Deciphering Putin’s Aims in Syria

Vladimir Putin at the 2009 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. By economicforum/3234710388/World Economic Forum.

By Lionel Beehner

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. 

  1. This is not to dismiss the writer’s argument that the Russians want to show off their hardware and want to present themselves as an “indispensable nation”. However, the piece grossly simplifies the picture in Syria and draws a very dismissive picture of the Russian intervention with very little attention paid to the country’s real interests.

    The opposition is not defined by its radical fringes. The opposition are the radicals, who far from being in the fringes are the mainstream forces. This is a result of the inevitable radicalization that occurs after four years of brutal conflict as well as a long repressed Islamist presence that suddenly had an opportunity to come out of the shadows.

    Syria is a nasty state but with a multitude of nastier sub-state actors, not just the one. This makes things far more complicated than the writer presents. The civil war isn’t just between the regime and the jihadists. It is between the regime and jihadists, amongst the various jihadists themselves and topped off with a sectarian conflict fuelled by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    To say that Putin doesn’t care about ISIS is simply uninformed. There is a great deal of Chechen Islamist presence in ISIS and Putin would love dearly to kill as many of them as possible. ISIS and the AQ affiliated Al-Nusra Front also feed into the other radical Islamist groups in the Caucuses. So, victories for any of these groups would not bode well for peace in Russia’s own backyard.

    Russia’s intervention immediately provides it with leverage over Iran. There has been concern that Iran would move closer to Europe, especially in trade and gas exports, after the nuclear agreement. Russia now has something to bargain over with Iran: The survival of the Assad regime. Similarly Russia gains influence over Hezbollah by providing it with its line of defense against the anti-Shi’a Sunni jihadists.

    Lastly, the so-called opportunities for US intervention by the West (especially the US) are largely fictional creations by academics and other pundits without a realistic appreciation of what was really going on in Syria. First, during the non-violent period of the conflict the US couldn’t have done anything other than provide moral support, which it did. Second, almost from the very outset, there were no significant “moderate forces” to support. The real fighting almost from the very beginning was done by groups like the jihadist Ahrar al-Sham who are only moderate in that they aren’t focussing on anti-Westernism for the time being.

  2. First, billions of dollars have gone to aid rebels in Syria from both the US and their various supporters in the Arab world and Turkey. To make it seem as if they have been doing on their own is not true and misleading. Those TOW missiles that came in handy for carving out space in Northern and Southern Syria were not magically manufactured by the “moderate” rebels. Second, I am not sure why there was a golden opportunity for the US to intervene during the period cited. There really wasn’t, because of the fact that none of the “moderate” actors on the ground, like in Libya or Iraq, are anything that we would ever be truly comfortable supporting if we were honest with ourselves (and as we saw in Libya, the danger with arming these types of groups is that it can result in unforeseen consequences, like our weapons being used in Mali and Nigeria; reason enough to never embark on similar naive exercises). It is also not clear to me how intervening would have solved anything. If anything, our interventions of aid and facilitating Gulf money have extended and exacerbated the crisis, while blowing up the Assad regime would have resulted in absolute chaos like in Iraq and Libya. Finally, I find this trope that Assad “created” ISIS to be a bit ridiculous. Many interventionist fanboys roll this theory out to justify supporting less than savory “moderate islamists.” If anything the US actions in Iraq had just as much to do with the creation of ISIS as Assad did (if he did); most of its leadership was jailed by the US during our foolhardy intervention.

  3. This is institutional imperialist groupthink.

    The mind reading and invective against a the vilified enemy, Putin, exemplifies the group-think.

    The assumption that the US is an innocent guarantor for benign world order has been exposed for decades to be a trite narcissistic delusion.

    Before the conflict escalated in Syria years ago, the US has actively prepared to fuel violence inside the country. The goal is to topple the legal government and install a compliant cabal.

    So much disinformation has ensued–and the intellectual class inside the US has internalized ‘facts’ that are anything but the truth of the situation.

    Hassan states confidently that it was Ethnic Russian rebels that downed MH17–when there is much information that has come to the fore that makes this accusation very much in question.

    But what is thick in this man’s narration that is glaring is the delusional and smug tone that Hassan knows absolutely the “truth” of Putin and Russia–their motives, essential character, ambitions, etc.

    The invective that drips from Hassan’s analysis undermines the entire narrative.

    The US has lost control of the momentum and narrative on the world stage–and instead of being honest about the delusion that has propelled the US and its clients to increase the violence and mayhem in Syria, we get attack on anyone that refuses to follow US instructions to obey it’s right to dominate the region.

    And, it would have been nice if the academic stenographer would have at least queried Hassan. Another example of the group-think that is necessary to be economically viable as a state-intellectual.


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