Putin’s plan for Syria

A man holds portrait of  Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) during a rally in support of Syrian regime in front of the US Embassy in Moscow, on October 19, 2012.  Moscow has defiantly refused to take sides against Assad, and has slammed the West and Turkey for making clear their support for the rebels battling his regime. AFP PHOTO / ANDREY SMIRNOV        (Photo credit should read ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A man holds portrait of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (L) during a rally in support of Syrian regime in front of the US Embassy in Moscow in 2012. © ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

As David Cameron prepares the way for a vote on bombing in Syria, Britain faces an ugly choice: whether to back Russia in targeting Islamic State, if that also means propping up President Bashar al-Assad—see James Harkin’s July 2013 cover story and Bronwen Maddox’s piece “Which side is Britain on?”. That is clearly Russia’s goal, and its deployment of aircraft and other forces gives it the upper hand. Rachel Polonsky argues here that this is the best course. Many would disagree, and see backing Russia—and Assad, whose military has killed so many Syrians—as a false answer and the fuel for civil war or for the country splitting. But many will agree, too, that the west has to talk to Russia—and that it has no clear plan of its own.

After Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Barack Obama at the United Nations on 28th September, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova was relayed live from New York to the Moscow studio of Special Correspondent, a popular talk show on Russia-1, the state-owned television channel. The theme was the end of the unipolar world order—of the west’s ability to shape the world as it would like, above all the Middle East. “We would prefer not to have been right,” Zakharova said, with the more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone of an exasperated schoolteacher.

If in the Middle East, she continued, we saw a single example of a developing democratic state with flourishing citizens of the kind that the advocates of the unipolar world promised their methods would bring, perhaps we might trust the west’s proposals. Instead, we see nothing but poverty, ruin and terrorism, and an evil spreading across continents, threatening Europe and our own country. Quoting the most resonant line in President Putin’s speech to the UN General Assembly—“Do you, at least, realise what you’ve done?”—she lamented that there were still actors on the world stage who seemed not to grasp that it was time to collaborate on a logical strategy to defeat Islamic State (IS).

The United States and Britain are still hesitant about that collaboration. But the unpalatable truth is that the west does not have a coherent plan for Syria. In my view, it is time either to join Russia, which does have a coherent plan, or to stay out.

Zakharova embodies the communications strategy that has played an integral part in Russian foreign policy during this new phase of the Syrian civil war. Young and articulate, she is fluent in English and Chinese. Her manner is urgent and sincere. Her appointment in August was part of Russia’s preparation for war, a response to Jennifer Psaki, the former US State Department spokesperson whose briefings became the target of mockery on Russian state television during the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Dmitry Kiselyov, a pundit dubbed the Kremlin’s “propaganda chief,” claimed that a new buzzword had appeared on social media: “psaking,” a metaphor for “low-quality American diplomacy.”

Over the years of Nato expansion and western-backed regime change in the Middle East (and, as most Russians see it, in Ukraine), anti-Americanism in Russian state media has become feverish. Over Syria, in which the west has taken part in a civil war without having decided which side it wants to win, the tone towards America has shifted and become, at times, pitying. Margarita Simonyan, the 35-year-old Editor-in-Chief of the news network RT (formerly Russia Today), summed up the new attitude recently: “The eternal question is: do they have a far-reaching plan, which we don’t understand, or are they just making stupid mistakes because they’re not properly informed?”

The logistical skill and speed of Russia’s intervention in Syria left western leaders humiliated and confused. Over the summer, the State Department and Foreign and Commonwealth Office believed they were collaborating with Russia on a transition plan for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. If this was a ruse, they should not have been fooled. Perhaps they were just not listening. Regime change in Syria was never on Moscow’s agenda.

Regime change in Syria was never on Moscow’s agenda

The overt phase of the Russian intervention was timed to coincide with the UN General Assembly. A first sign of Russian matériel on the move was picked up in late August, when a warship from the Black Sea Fleet sailed through Istanbul with armoured personnel carriers on deck. In early September, pictures were leaked on social media of Russian special forces in Syria. The US asked Bulgaria and Greece to block Russian military flights. By the time the General Assembly’s 70th session opened, SU-30 fighter-jets were visible on the runway of al-Assad airport at Latakia.

Putin, meanwhile, was receiving guests. Between late August and late September, the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Israel and Turkey went to Moscow. On 21st September, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, arrived with the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army and his head of military intelligence and left satisfied that Russia would not compromise Israel’s strategic interests. As for Assad, “we are neither for nor against,” Netanyahu said. A day later Putin welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the opening of a vast new mosque (Moscow is home to at least two million Muslims). Turkey and Russia are at odds over Assad. The news Erdoğan had received about a Russian military build-up was “not pleasant,” he said. Turkey has pressed for a no-fly zone in northern Syria. For Moscow, though, no-fly zones portend a repeat of Libya in October 2011, in which Nato airstrikes led to the capture and killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte, a Mediterranean port now held by IS.

