A recent New York Times editorial castigated Russia for arming the embattled Assad regime and deploying military personnel to Syria. It’s increasingly evident that the Kremlin is deepening its military presence in Syria to prop up a Syrian government that hovers near collapse and has lost control of large parts of its domain.
Yet the editorial’s assessment of Russian conduct in Syria is suffused with naiveté and conceit. Worse, in its failure to say nary a word about the ways in which Washington has been using its own military power (whether directly or indirectly), including in Syria, or to mention the errors of America’s Syrian policy, it is devoid of introspection, even honesty as well. None of this would matter were the Times piece not in sync with prevailing analyses of Russian actions in Syria, which are presented as an amalgam of mendacity and power grabbing.
These portrayals resonate with many in the West, and for understandable reasons, ones for which Russia bears much responsibility.
Vladimir Putin’s government is turning steadily more authoritarian; true to age-old Russian tradition, the state swells, liberty shrinks. The pronouncements of the Russian political class these days evince a paranoid streak, and that is complemented by the bellicose rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin’s panjandrums. Among the most outrageous examples of the latter is the boisterous Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, whose recent contributions to diplomatic discourse include the recommendation that Japanese protesters distressed by what they see as Russia’s occupation of a clump of islands at the southern tip of the Kurile archipelago that are rightly Japan’s should commit seppuku. The torrent of anti-American propaganda in the Russian media can be absurd, as witnessed by the comparison drawn between President Obama and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made by the tele-demagogue Dmitry Kiselyov.
Then there’s Ukraine. Not content with having annexed Crimea in 2014, Putin and his minions helped create, and have since sustained, pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine, all the while hailing them as exemplars of spontaneous self-determination. The Kremlin insists to this day that it’s not involved militarily in eastern Ukraine and that what’s happening there is, pure and simple, a grassroots uprising sparked by a Kyiv government that lacks local legitimacy. Accompanying this casuistry has been the demonizing of the Kyiv leadership as a gang of fascists backed by the United States.
Russia, then, cannot seriously claim that the unfavorable image it has acquired in much of the West is undeserved.
This said, the problem with much of the prevailing American analyses of Russia—and it’s particularly evident in the shrill, Manichaean debate in this country on Ukraine—is that efforts to understand why Russia is doing all this are seen as equivalent to blessing its leaders and their policies. No, you must not explain; to establish your bona fides you must engage in full-throated, frequent condemnation. That the flip side of such sanctimoniousness is self-glorification, a sure path to ruinous decisions, seems irrelevant. Why let complexity and nuance intrude when truth and justice are on your side?
Also apparent is the commonplace assumption that because Putin is widely disliked in the West, so must he be in Russia. This solipsism encourages prophesies of Russia’s implosion, an instance of both wishful, speculative thinking and a conceptual confusion that conflates a country’s deep economic problems with its imminent collapse.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to assert itself, which brings us back to Syria.
What’s truly surprising about the Kremlin’s latest military moves in Syria is that anyone who has paid the slightest attention to Soviet and Russian policy in the Middle East should find them the least bit surprising. Moscow has a long history with Syria, based on multiple modes of cooperation that preceded Bashar al-Assad, and even his wily, pitiless and long-reigning father, Hafez (prime minister from 1970-71, president from 1971-2000).
The Damascus-Moscow alignment has endured for various reasons. During the Cold War, the Kremlin regarded Syria’s Ba’ath Party, whose ideology is a mélange of pan-Arab nationalism and socialism, as a “progressive force.” This assessment was reinforced by the Syrian government’s refusal to participate in Washington’s Containment strategy. Furthermore, Syria is geopolitically significant. When the civil war began in 2011, its population was 23 million, making it the eighth most populous Arab country. It has a long Mediterranean coast and good ports. Its military has relied almost completely on Soviet and Russian armaments, the cumulative tally of its purchases totaling billions of dollars. Its leaders have been willing to provide Russia (and the USSR before it) access to naval bases and airfields.
