Putin sees the Middle East as another region on his global chessboard that can serve as a spoiler of Western policy.
The Russian government has a number of different motives for its intervention in the conflict in Syria. Among these are the desire to help an old ally, to be seen once more as a great power on the world stage, and establish a position that will force US and European leaders to treat Russia’s views with greater respect, especially over the Ukraine crisis.
Russia’s strategy, however, also stems from a particular analysis of the situation in Syria based on a mixture of hard-headed realism and the experience of over two decades since the fall of communism. The Russian analysis is that the US strategy of arming and building up the Syrian “moderate opposition” never stood any chance of success and has now been recognised by the Pentagon as a failed strategy. Also, under these circumstances, if the Baath state in Damascus is overthrown, the result will be, at best, long-term anarchy; and at worst: a takeover by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda.
Reminiscent of Western tactics
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Moscow has, therefore, decided to provide the Syrian state and its Hezbollah and Kurdish allies with a Russian air force, in the same way (in the view of Russian officials) the US provided an air force for the Libyan opposition in 2011, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999, and the Croatian army in 1995.
This Russian decision came when it did because Syrian state forces seemed to be crumbling in the face of ISIL attacks, and also because the state of US policy and interests have made it highly unlikely that the US would do anything to block Russia’s actions.
On the last point, Russian analysis has already been shown to be entirely correct. This is because US officials are now faced with an interlocking set of seemingly impossible dilemmas in the Middle East. For obvious reasons, ISIL has now joined al-Qaeda, by the US’ thinking, as posing by far the greatest threat of terrorism against the US and Europe. In Iraq, this has led to what amounts to US-Iranian cooperation in supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government against ISIL. This has also contributed to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The US' inability to block Russia's new strategy is also because, in private, considerable parts of the security and intelligence communities in Washington and other Western capitals essentially agree with Russian analyses: that the moderate Syrian opposition is not developing as a serious military force.
In the kind of simple strategic calculations beloved by international relations students (and which actually happened on occasions during the Cold War), the US would simply move over towards an alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian state in the region. But this is obviously impossible for multiple reasons: It would cost the US its alliance with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey – with dangerous implications for the wider struggle against terrorism.
Washington is, therefore, left with a set of essentially contradictory interests and policies in the region. Indeed, and very largely because of past US actions, the Middle East has developed such complex and heavily-armed conflicts that no stable hegemony over the region is currently possible.
The US’ inability to block Russia’s new strategy is also because, in private, considerable parts of the security and intelligence communities in Washington and other Western capitals essentially agree with Russian analyses: that the moderate Syrian opposition is not developing as a serious military force.
Under these circumstances, to destroy the Syrian government and army would risk playing disastrously into the hands of ISIL and al-Qaeda. These analysts fully recognise the odious record of the Syrian state – but the concept of “our son of a b***h” is no more alien to the CIA than it is to the KGB.
The development of this kind of thinking in the West brings these analysts closer to an underlying feature of Russian analysis ( also shared by many others in Beijing, Delhi and elsewhere), that in many parts of the world, states – not regimes, but states – are far more fragile entities than most Western thinking has assumed. Very often, regimes and states are one and the same thing, so that if you bring down one, you also destroy the other. The consequences of this – especially in an era of international terrorists seeking safe havens in ungoverned territories – may be much worse than leaving a dictatorship in power.
This thinking has its roots in historical memories of past periods of chaos in their own countries. It is close to the old saying – in its different forms – that: “A day of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny”. In the view of Moscow, the examples of Afghanistan since 1992, Iraq since 2003, and Libya since 2011 have proved this argument so definitively that no further discussion is necessary.
A certain mood is, therefore, growing in Washington to let Moscow pursue its intervention in Syria and garner all the resulting risks and unpopularity, while, perhaps in the wider scheme of things, also serving long-term US interests. Among these risks for the Russian government are that the Russian people themselves may turn against this intervention, which – according to opinion polls – they seem to view in a very different light to Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine. If Washington had a real and viable choice in the matter, this might well be described as a dreadfully cynical US approach. But does Washington have a choice?
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a visiting professor at King’s College London. He is the author, among other books, of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Pakistan: A Hard Country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.