On 25th September US Central Command tweeted: “We urge the Russians to be transparent about their activities in Syria.” Two days later, Putin appeared on US network television with the talkshow host Charlie Rose. “Others say that you’re trying to save the Assad administration because they’ve been losing—ah—ground,” Rose ventured, “and the war has not been going well for them and you’re there to rescue them.” “Yes, that’s right,” Putin replied.

Having ordered the US to leave the airspace over Syria, Russia made its first strikes the day after Putin left New York. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, remained in the company of world leaders and the media. For days, he was photographed with John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, coming in and out of meetings, shaking hands. As Zakharova put it on Russia-1: “Our aim is simple, to defeat [IS] together, not unilaterally.” As soon as the bombing started, an information war flared up over Russia’s targeting of non-IS fighters. Senator John McCain (who, after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, had tweeted, “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighbourhood near you”) was enraged, calling the Russian targeting of US-trained rebels “the ultimate disrespect.” Whatever the tactical worth of the targets on the ground, Russia was making a point. The US has been training and arming an assortment of groups to fight both IS and Assad. In a press conference broadcast live on CNN, Lavrov quipped: “If it looks like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”

In trying to discern what Putin’s government has up its sleeve, western intelligence services would do well to pay closer attention to Russian state television discussion shows, which have become instruments for preparing the public for new policies; in this case, a tough war. They also reveal how attentively Russia observes the west, and how deeply it knows the east.

On 13th September, the anchorman Vladimir Solovyov began his show saying: “Obama has admitted he has no strategy for defeating IS… so why can’t the west lay Cold War ghosts to rest and work with Russia for a solution, instead of seeing Russia as a threat and the cause of all the world’s ills?” The veteran political showman Vladimir Zhirinovsky then declared himself an orientalist by birth (he was born in Central Asia, served in the Caucasus and speaks Arabic). He took off on a high-energy flight of conspiracy theory: Americans are gangsters, IS was created to destroy Russia by lowering the oil price and so on. Andrei Kokoshin, Dean of the Faculty of World Politics at Moscow State University, urged dialogue, explaining that US policy had reached a dead end because it was guided by “a sacred faith in democracy, and the illusion that all democracies will naturally be US allies.”

Solovyov followed up with a radio talk show devoted to the proposition that “Syria is our border, which we must not surrender.” He asked: “Barack Husseinovich Obama is always trying to convince us that if we give up Assad, everything will be ok—let’s say, there’s no Assad, what happens then?”

“Chaos,” replied his guest, Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the Russian Parliament, and an Uzbek-born Armenian. Bagdasarov argued that in the urban centres still under Assad’s control—Damascus, Latakia and Tartus—with Alawite majorities and many Christians, there would be a massacre. “Genocide?” Solovyov asked. “Yes, genocide,” Bagdasarov replied.

They also criticised Turkey for using its bombing of IS as a cover for its war against the Kurds, who have become allies of Russia. Kobani, a city in northern Syria, was besieged by IS a year ago, and liberated by fighters of the Kurdish YPG with aerial support from the US. The YPG, now allied with Assad’s forces, have continued to defend the city in the face of IS massacres, in which the Kurds and Syria accuse Turkey of colluding. They feel betrayed by the US.

More unexpected allies have appeared in Russian state media broadcasts. One television programme visited northern Afghanistan, near the Tajik border (which is guarded by Russian troops), where Nato and US special forces have joined the fight over the city of Kunduz, while IS runs a recruitment drive among the Taliban. For Russia, the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan represents a grave threat. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan Vice-President, flanked by dwarf bodyguards, received the Russian reporters with ceremony. An ethnic Uzbek, Dostum was a general in the Afghan army during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, battling US-backed mujahideen from whose ranks Osama bin Laden later emerged. His men speak Russian. In September, Dostum, who has been fighting IS in northern and eastern Afghanistan, appealed to Russia to provide Afghan security forces with military hardware, including aircraft. “The Daesh [IS] plan is the Caucasus Mountains, Russia and Central Asia,” he said. “You are watching Syria and Iraq being destroyed, and they want to destabilise Central Asia.”

One talk show featured a Daily Mirror spread from August, a map of the world as IS would like to see it in 2020. Swathes of Russia appeared in black, renamed “Qoqzaz” and “Khurasan.” Repeatedly, the subject returned to the west’s simulation of a fight against IS and its refusal to become Russia’s ally in a common cause.

