Madeleine Albright once called the United States the “indispensable nation.” Interestingly, that pretty much sums up a number of less formidable states’ foreign policies at the moment: to make themselves indispensable, especially during times of crises and conflicts. In their book on ISIS, authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan quote Tony Badran, an expert on Syria, as saying about the Assad regime:
It’s about the regime’s conception of its role and position in the region. It believes that its longevity lies in being perceived as an indispensable regional power and so its foreign policy with respect to the West is: ‘You have to talk to us. Just pick up the phone and talk to us; it doesn’t matter what’s discussed, we just want to hear from you.’ For Assad, the ability to boast that the United States is an interlocutor is a matter of power projection. It lets him pretend that he’s the linchpin for Arab-Israeli peace or a real force for counterterrorism. He creates the problems he then oh-so-magnanimously offers to solve.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is playing a similar gambit in Syria today. His interests are not motivated by any larger counterterrorism strategy, by some dilapidated Mediterranean port, or by some kind of grander Middle East strategy. He simply wants to be seen as a player. And after a few years of isolation, why not?
Let’s face it: Syria is not complex. To hear commentators discuss it, one would think it was the first civil war to erupt in our lifetimes – the first to involve lots of nefarious actors with crosscutting agendas and dual loyalties. An amnesia settles in every so often among foreign policy scribes, and the wars of the past – Lebanon, Angola, etc. – get lost in our collective consciousness. Syria is a grassroots uprising, not unlike the half-dozen or so others that erupted in 2011. The regime, good Bayesians as they were, had the benefit of seeing how its counterparts who did not respond with heavy-handed force fared and it wasn’t pretty. So it relied on a tactic, not a strategy, of using brutal force to put down protesters – a tactic tried and tested in Hama by the same regime three decades prior.
The regime was taken aback by the durability of the resistance. But four years on, with barely a drip of military support from the West, the opposition remains a reality, albeit a fractured one defined less by its central grievances than those of its radical fringes. The vacuum created by a Syrian military bogged down in its western urban enclaves left wide swathes of territory unprotected. ISIS promptly filled this gap. A cottage industry of ISIS experts sprung up seemingly overnight, breathlessly proclaiming their unique barbarity, their unheard-of ability to control territory, their existential threat to the Western way of life. But all movements are followed by counter-movements. Now we know that ISIS is not unique but rather “banal.” Turns out several non-state actors control territory – the Tamil Tigers, to name one recent example. Even the barbarity of its beheadings and blowing up of Roman ruins are not out of character, given that the Taliban did similar things to Buddha statues.
So Syria is – in effect – a nasty state with an arguably nastier sub-state actor, one which was invited by the very regime (Assad suspiciously let vast numbers of Islamists out of prison), vying for power in its periphery. A number of African civil wars have similar features, yet the world largely yawns when the refugees of such wars are not washing up on Europe’s shores or the beheaded hostages are not white Americans or Europeans. Even the muck of shifting alliances is not particularly unique to Syria. We supported Ho Chi Minh against the Japanese in Indochina before we were against him. At one point of the Angolan civil war, the US and China backed the same pro-Marxist group, UNITA, less out of ideological sympathy than out of resistance to Soviet and Cuban interference.
Russia’s latest entanglement in the Syrian conflict does – and should – raise eyebrows. It represents an escalation of sorts, an intervention that has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue for several years now – like a pool of ice water that nobody wants to be the first to dive headfirst into. Russia’s sole role in the world is to defy convention. So what if its theatrical Olympics broke its bank? So what if Crimea was rightfully a part of sovereign Ukraine? So what if its arms wound up in the hands of unsuspecting rebels who shot a commercial airliner out of the sky? These documented events belong to a non-Russian world in which facts matter.