As a result, Moscow has what economists call substantial “sunk costs” in Syria: interests acquired, political contacts cultivated, markets (for arms and trade) nurtured and access to strategic installations—above all the naval facility at Tartus—gained.
Yes, Assad has run a repressive regime, which is now blood-drenched as well. However, Putin is scarcely squeamish about dealing with ruthless dictators. But then he is not alone in that. The United States has long trucked with undemocratic regimes—in the Middle East: Sisi-led Egypt, the House of Saud, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq when it suited our purposes and even Assad’s father—that treat their populations cruelly. Democratic America doesn’t abandon lightly its long-accumulated gains in repressive states. Why, then, would Putin’s authoritarian Russia do so, especially when Assad’s regime is the only party in Syria’s horrific war with which it can work? Seen thus, the Kremlin’s decision to bolster the shaky Syrian state is scarcely puzzling.
There’s also an internal aspect to Russia’s actions in Syria: the fear of Islamic extremism. One consequence of the near-constant war Moscow has waged in the North Caucasus since 1994 is that it faces an Islamist insurgency in that region (a largely mountainous strip between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea). To make matters worse, the Islamic State (ISIS), which has built a state-within-a-state in Syria and Iraq and gained pledges of fealty (bayat) from acolytes in various parts of the word, has made inroads in the North Caucasus and recently even proclaimed a wilayaat (province) there.
Russia has some 17 million Muslims—no EU country has even a third as many—and is expected to have 2 million-plus more by 2030. The point is certainly not that many of Russia’s Muslims are extremists—hardly the case—but that this demographic reality colors the Kremlin’s conduct in Syria, in particular its decision to back Assad against an opposition in which militant Sunni Islamists, in particular ISIS, are the most powerful elements.
Though Russia is seeking to overcome this disadvantage, it lacks effective channels of communication with the most powerful groups fighting Assad and will find it hard to develop them. Syria’s radical Islamist forces share a profound hatred of Russia, and the most powerful one, aside from ISIS, the Nusra Front, is an Al Qaeda affiliate. As for the opposition’s moderate wing, having been groomed by the United States, it has no use for Russia, and the feeling is mutual. Besides, Washington’s Keystone Cops-like efforts to organize a democratic alternative to Assad and Syria’s jihadists cannot possibly give Putin any confidence that that segment of the resistance will ever become a strong participant—in the war, or in such postwar negotiations as prove possible.
As Putin likely sees it, the end of Assad will not be followed by the emergence of anything resembling a moderate Syrian government.
One possible outcome in Syria is an Alawite-dominated Ba’athist statelet, sandwiched between the coast and the Nusayriyah mountain range, in a country that resembles China during the turbulent Warring States Era (475-221 BCE). The second is the ouster of Assad by members of his inner circle desperate to make the regime acceptable to the opposition in talks aimed at ending the war and creating a transitional coalition government. The third is the collapse of Assad’s state, followed by a protracted intramural fight to the finish among the multiple jihadist militias, with one or more emerging victorious and building theocratic polity.
This much is clear: Moscow hopes, at minimum, for the first outcome, could live with the second if the tactic designed to enable it works, but fears the third the most and is trying to avoid it by all feasible means. (In this assessment, it is joined by Iran, which has gone to even greater lengths to buttress Assad.)
If the New York Times is offended by Putin’s machinations, he is probably mystified by Washington’s inability to realize that these are the realistic possibilities in Syria. Putin must be no less puzzled by the insistence of the United States (and Saudi Arabia and Turkey) that Assad must quit before there can be peace negotiations. This demand simply steels the Syrian leader’s will, and quite likely that of his immediate entourage, whose members know that a happy fate will not necessarily await them if the boss goes under the bus. It also encourages the armed Islamist opposition, who receive support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to fight on. As Russia sees it, the result of this logjam will be war without let up in Syria and the strengthening of extremist forces. But despite recent discussions, it has failed to change the minds that matter in Washington and Riyadh.