

In attempting to evaluate the shape of the Putin initiatives, The Economist argued: “There have been many cruel twists to Syria’s civil war. Yet even as it has evolved — from peaceful uprising into desperate armed revolt, then to sectarian bloodbath and more lately into a petri- dish for jihadists and a punchbag for foreign actors—there have been no decisive moments. For years the conflict has been locked in a grisly chess-game of sieges and stalemates, forcing out ever more refugees as a cast of combatants, none able to defeat their rivals, ravages the land. Now President Vladimir Putin of Russia has slapped a powerful new piece on the board, deploying a strike force of up to 2,000 men backed by aircraft, armour and intelligence kit. The sudden move mightily strengthens Mr Putin’s ally, Syria’s brutal but increasingly beleaguered regime. But just how Russia intends to use its force remains unclear. Russian power could simply heighten and further complicate the fighting. Or it could provide a decisive tilt, militarily and perhaps diplomatically. It depends on how Mr Putin plays his game.”

In support of these deployments and bombing runs, Russia has already hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a quiet visit, apparently to coordinate military flight command and control processes so as to avoid any incident that could quickly spiral out of control. (In that military theatre of operations, the Israeli air force could undoubtedly gain control of the air, if it were to come to actual live fire.) But, on Wednesday, 30 September, the Russians apparently told the Americans to avoid Syrian air space as well, presumably to avoid unintended confrontations coming into being in excess of 1,000 kilometres an hour over hostile territory between pilots who are constantly scanning for boogies and surface-to-air missiles, all while flying heavily armed, state-of-the-art fighter jets. The likelihood that the US, France, the UK and others will cease flying over Syria simply to placate the Russians would seem to be rather low, however.

There is also a more nuanced (or cynical) view coming into focus that advances the idea that just maybe the Americans actually want the Russians to take a much more active role in Syria. In a kind of corollary to Colin Powell’s old rule “if you break it, you own it”, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to be giving a subtle signal that the Americans would not absolutely insist that Al-Assad had to go immediately and that, inferentially, there was merit in the Russian approach that Al-Assad is the legit head of government and that any eventual settlement would need to take that into cognisance until a new government or a new model for Syria is achieved through some kind of negotiations.

The seeming simplicity of this apparent Putin undertaking has actually started to gain some traction outside of Russia. As Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has just argued: “Putin is right. Everyone knows Putin is right, that the only way forward in Syria, if not to eternal slaughter, is via the established government of Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese and Iranian allies. That is the real politik. That is what pragmatism dictates. In the secure west, foreign policy has long been a branch of domestic politics, with added sermonising. ‘What to do’, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, even Ukraine, has been dictated not by what might work but what looks good. The megaphone is mightier than the brain. The result of American and British grandstanding at the UN this week – seeing who can be ruder about Assad – is that Vladimir Putin has gathered ever more cards to his pack. Putin has already performed the two primary duties of a Russian leader, bringing stability and pride. He now faces turbulent Russian minorities across his European frontier and a serious menace from Muslim states to his south. He is perforce becoming a player on a wider stage. He has read Iran, India and Syria correctly. He is no fool.”

And The Economist, speculating on the longer goals of the Putin approach, argues: “’The entry of Russia could be a military game-changer on some fronts,’ says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. ‘But will it allow Assad to reassert full control? No.’ Rather than a bid to end the war to the Syrian leader’s advantage, Russia’s move may be aimed at preventing his regime’s collapse. At the same time, say diplomats and analysts, Mr Putin wants to repair ties with the West, and to build leverage over vexed issues such as Ukraine, by posing as a potential partner in the fight against IS.”

The downside to embracing such an approach, of course, is that it would render moot the sacrifices already paid by 4-million Syrians who have fled their homes, possessions and livelihoods and become the globe’s newest desperate diaspora, and as around 300,000 people have died in the fighting that turned much of the country’s infrastructure into just so much concrete chaff. And, of course, at the end of all of this, IS would probably still be in control of up to a third of the country, especially since sustained bombing has, so far, proved unable to stop, let alone retard IS’s rule of Syrian territory or its neighbouring zone of control in Iraq. That fact should help keep an understanding of Russian motivations as being rather more focused on the survival of its Syrian client than simply the global cleansing of IS’s influence as an inspiration to other jihadist movements closer to home. But sometimes, too, there just are no really good choices. DM

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) holds a meeting with government members at Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, 30 September 2015. Russia has begun conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State militant group in Syria, Russia’s Defence Ministry confirmed, according to the Interfax news agency. EPA/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY / RIA NOVOSTI

For more, read:

  • Russia launches airstrikes in Syria, says targeting IS; at the AP

  • Putin’s power plays; a column by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post

  • Syria, Russia and the West – A game-changer in Latakia? in The Economist

  • The Syria crisis – Russia and Israel cosy up over Syria; in The Economist

  • Why Russia has started bombing Syria now – and what it hopes to achieve; at the Independent (UK)

  • Russia Launches Airstrikes in Syria, Adding a New Wrinkle; at The New York Times

  • Why the west should listen to Putin on Syria; a column by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

  • Russia begins airstrikes in Syria; U.S. warns of new concerns in conflict; in the Washington Post.


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