Putin’s Syrian Checkmate
On hearing the news that Napoleon’s army had crossed over into Belgium, the Duke of Wellington was reputed to have said “My God, they have humbugged me!”. One can imagine a similar reaction playing out Situation Room by President Obama upon the latest news out of Syria. Russian troops are now supporting Al-Assad. Now, the exact details of the situation are still sketchy. There is some question as to the exact extent and role these personnel are playing in the conflict. At this point it is still unknown if they are participating in any frontline combat role. What does seem to be certain, however, is that increasing amounts of Russian military equipment have been delivered to the Syrian army, including tanks and combat vehicles, and an undetermined number of Russian troops are on the ground at least in a training and advisory capacity. Additionally, Putin himself has spoken out in recent days of the need for a new coalition to come together of international powers, the Al-Assad regime, and moderate Syrian rebels for the express purpose of suppressing ISIS. While his particular goals remain as nebulous and undefined as ever, it does appear clear that the President of Russia is making a power play in the Middle East.
And just like that, Putin has done it again. While we have dithered and dickered over what is to be done, pontificating over whether or not even to continue with our incredibly restrained bombing campaign, our dear Russian friend has once again ceased the initiative. In stark contrast to the West’s largely reactive role so far, which has almost entirely consisted in seeking to contain ISIS (with some admitted success), Russia has now decisively seized the initiative, it would appear, and is now forcefully placing itself in the center of control of events in Syria and northwestern Iraq.
Among other things, this effectively pre-empts any future moves we might have made to overtly depose the Al-Assad regime. With Russian troops on the ground, any direct action taken against Damascus would almost assuredly come with the risk of courting war with Russia; Putin’s constant games of brinksmanship having had the unfortunate side effect that popular reaction at home to the news of Russian personnel (either deliberately or incidentally) being killed by Western forces would leave him no choice but to retaliate. Regime change of any kind will now only occur with Russia’s knowledge and consent, as will any attempts by the West to ramp up our military presence in the region to either support moderate rebel elements or begin taking back territory from ISIS. For the foreseeable future, Putin is now the one in the driver’s seat. The effects of this can already be seen, with Angela Merkel (the real leader of the EU in all but name) already saying dialogue must be initiated with Al-Assad, and Austria openly saying the Syrian government is an ally in the real battle against ISIS.
Now, precisely what Russia seeks to accomplish remains highly unclear. It is almost certain Putin wishes to retain Russia’s naval port in the Mediterranean Sea, and also to make certain that when the dust finally settles whoever holds power in Damascus will not be wholly beholden to the West and disinterested in Russia’s long-term interests in the region. Whether that necessitates ensuring the survival of Bashir Al-Assad himself is less certain. A symbolic removal of Al-Assad himself, as a fig leaf to the West, which allows the regime itself to retain power might still be possible (a fact that Bashir himself is likely fully aware of and doubtlessly is kept awake at night by). For all his rhetoric, Putin’s commitment to fighting ISIS is also questionable. As I never hesitate to point out to Huntington disciplines who opine on the theory of a great clash of civilizations, the dream that good old Vlad is going to swoop in like a modern day Richard the Lionheart and sort out the Islamist menace in a way we no longer have the stomach for is just that…a dream. Putin certainly has been unflinching in smashing the Islamists in his own backyard, but he has also proven perfectly willing to support them abroad when it suits him. After all, Putin sees his ultimate rival as the West, and the destabilization of Islamic terror is just one other tool he can use against us when it suits him. Russia will oppose ISIS to the degree that it poses a threat to its allies in Syria and Iran, and to the extent that it might seek to commit terror attacks in Russia itself, and we can count on nothing more.
Putin’s motives aside, this has once again demonstrated the sheer tactical brilliance he has continued to demonstrate on the world stage. You have to hand it to the man; he continues to play chess while we obsess over checkers. Despite having a military that is of mediocre quality, an economy hamstrung by low oil prices and economic sanctions, and a national population beset by rampant alcoholism and drug abuse (along with one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the Western world), he continues to outfox us by playing to our weaknesses safe in the knowledge that we do not have the will to do the same. Putin is the man at a poker table who continually steals the pot with inferior hands because he knows his opponents simply do not have the stomach to go all in. Barack Obama has obligingly folded time and time again, and in doing so been revealed as an absolute disaster whose legacy in the realm of foreign affairs will be one that haunts the USA long after he finally limps from office.
Indeed, Putin represents a perfect example of the great weakness of the modern liberal mindset, its sheer inability to recognize that there are other forces in the world driven by different motivations. The domination of liberalism and globalization over the political consensus here in the West have left us unable to comprehend that this is not the case elsewhere. By the logic of the liberal paradigm, Putin should have backed down long ago or been hounded from office by his own people when we first began imposing sanctions on him. The loss of creature comforts and economic prosperity is the worst thing most of us here at home can contemplate, so of course logically it must be true for our rivals overseas. The idea that people might be willing to endure economic malaise and personal prosperity for such antiquated notions as nation or faith or familial blood ties is one that simply cannot register. We cannot comprehend it. We do not understand it. This inability to recognize the non-universal nature of liberalism’s conception of human nature has been at the heart of every great failure we have witnessed in recent years, from the disaster of the Middle Eastern democratization project to our continued inability to restrain Russia’s increasingly brazen military adventures.
Finding the will to confront and stare down an increasingly assertive Russia is something that must be done, however. We have seen the same pattern of political brinksmanship played by Putin before, and the consequences of it were dire. Almost a century and a half ago, a Prussian nobleman named Bismarck deployed the same tactics to unite together the scattered princedoms and kingdoms of the German Confederation into one empire, and for the ensuing decades he became the menace of Europe. He then made the mistake all statesmen eventually make and died, and but his legacy of brinksmanship, of stepping right up to the edge and daring Germany’s opponents to cross over, lived on in his far less talented successors. The end result was World War One and the beginning of the great decline of civilization that it sparked. The more victories Putin wins, the more emboldened he will become till eventually the day will come that he will spark a crisis that we will not or cannot step back from. Appeasing aggression inevitably invites more aggression until eventually the appeaser can be appeased no more. When that day comes, the bill that has only been postponed finally comes due, and the price is often high.