Russia’s Holy War in Syria

By Ammar Abdulhamid
Tuesday, October 6, 2015, 4:39 PM

Russia’s intervention in Syria seems to have caught U.S. officials by surprise, although the build-up for it must have been going on for months and is unlikely to have been missed by intelligence agencies. The surprise, therefore, seems to denote not a lack of good intelligence but yet another case of willful blindness borne out of a commitment to a particular worldview to which the Obama Administration continues to hold onto despite the growing list of crises and conflicts that it has generated.

Meanwhile, and with the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian officials are billing their “surprise” intervention in Syria as a “Holy War” against Islamic terrorists, and some of their propagandists are even suggesting that Syria is a Russian Holy Land, as a consequence of an old historic connection between the Syriac and Russian Orthodox churches.

The message: Russia is serious about its intervention in Syria, and has long-term plans for its future there, plans that go far beyond fighting any terrorists, or shoring up its weakened ally.

The plans, however, do include supporting the ailing regime of my old grade-school classmate, Bashar Al-Assad. Of that there can be no doubt, since Mr. Putin himself has made the matter clear during his recent interview with 60 Minutes when he said “we are considering intensifying our work with . . . President Assad.” The fact that the overwhelming majority of Russian-conducted aerial strikes have so far targeted Western-backed rebels, rather than Islamic State strongholds and pockets, should help dispel any remaining doubts in this regard.

At some point in the future, Putin might end up bombing IS strongholds, but for now, he will treat IS just like Assad himself does: as an additional tool to fight the rebels who are closer to home. If, in the process, the strikes ended up exposing the ethereal nature of America’s own policies and airstrikes in Syria, that would come as an added bonus.

That said, the real reason behind Putin’s move into Syria is not any sort of values affinity with Assad. Putin is here repeating what he previously did in Crimea and is still trying to do in Eastern Ukraine: take over and secure a territory that holds strategic significance for Russia. Russia has for long maintained a military base in the coastal city of Tartus, one which it updated and modernized shortly before the onset of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011.

This newest venture is not simply about safeguarding this base. Now that the Obama Administration has repeatedly shown how strongly it is committed to minimizing America’s military footprint in the world, Mr. Putin sees an opportunity for expanding and strengthening Russia’s presence along the Mediterranean, and for ensuring that the future of that presence is not dependent on anyone’s goodwill but is assured through Russian military might.

Still, and in order to gain a cover of legitimacy for what amounts to a new de facto occupation, Putin needs the Assad regime, and it needs it to be strong, stable, safe, and beholden to him above all, even above Iran’s leaders.

Indeed, as some reports have already indicated, Putin’s move into Syria surprised even his Iranian allies who, while probably privy to the outlines of the venture, may not have been made aware of how forceful the planned intervention was going to be.

The two sides will not turn against each other, as their ongoing partnership remains vital for each of them. But the move will serve to remind Iran of its place as the junior partner.

While Iran is a junior partner, Bashar Al-Assad, the erstwhile strongman of the country, has become a mere pawn, though he seems to be quite unaware of this turnaround. Assad belongs to that miserable category of so-called leaders who can see victory in the mere act of holding on to power at any and all cost. Worse, Assad can see victory simply in maintaining the illusion of authority. He has always been such a delusional figure. His late father, Hafiz, had given himself the interesting epithet of “the Leader, the Necessity.” Now the prodigal son has managed to embody this epithet. He is indeed “the leader, the necessity,” though not for his people, for whom he has never been and could never be such a person, but for Putin, his “ally,” and he shall remain so until Putin deems otherwise. Does Bashar see this? Does he understand the implications? Does he even care?

The most likely answer to all these questions is: No. We are dealing with a delusional man, after all, a narcissist who continues to lecture, pontificate, and warn of dire consequences as though he has a hand in steering the various occurrences around him and is not a mere pawn in an ongoing global intrigue. He is a petty man who is incapable of knowing how petty he is, a common thug who takes himself for a hero, a tiny frog who thinks himself a bull, a total moron who fancies himself a genius. Who but such a delusional maniacal tragicomical character could preside over the destruction of his own country and the total decimation of his own people yet still have the gall to speak of victory? In this respect, and this respect only, Bashar Al-Assad is incomparable.

With partners like this, Putin’s gambit is not without risk, of course, and might indeed come from a place of desperation, as some have argued. If so, the United States and the European Union have reasons to worry about similar moves elsewhere. Putin is not a blind adventurer. And he is not like Assad. And it would be foolish to treat him as such. As the conflict in eastern Ukraine has amply demonstrated, he has become quite adept at managing hybrid warfare. This means that his involvement in Syria at this stage will be restricted to air strikes and special operations forces, or the infamous “volunteers” of Eastern Ukraine fame; the bulk of the fighting, however, will have to be borne by pro-Assad troops and militias, including Iran-funded Shiite militias, in addition to Iranian troops.

If, at some point, Putin ends up sending a significant number of Russian ground troops, it will be to safeguard certain locations, rather than to fight on the frontlines. As such, an Afghanistan-like quagmire in Syria is probably not in the cards for Putin. Not that his venture will serve to pacify the country, but then, that is not his concern. All he wants is to secure an economically viable enclave that can fund its Russian occupying force, at least, over the long run. Fighting on this enclave’s borders can continue for years to come, and the rest of the country can go to hell as far as he is concerned. He can live with that. So will thousands of Russian civilians who will pour into the enclave once circumstances permit, to take part in “advising” and rebuilding.

The only thing that could force Putin to “change his calculus,” to borrow a term from President Obama, is for the latter to significantly amend his worldview--a highly unlikely prospect at this late stage of his presidency.

Still, there will be long-term repercussions for Putin in Russia as a result of his adventure in Syria. Everything from car bombings or lone wolf attacks in Moscow and St. Petersburg and wherever Russia has a presence abroad, to full-scale rebellions in certain Muslim-majority provinces and republics within the Russian Federation could be on the menu. But these potential developments are not things about which Putin seems to be worried at this early stage: the prize he is after seems to be worth the risk for him. It is here where he could be miscalculating.

And for now, Mr. Putin is said to be enjoying a boost in approval at home, while the suffering of the Syrian people continues as their country falls apart and becomes ground zero for Cold War II.