Magazine | October 5, 2015, Issue

Pax Putinica

(Roman Genn)
Russia aims to become the Middle East’s power broker

As a staging ground for great-power rivalries, the Syrian civil war bears a startling similarity to the Spanish civil war that broke out nearly 80 years ago, in 1936 — the three-year conflict that set the stage for World War II.

Now as then, ruthless authoritarian powers (Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Spain; Russia and Iran in Syria) are flexing regional muscle by helping a fellow dictator wage war on a helpless civilian population, even aiding in the destruction of entire cities — Aleppo and Homs are new Guernicas.

Now as then, Western powers, including the United States, are doing nothing, preferring a policy of non-intervention — or, in America’s case, deliberate retreat — that borders on outright cowardice.

And now as then, the Western democracies are reaping the whirlwind for their weakness. For the nations of Europe, it’s the refugee crisis now pouring across their borders. For the United States, it is the demise of the Pax Americana in the Middle East, which will be steadily replaced by a Pax Putinica, starting in Syria.

Satellite images released in early September confirm that Russia has been conducting military-transport flights into Syria, as well as constructing a forward air base with an air-traffic-control station, an asphalt runway, and mobile housing units for Russian troops near the coastal city of Latakia. All these add up to a permanent Russian facility for sustained air operations in support of Bashar Assad’s embattled government, operations that could complicate American efforts to use the same airspace to carry out strikes against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Russian troops — from the elite 810th Marine Brigade, which supplied many of the “little green men” for Vladimir Putin’s takeover of the Crimea — have arrived in Syria and reportedly entered combat operations against Syrian rebels.

This dramatic escalation of Russian involvement has been overshadowed by the Syrian-refugee crisis now engulfing Europe. But these two developments stem from the same source: President Obama’s feckless and disastrous policy toward Syria. Obama’s willingness to let Vladimir Putin deal with Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons has triggered a major shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, away from the United States and toward Russia — and Assad’s other active ally, Iran.

Iranian volunteers have been fighting alongside Assad’s forces since conflict broke out in 2011. Tehran has armed and trained an estimated 50,000 militiamen in Syria, including Iranian “volunteers,” and is reportedly preparing to send an additional 50,000 troops to bolster Assad’s force (about the number of Italian troops Mussolini maintained in Spain during its civil war). In addition, Tehran has shipped Assad missiles and other weapons, while using Syria as a conduit by which to arm its terrorist allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, in Lebanon and Gaza. In fact, Iran’s military support of Assad has been its springboard for expanding its influence in the region. Now Russia is pursuing a similar policy.

America’s passive response to Russian involvement has been astonishing but typical. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the Russian foreign minister and asked him to “stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.” It’s a request the Russians will no doubt ignore. They took stock of the Obama administration long ago; they have presumably read in American newspapers that unnamed White House officials largely concede that the Syrian rebels will lose and that Assad is there to stay.

So Putin will continue to use the crisis, and Russia’s growing naval facility at Tartus on Syria’s coast, to establish his country’s most important foreign military presence in 40 years. 

Russia has taken full advantage of American weakness from the start. When President Obama failed to enforce his declaration that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” Putin proposed a deal in which Assad would dispose of his chemical-weapon stockpile under Russian supervision. With almost indecent relief, Obama seized on the proposal, despite the virtual certainty that its terms would never be implemented — as indeed they were not.

Then, in September 2014, Putin threatened direct military intervention in Syria if the U.S. and NATO aided anti-Assad rebels, particularly the Free Syrian Army, by conducting air strikes against the Islamic State. Obama immediately backed away — and now Putin has intervened anyway.

Putin surely suspects that, despite Kerry’s protest, news of the Russian facilities at Latakia will be secretly greeted at the White House with relief rather than dismay. As if to confirm those suspicions, White House press secretary Josh Earnest commented on Russia’s increased involvement in Syria this way: “We would welcome constructive Russian contributions to our anti-ISIL campaign” — reflecting once again the triumph of hope over experience in this administration’s dealings with Putin. Meanwhile, apologists for Obama’s Middle East policies will no doubt hail direct Russian military intervention not as a failure of Obama policy, but as a masterly sleight of hand by which the White House cleverly manipulated Moscow into using Russian troops to end the civil war and stem the flow of refugees to the West.

The Russians will happily concur with this rosy analysis. They are already presenting Putin’s intervention as a declaration of war against the Islamic State — Putin is calling for a new “international coalition against terrorism and extremism,” led from Moscow rather than Washington or Brussels — and as a humanitarian campaign to end the refugee crisis. This latter is a selling point bound to attract the support of European leaders. It is probably one reason that Greece has agreed to allow Russian-military overflights, despite U.S. protests, and that British foreign secretary Philip Hammond has admitted that any solution of the Syrian conflict “is going to have to be a decision made by the sponsors of the key players in Syria, and in particular Iran and Russia.”

Putin’s presentation of Russia as the new bulwark against the Islamic State — like Hitler’s presentation of Germany as the bulwark against Bolshevism — may appeal to Europeans, but it is largely a fraud. What Putin is actually pulling off is the biggest shift in the balance of power in the Middle East since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As Obama pulls up U.S. stakes in the region, Putin is positioning himself to make sure we don’t return.

Consider, for example, how a permanent Russian military presence in Syria will affect Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — allies Obama has ignored or abandoned over the last six years — not to mention Turkey, on whose doorstep the civil war and the struggle against the Islamic State have been raging nonstop. They will soon realize that Russia, not the U.S., is now the great power with which to cultivate good relations. Some know it already: Israel has been careful not to denounce Russia’s takeover of the Crimea or its ongoing covert war against Ukraine. The Gulf states will also look to Russia for arms with which to confront the growing Iranian menace (Egypt has already begun those negotiations). Putin has set himself up to be the region’s power broker, able to manage both Iran’s ambitions to expand its Shia empire and the desire of Israel and the Sunni states to maintain the status quo.

Nor will Russia’s new strategic presence in the eastern Mediterranean, both at sea and on the ground, hurt Putin’s standing in Europe. Putin enjoys significant leverage over both Western and Eastern Europe through his control of the spigot of Russian natural gas; he will now control, as well, the spigot of westbound refugees leaving Syria.

Some will argue that these predictions are implausibly gloomy. Wishful thinkers will insist that Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 looks less like Nazi Germany in Spain than like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979 — in other words, the start of another Middle East quagmire for Russia. In Afghanistan, however, the Russians were trying to impose a puppet regime; in Syria, their puppet is already in power. More important, Afghanistan became a quagmire for Russia because the U.S. steadily supplied arms and aid to the Afghan rebels. There is no sign that anyone, much less any presidential candidate, has the stomach for a similar proxy war today. The link between Osama bin Laden and the Soviets’ Afghan adventure makes such a proposal politically fraught.

In the Middle East at present, Vladimir Putin appears to have a free hand — and he will use it. He knows that securing Bashar Assad in power would constitute a formidable show of strength to the Middle East and to Europe, and would help tip the balance of power in his favor.

Because of President Obama’s disastrous foreign policy, the Pax Americana is yielding to the Pax Putinica, and Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war is likely to prove even more harmful to peace and freedom than Hitler’s in Spain.

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