The foreign policy of Russia is raison d’état , with a complication. Since the internal power structure of Russia is necessarily based on “friends”, as opposed to institutional altruism, it is natural to extend this habit of thought, as the primary way to relate to other givers and receivers of power, to the international sphere. While this courtesy may be extended somewhat to every tinpot dictator, Syria is a special case. For almost half a century, Syrian men have taken Russian wives, and Russian men, Syrian wives. And as the saying goes, blood is thicker than water, and Alawites are “family”. So even if cold logic were to dictate that abandoning the Alawites to slaughter is the way to go, this fate can’t be allowed for friends. The conundrum has lead Putin’s circle to be creative in devising geopolitical reasons, raisons d’etat, to intervene in Syria.
For the intervention is dangerous. Despite the fact that Russia has some pretty good weapons systems, the Russian armed forces are, by comparison to U.S., deficient in logistics and modern battle doctrine. U.S. military interventions do not come with the question of military success, only the cost of treasure and lives. Russian adventures do come with that question. Between 1979 and 1989, in the Soviet-Afghan War, the Soviets attempted to keep Afghanistan as a satellite. With a little help from the C.I.A., the insurgents kicked them out. And the Russians know that if by some eventuality, ISIS were to be replaced by a legitimate opposition to Assad, the guys from The Company could show up again.
The small number of Russians now deployed with the Syrian Army can slow deterioration of the Alawite situation. A larger detachment might accomplish a temporary stalemate, though it is hard to see how the Alawite manpower problem can be reversed. This is why the Russians have made an unprecedented solicitation for western allies. It is all the more remarkable since Russia broke the Peace of Europe in Ukraine, and with rhetoric so aggressive, Germany has felt compelled to buy 100 main battle tanks, with U.S. upgrades to nuclear weapons on German soil. Russia has everybody scared to death, and now they want western help. Are they serious?
It appears they are. We can have a little schadenfreude about this. We’re not the only ones to make mistakes. First Ukraine, and now Syria. Years from now, in textbooks written by other than Putin’s “friends”, students may be introduced to the question, “Why the hell did they do this?” The answer is, they didn’t know anything about the “peace dividend.”
But Syrian intermarriage is just the lubricant of a dubious choice. To prop up a strange minority sect of Islam in a region predominantly Sunni chills relations with the Sunni bloc. The Saudis whispered, “We’re going to get you for this”, and they have, signing low cost oil contracts with China, draining Russia’s natural market. The notion that a purpose of the intervention is to preserve Russian influence in the Middle East is false, because it alienates every Arab country except the minority government of Syria, and Hezbollah.
Remarkably, the intervention has no exit strategy. But besides the saving of “friends”, there is a geopolitical motivation, which by process of elimination, compels the intervention. Besides having indefensible borders, Russia is the only country in the world that encapsulates a quasi-state of dubious loyalty and a large standing army. Chechnya can be compared to a cancer-in-situ, with the potential to metastasize at any moment. Russian military posturing has a dual purpose. In no other country is a standing army required to anticipate not only external invasion, but also occupation by an enemy force already within the borders of the country. When Boris Nemetsov was assassinated, Putin, not sure of how this happened, but understanding that discretion is the better part of valor, relocated for about ten days to a location north of Moscow, putting Moscow between him and Chechnya. This attests to the latent threat posed by Ramzan Kadyrov and the large army of Chechnya, his personal fief.
The Russians want to project The Bear. But they know a fable called “The Three Little Pigs.” The Russian pig (sorry, Bear) lives in a straw house, with the most straw sticking out in Chechnya. The Russians were particularly offended by the failure of the Libyan Revolution to create a new state because the new locus of terrorism directly threatens their straw house in a way that obtuse or optimistic American diplomacy fails to comprehend. They have reinvented the domino theory so popular back when Indochina was a battleground. And they might be right.
But how does propping up a desperate contingent of Alawites in a sea of Sunnis save Russia’s straw house? To be continued shortly.