In realpolitik minds, Vladimir Putin casts the shadow of a shrewd player on the world stage. He opposes ‘humanitarian interventions’, while he aggressively defends Russia’s national sovereignty. Even still, it’s true Putin understands power as well as he wields it. Putin’s primary interest is in the consolidation of the state and the maintenance of its power.
As recent events in Ukraine, and less recently in Georgia, demonstrate, Putin wants to secure the body national above all else. So why is there a Russian military presence in Syria?
For decades, the Assad regime maintained itself as a wedge between the Sunni elite and the Alawite military leadership. When the uprising began it had a popular, secular and democratic character (though these elements still exist) which was comprised by a diverse base. It was during the crackdown that it spiraled into a cycle of violence, into which hordes of Sunni Islamists flooded. As the uprising descended into a bloodbath, Putin may have began counting the miles between Syria and Chechnya.
The fact that the Chechen cause of independence from Russian hegemony has drawn Islamists from the Arab world must be unsettling. The prospect of Islamic State emerging from the chaos in Syria has sent shockwaves throughout the region. It could well embolden Islamic militants in the Caucasus, as it has elsewhere. After all, jihadi groups in Libya have declared allegiance to Islamic State, just as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have done. The Assad regime may pose a bulwark, in Putin’s view, to the tide of Islamism.
So the Syrian regime does fit into Putin’s domestic agenda. However, it’s also the case that Syria fits into Russia’s regional interests. It’s a major nexus of fuel pipelines, and it has strategic value. Syria sits on NATO’s doorstep, alongside Iraq and Iran. It has a coastline with the Mediterranean, home to the US Sixth Fleet. Russia has long looked for counterweights to US proxies in the region. Consequently, Russia has been a major supplier of arms to the Syrian regime long before the civil war broke out.
Recently, it has come out that the Russian government offered a deal, in which Assad would step down. In February 2012, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari held talks with the envoys of the UN Security Council. The Russian representative, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Bashar al-Assad to cede power. This would be after peace talks between the regime and the opposition had started. The US, UK and France were convinced Assad was about to fall, so they rejected the Russian offer.
Ironically, the US continues to demand that Assad step down, and this prevents any serious negotiations. This demand helps to keep Assad in power. Otherwise it might be possible for the regime and the opposition to engage in peace talks. As Patrick Cockburn writes, serious negotiations could lead to power-sharing arrangements. It’s plausible that the Syrian regime would be willing to dump Assad to hold on. Yet, even when it was within reach the US did not jump at the opportunity. The Russian plan to drop Assad is not without precedent.
In February 2003, Putin dispatched his envoy Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad to deliver a stern message to Saddam Hussein. By this point, Vladimir Putin had joined Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder in opposing the US invasion of Iraq. Putin told Saddam that if he would step down from his post as President, voluntarily, to allow democratic elections to take place, then he could stay in the country. It was a last ditch attempt to stop the war. Perhaps fearing a coup d’etat by his generals, Saddam Hussein quietly rejected the idea.
Alas, the failure to prevent the Iraq war has now engulfed Syria in flames. The rhizome of Islamic militancy embedded itself deep into Iraqi society before reaching into Syria in the midst of civil war. The rise of Islamic State partly comes out of Saudi-Qatari ambitions to promote fundamentalism and combat secular nationalism and republicanism. It also comes out of the Iraq war, the experience of US occupation and the sectarian rule of the Maliki government. The new fundamentalist hive took shape because all political alternatives have been snuffed out.
The region is home to over four million soldiers divided between the different states. Yet Islamic State has been left to take shape and seize huge swathes of territory. The problem is clear: you can’t defeat Islamic State without working with Assad, and you can’t defeat Assad without empowering Islamic State. How can you pretend you stand for liberal values and take sides in this fight? The West has a problem. The liberal apologists for ‘humanitarian intervention’ have an even bigger problem. But it’s not the only one.
It looks like there is no coherent strategy. The US faces a myriad set of competing interests, among its proxies, and its foes. Turkey wants Assad to fall, and it’s been willing to lend support to Islamic State. Especially as this threatens the aspirations of Kurdish nationalists. To Erdogan, ISIS are the anti-PKK. Meanwhile Iran and Hezbollah share a common interest in defending the Assad regime. In a bid to destroy the Ba’athist regime, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funneled arms and treasure to the Salafi jihadists. So Israel is happy to watch the corpses pile up, but it fears Islamic State reaching its borders.
It’s would be much more viable for Russia to back the Syrian regime. The Russian government has longstanding connections to Iran, which in turn needs Syria to help arm and fund Hezbollah. Without this alliance, Israel might still be occupying southern Lebanon. The Iranian government also wants to keep Iraq as a sovereign and democratic country because it can easily be dominated by the Shi’a under those conditions. So it’s obvious who has the potential to forge a coherent strategy. But it would likely leave the Syrian regime (possibly not Assad) in power.
However, the reasons why the Syrian people rose up against Bashar al-Assad have not been resolved. Human rights are still a far away dream, let alone democracy. Hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered and millions have been displaced. It’s clear that the Putin government does not have the best interests of Syrians at heart. Peace and stability in West Asia really just chimes well with the status quo. If the global order is redefined and reconstituted, Putin could easily lose out.