Putin’s chess move in Syria, with an eye on the region at large

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

Shortly after Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to seek a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war, the Russian president bolstered his support for the embattled Assad government.

Putin announced an impending transfer of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian military. It was a bold move that signals his intent to restore his country’s influence in the world, which, to the former KGB officer, had been gravely damaged by the fall of communism in 1991. The move also demonstrates considerable strategic vision.

Vladimir Putin. /AFP
Vladimir Putin. /AFP

Putin’s efforts on the world stage strengthen his support at home where national greatness has long been revered. Russians look back admiringly on great leaders such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and even Joseph Stalin. They were men who vanquished foreign enemies and made the world respect Mother Russia. Putin may prove at least as ambitious as those predecessors.

The rise of Salafist militancy in Syrian rebel groups is a tremendous concern. Moscow fears that the numbers and efficacy of forces such as the al Nusra Front will one day turn their attention to oppressed Muslim regions in Russia such as Dagestan and Chechnya – both critical owing to their proximity to a major oil pipeline connecting Central Asia to western markets.

Salafist fighters, including some from Al Qaida, fought in Chechnya in the 90s; they may do so again. Syria and Chechnya are only five hundred miles apart.

Having done little if anything to defend Col. Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, Russia must demonstrate its commitment to allies. After all, what is the value of an ally that does not come to your defense. Russia must restore its credibility to its allies and, unhappily, Syria has become the place to begin.

Russia’s Syrian policy will likely come to be seen, if it has not already, as a commitment to defend not only Syria but also its principal allies – Hizbullah and Iran. The Sunni forces fighting in Syria, and backed by the Sunni Gulf powers, clearly have their eyes on ridding the region of Shia power and Iranian influence. Hence Hizbullah’s open deployment of troops to the Syrian cities of Qusayr and Aleppo.

Russia will seek to preserve the “Shia arc” stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, then into Lebanon. This will constitute an obstacle to the geopolitical agendas of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It may shape the history of the region for a decade or more.

By backing Assad, Russia might be placing itself at odds with Arab youth, most of whom despise Assad and his remaining authoritarian colleagues from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf. But looking longer term, Russia is positioning itself to win considerable support from the so-called Arab Street.

First, Russia is standing against Islamist militancy which is emerging as a threat to the democratic aspirations of more secular young people, whether by elected government in Egypt or by armed groups as in Libya.

Second, Russia is standing up to Israel, which is seeking to fragment Syria into a patchwork of antagonistic smaller groupings run, if only barely, by squabbling tribal councils and warlords. Russia’s sale of surface-to-surface missiles is clearly intended to deter further Israeli airstrikes inside Syria.

Third, Russia is standing up to American dominance in world affairs, which has been a source of annoyance in the Middle East since the days of many young people’s grandparents. Recent U.S. campaigns in the region have done little to diminish this grievance.

Significant support from Arab publics based on opposition to Israel and the U.S. will strengthen Russia’s hand vis-a-vis the Sunni monarchies, which have traditionally been American allies. This may one day allow him to play a role in championing the Palestinian cause. That of course would greatly increase Russia’s power and prestige – and Vladimir Putin’s as well.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.