Russia’s engagement with IS summons traumatic memories of former wars: the 10-year Afghan war, which precipitated the fall of the USSR’s empire, and the Chechen wars of the 1990s, in which Russian conscripts were beheaded. The intervention in Syria is yet another Chechen war for Russia, but on a vastly expanded front. There are thousands of Russian-speakers in IS, including its toughest commanders, like the red-bearded Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Abu Omar al-Shishani. Having excelled in a US training programme for Georgian special forces, he fought in the Russia-Georgia war in South Ossetia in 2008, before leaving for Istanbul in 2010. He has recruited fighters for IS from Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A year ago, IS sent a video message to Putin on the internet, announcing its plan to invade the Caucasus and southern Russia.

Judging by the discussions on television and radio, Russia plans to help the Syrian Army retake the city of Palmyra, from where a strategic highway leads north to the IS capital, Raqqa. IS took Palmyra in May. The jihadists made children execute captured Syrian soldiers in the ancient ruins. In August, they beheaded Palmyra’s retired museum director, 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, and hung his body on a post. Then they blew up the Temple of Bel. One of the city’s treasures, the Palmyra Tariff, a five-metre-wide marble slab inscribed in Greek and Aramaic, is preserved in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, a city that has been known since the 18th century as the “Palmyra of the North.” The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, wrote an obituary of his murdered colleague and spoke on television about the destruction of Palmyra. “When they destroy Palmyra,” he said, “the columns of Petersburg shake; when Christianity is destroyed in the Middle East, where it began, it harms Christianity here.” Palmyra could have been saved, Piotrovsky said: “The Islamists took a long time getting there… They crossed the desert and no one bombed them, because it would have been considered assistance to the Syrian government, to President Assad.”

“Russia’s claim that its forces are only there to target Islamic State should be taken with a large grain of salt”

“Russia’s claim that its forces are only there to target Islamic State should be taken with a large grain of salt,” Charles Lister wrote on the website of the BBC in late September. Lister is a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, which is funded by Qatar. “Moscow is well known for viewing Syria’s entire armed opposition as uniformly Islamist and a danger to international security… Such sweeping assessments are patently false.” This is an odd statement, given that Lister made a similar assessment himself in March: “While rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with al-Qaeda since mid-2012.” It is time the UK government acknowledged explicitly in public what it knows about the Islamists we have armed and trained to fight Assad and, for that matter, about how much IS funding comes from Qatar.

Russia does not claim that it is in Syria only to target IS. As Putin told Charlie Rose more than once during their interview, Russia is supporting the Syrian government in its fight against all who threaten the survival of the Syrian state. Russia also intends to destroy IS, which is at least as grave a threat to Russian national security as it is to the security of Europe.

David Cameron argues that Assad must be overthrown because he is an Alawite Shia ruling over a Sunni majority, and a recruiting sergeant for Sunni terror groups because of the number of Syrians his military has killed. The argument is also made by Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia which have a stake in his fall. In fact, notwithstanding support from Iran and Russia, the Assad regime would not have survived years of civil war without the active support of a large section of the Syrian population, including many genuinely moderate Sunnis and Ismailis, who would rather live in a secular state than under the jihadists who will seize power if Syria falls apart.

Though Assad, whose wife is a Sunni, has bombed enemy territory brutally in his fight for survival, until now many more Syrians have fled to the relative safety of regime-held areas than have fled beyond the border. Many former opponents of Assad have become regime supporters, particularly in Aleppo and Damascus. The Ismaili town of Salamieh in Hama, once a place of peaceful anti-Assad protest, is now a bastion of support for the regime, and has come under heavy indiscriminate shelling from western-backed rebels.

Millions more Syrian refugees will flee to Europe if Assad falls. No one can expect a happy ending for this vicious crisis—but there is a way of slowing down the slaughter and the frenzy of Islamist expansion from its Syrian base. The only hope of a way out of this conflict is a negotiated political settlement with the Assad regime. According to Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, proposed a plan to the US, Britain and France in 2012, which included an “elegant way for Assad to step aside.” The three powers were so convinced that Assad was about to fall that they walked away. “It was an opportunity lost,” Ahtisaari says. Since then the death toll has risen from 7,500 to almost a quarter of a million.

If we cannot support Russia in its mission now, or even define our own, we should stand aside. No good has come from our policy of regime change. The UK government’s position on Syria is neither logical nor honest.

The most interesting passage in Putin’s UN speech was his reflection on his own country’s mistakes: “We remember…when the Soviet Union exported social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.” In his speech, Obama declared that for nations, “the measure of strength is no longer defined by the control of territory,” but rather by “the success of their people-—their knowledge…”

One thing that both IS and Russia understand is that control of territory is everything. Palmyra is territory, and territory has meaning, which it takes knowledge-—of geography, history, languages, religions, cultures and the nature of one’s enemies—to understand. John McCain calls Russia a “gas station masquerading as a country.” He should read War and Peace.


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