I’ve been watching the to-ings and fro-ings over Syria during the past ten days with great interest. What strikes me most forcibly is the abysmal ignorance of Russia’s real motives, and the power structure in the region, that’s been displayed by US politicians and journalists alike.
Consider these facts:
1. Russia has a large Islamic population within and around its borders, and has bitter experience of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism. Chechnya is the best-known of these conflicts, but similar problems exist in Dagestan, Ingushetia and other provinces of the North Caucasian Federal District. They played a role in the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Russia needs no telling about how dangerous Islamic terrorism can be. As Der Spiegel pointed out:
Russia, Putin has made clear, is interested in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles for three reasons. First, the existence of such weapons could trigger a foreign intervention in Syria, to which Moscow is opposed. Second, there is a danger that the poison gas could fall into the hands of fundamentalist extremists. And third, armed Syrian rebels could use these weapons against Israel.
Russia wants to keep fundamentalist Islamic terrorists as far away from its borders as possible. It knows that Saudi and Iranian sources are funding most jihadist movements, and doesn’t want to see them triumph. It knows that if the Islamic rebels in Syria take over that country, it would instantly move from being Russia’s last foothold in the Middle East to a direct and immediate threat to Russian security.
2. Russia regards President Obama and his administration with contempt. It’s noted their waffling and indecision in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, and no longer has any respect for the USA at all. (I can assure you, if the Russian embassy in Benghazi had been attacked and its ambassador slaughtered like ours was, there would have been a robust and very lethal response. Russia may not have the resources of the USA to mount an immediate counterstrike, but a counterstrike there would have been, and one extremely damaging to those responsible for the attack.) In the absence of any serious, meaningful US strategic interests in or commitment to Syria and its manifest reluctance to act against Islamic fundamentalists, Russia is stepping up to the plate in keeping with its own national interests.
3. I agree that President Assad is one of the most murderous dictators as yet unhung, and the sooner he shuffles off this mortal coil, the better. However, even so, Russia regards him as a better bet than having an Islamic fundamentalist administration in Syria; and it’s built a position as Assad’s main weapons supplier that gives it a fair amount of leverage with him. It’ll use that position to overtly put pressure on him to give up his chemical weapons; but under the table, I won’t be surprised to learn that Spetsnaz teams are already operating against Syrian rebels as a quid pro quo for Assad’s co-operation. Certainly, Russia wants Syrian chemical weapons out of the way, if only to ensure that they don’t end up in the hands of terrorists; and it’s ruthless enough to buy their elimination with the bodies of Assad’s enemies.
4. I’m willing to bet that Russia and Israel are more than just talking to one another about all this. Israel hates Assad, and would be very happy to see him gone: the same applies to his erstwhile allies, Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other hand, Israel really doesn’t want chemical and/or biological weapons to fall into the hands of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, who might use them against Israel without any compunction. They might also fall into the hands of Hezbollah and/or Hamas, which would be disastrous. Therefore, if Russia can act as ‘honest broker’ and destroy or render inoperative those weapons, it will suit Israel just fine, even if that means Assad’s political survival.
5. Other surrounding states really don’t want to see Syria collapse into anarchy. Iraq is already unstable enough that a Syrian revolution might lead to civil war there. Turkey is overburdened with Syrian refugees, and is also seriously worried about a Syrian collapse causing problems in Syrian Kurdistan. (Such problems would probably spill over into Turkish Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan as well.) Lebanon is already in near-anarchy, with Hezbollah a fierce and vocal rival to the country’s unstable government; any Syrian collapse would only worsen the situation, particularly if Hezbollah felt threatened by developments and lashed out at the Lebanese army – even against Israel – in its paranoia. Jordan has already apparently given sanctuary to Syrian refugees and political dissidents, and has conducted joint military exercises with US forces near the Syrian border – something that’s angered both Syria and Russia. I’m willing to bet that all those nations are talking to each other, and to Israel, and to Russia. In the absence of US leadership, they’re probably actively encouraging Russia to take the lead in dealing with the situation.
6. It suits Russia just fine to take the lead. It’s a good way to re-establish its influence in a part of the world from which it had been systematically excluded over the past couple of decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, President Putin has been eager to re-establish Russian influence over sources of energy to Europe and the First World. If he can extend Russian influence into the oil-producing regions of the Middle East, that will be a big step forward. (Russia has already discussed the joint marketing of Israeli national gas to Europe, potentially allowing it a say in which countries will get access to it, and at what price. Discussions are continuing.) Russian success in Syria would cement its influence and undermine that of the USA.
Putting all those elements together, is it any wonder that the rest of the world is writing off the US administration? As a Telegraph commentator said on Friday:
It’s obvious to even the dullest pundit that no new international process can bring about the safe collection and destruction of Syria’s sizeable CW stocks over any timescale that matters. Moscow is not interested in this. Rather it means to re-legitimise the Assad regime by making it a prime interlocutor in the whole phoney process. The exercise soon will be bogged down in footling exchanges of diplomatic notes and labyrinths of internationalised technical bickering that ensure that any “progress” occurs only on Moscow/Assad terms. Meanwhile the civil war in Syria will drag on, with Assad emboldened. In due course Washington will have so much credibility invested in Syria’s CW non-disarmament that it will start to need Assad to stay in power to guarantee some crumbs of success.
This outcome shows what happens when you enter a brutal neighbourhood proclaiming your unwillingness to fight: those who are prepared to fight crush you. The Obama administration knows that it is experiencing unprecedented humiliation. So it proclaims victory. John Kerry emits faux toughness to pretend that Washington is really driving things along. “Words are not enough.” “This is not a game.” “There ought (sic) to be consequences” if Assad does not dismantle its CW arsenal. “We do believe there is a way to get this done.” Such empty mock-heroic phrases are the sort of thing a cartoon character might say as he walks off the edge of the cliff, striding purposefully out into thin air before plummeting to his doom.
In short, we have gone from “Assad must go!” to “Assad has to negotiate with us on a UN resolution for handing over his CW stocks, or there definitely ought to be consequences!” It’s a short sad step from that to “Assad must stay!”
This is something quite new in world affairs: Washington sprawling on its back after falling for the Grandmother of All Putinesque Judo-flips.