In Syria, Putin found an opportunity to both showcase recent advances in Russian military might and to needle the United States for its lack of spine and reluctance to intervene in any kind of meaningful way. His mentality is that of a diminutive judo fighter who seeks to overpower his opponent with decisiveness. He is not so insecure as to worry about his own toppling, as many liberals in the West have said. His arguments about post-Saddam Iraq and post-Qaddafi Libya are hollow – overthrows of governments don’t keep him up at night. Nor is his chief concern some dilapidated port in the west of Syria. If it were, we would have seen Russia intervene much sooner to protect its interests. When we don’t know anything about a foreign policy crisis, we tend to grope for stock phrases to explain patterns of behavior – quagmire, three-dimensional chess, deconfliction, and so forth. But Putin is not a brilliant chess master, and Syria is not going to become Russia’s Afghanistan. He is using the conflict as a way to shore up his influence in the region in the short term, to showcase his revived military prowess for deterrence purposes, and to mark his decisiveness on the international stage in contrast to his Western counterparts (George W. Bush was reviled abroad but privately respected by foreign leaders for sticking to his guns, both literally and figuratively). Putin has made himself, in a word, indispensable.
Of course, in international relations timing is everything. Fighting in Ukraine does not miraculously simmer down at precisely the same moment Russia begins moving military hardware into Syria. For the past year, we have heard various overtures from Russian and Iranian officials that Assad may be expendable. What’s important for Putin is managing the transition and keeping a finger on who comes after Assad. ISIS is not Russia’s main priority either. Until recently the Russian press has barely uttered a peep about the Chechens and other Muslim Russians flocking to Iraq and Syria to take up arms. Moreover, how would fighting ISIS, which is predominantly Sunni, curry favor with Russia’s own large (and growing) Muslim community, which is also predominantly Sunni? No, the timing suggests that Russian intervention is motivated less by combatting terrorism than by diversionary reasons. Call it “containment in reverse” – he is motivated to probe in areas where the West is weakest. Putin is obsessed with turning losses into gains (Yanukovych flees, so seize Crimea and change the narrative; Assad appears on the ropes, so intervene forcefully and again, change the narrative). Putin cannot dare appear reactionary to events rather than dictating them, fully in charge, regardless of their potential to backfire.
There is nothing about Syria that Putin is particularly fond of. Forget the ugly Soviet architecture that overshadows Syrian cities’ minarets, the arms sales which do not amount to much, or the port in Tartus – Russia’s leader adheres to his own rules, where Super Bowl rings are fair game to steal and keeping the Pope waiting a full hour at the Vatican is not impolite. Nothing in Putin’s view would go against his assertion that the West is full of weak-kneed liberals who guzzle down Russian arms, energy, and finances, and are want to ever punish it for its reckless behavior.
All of this to say, Washington has squandered its chance to make a difference in Syria. There was a golden opportunity in 2011 and again in 2012, but the window has now shut. Obama’s presidency will always have an asterisk beside it. Interventions generally follow the Goldilocks rule – one has to intervene forcefully, or not intervene at all. The worst case scenario is to intervene half-heartedly, akin to the American advisory groups dispatched to Indochina in the 1950s.
Russia is not aimed at defeating the opposition in Syria – it is aimed at showcasing its newfound military might, which was beefed up after the embarrassment of the 2008 Georgia War. To aim cruise missiles at Syrian opposition targets when the rebels possess no heavy air defenses makes zero operational sense. Putin is sending a message. He doesn’t care about ISIS, but he also doesn’t care much about Assad. He is agnostic about who fills these thrones of power – he is more a Machiavellian Joffrey Baratheon than a Bismarckian Tyrion Lannister. The end game for Russia is a diminished US presence in the region, a realignment of the regional balance of power – one in favor of Iran and against Turkey and Saudi Arabia – and a resurgent Russia, whereby foreign leaders must once again come to the Kremlin to kiss his ring. Not bad for a country under tough sanctions, facing bottomed-out oil prices, and fighting not one – but two – proxy-style wars.
Let’s stop reading too much into Russia’s latest show of force in Syria. This is not a Thucydides case of the strong doing what it wants while the weak suffer what they must – Russia is not strong. This is a case of naked opportunism responding to a world order whereby actions possess no real or serious consequences. Putin is neither blind nor shrewd. He is making himself cleverly indispensable. How? By turning the potential for a negative – the fall of Assad – into a potential positive. In morally hesitant Westerners like Obama, Putin’s Joffrey has found his Ned Stark.
The views here are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the US Military Academy at West Point, the US Army, or the Department of Defense.