Writing in The Spectator, Owen Matthews looks at what Vladimir Putin is doing in Syria. The must-read piece makes tough reading for left and right, hawk and dove, Moscow and Washington. Here’s a key extract (my emphasis added):
Putin has emerged from his Syria gamble looking decisive because he at least knows who his allies are — and, no less importantly, who his enemies are. The US and UK, on the other hand, are against almost every major group fighting in Syria. The West opposes not just Assad and his allies (in the form of Lebanese Hezbollah forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards) but almost every one of his opponents, in the form of Islamic State, the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. True, there are a handful of moderate Syrian Sunni opposition groups which have received arms and training from the CIA. In Washington, you still hear fantasies of an ‘apolitical, nonsectarian and highly integrated’ new Syrian opposition army being sent forth to hold territory against both Assad and the jihadis, creating an inclusive government for all.
That option is not on the table, and the sooner that the Obama administration recognizes that, the better.
So what’s Putin up to?
Writing in the New York Times, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, the author of two indispensable books on Stalin (a butcher whose memory, incidentally, is enjoying something of a revival in popularity in Russia at the moment) looks, as historians do, to the past:
IN June 1772, Russian forces bombarded, stormed and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria. The Russians were backing their ally, a ruthless Arab despot. When they returned the next year, they occupied Beirut for almost six months. Then as now, they found Syrian politics a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.
Russia and its Soviet successor/antecedent have had a long interest in the region for reasons strategic, imperial and, in a sense, theological:
Russia’s ties to the region are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 — hence “czars.” The czars presented Moscow not just as a Third Rome, but also as a New Jerusalem, and protector of Christians in the Balkans and the Arab world, which, including the Holy Places of Jerusalem, were ruled by the Ottomans after 1517.
It’s no surprise that the Russian Orthodox Church, a strong Putin ally, has backed Moscow’s incursion, sprinkling holy water on a foreign war of a type that, so long as it goes well, can give a boost to regimes such as Putin’s. Such domestic political considerations must weigh with Putin, particularly with stalemate in Ukraine and economic stagnation (at best) at home. Nevertheless, I suspect (and I’m hardly the first to think so),that Putin’s main game is threefold: (1) to project power (handily humiliating the US as he does so); (2) to prove that Russia is a reliable ally to have in a tough spot (handily humiliating the US as he does so); and (3) to force a binary choice upon the West- Assad or ISIS (handily humiliating the US as he does so).
The last part of the game, however cynical, would go a long way to explaining why so much of Russia’s efforts have been directed against Syrian opposition forces other than ISIS. But if that’s right, Putin is playing with fire.
Isis has wrested control of new territory in the strategically vital north of Syria, as Russia ramps up air strikes that detractors say are helping rather than hindering the jihadi terror group. In one of their biggest breakthroughs in the region for months, Isis fighters over-ran a string of townships on Thursday around the northern belt of Aleppo, the country’s largest city, which has been fiercely contested by rival factions since the civil war broke out. The intense fighting in the area also claimed the life of Iran’s most senior commander in Syria, Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani — a linchpin figure in the war effort of President Bashar al-Assad.
Local Syrian opposition groups and western military officials say Isis has been able to make gains because moderate anti-government forces — with whom the jihadis are also at war — have had to contend with both the Russian bombardment and troops loyal to the Assad regime.
There are perhaps 50,000 Christians living in Aleppo, down from 150,000 before the war.
Contrary to the assertions of that blend of hand-wringing, obfuscation and denial better known as the Obama administration, ISIS has not been contained. Here and there, it loses scraps of territory, as did the nascent Soviet state during the Russian Civil War, but the longer the core remains intact, the more recruits ISIS will attract and the greater its international reach will extend (as, possibly, today’s murderous explosion in Ankara reminds us; needless to say, one of our supposed Turkish ally’s prosecutors is pointing the finger at the CIA). And ISIS’s reach will not stop at Russia’s borders.
I have relatively little doubt that Putin can, should he so choose, keep Assad in power (to be replaced by a more ‘respectable’ general in due course) in a rump Western Syrian state, at least for a while. But if he believes that that state or, indeed, his, can coexist safely with ISIS, that’s an exercise in wishful thinking. Maybe it’s not quite as fantastical as Western hopes that ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels (riding in, perhaps, on unicorns) will be able to save the day, but it’s still one that will have very serious consequences for those Russian citizens unfortunate enough to attend the next Nord-Ost Theater, send their children to the next Beslan or, perhaps, simply travel the Moscow metro at the wrong time.
If Putin is in Syria for the long haul (Matthews argues that he still has the option to declare a quick victory and go: I’m not so sure), the ISIS ’state’ has to be destroyed. Putin may be offering the West a brutal binary choice, but it may turn out to be a real one.