The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad

Russian Soldier

Few issues better illustrate the limits of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia than the crisis in Syria. For more than a year, the United States has tried, and failed, to work with Russia to find a solution to end the violence. Moscow has firmly opposed international intervention to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, arguing that the conflict must be resolved through negotiations and that Assad must be included in any transitional arrangement leading to a new government. Although the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, reached out recently to the leaders of the Syrian opposition, these talks produced no indication that the Kremlin is seriously recalibrating its positions on Syria. And that’s hardly surprising: the main obstacle to any shift in Russia’s calculations is President Vladimir Putin himself, whose aversion to forcible regime change is intense and unwavering.

 

Why has Putin offered such steadfast support to Assad? On the surface, Moscow seems to profit from exporting arms to Syria, and it depends on the regime’s good will to maintain Russian access to a naval facility at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. But these are marginal and symbolic interests. Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse — a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009. (In Russia, the republics are semi-autonomous federal units comprising the historic territories of the country’s non-ethnic Russian groups.) In a series of interviews he gave in 2000 for an authorized biography, Putin declared that “the essence of the … situation in the North Caucasus and in Chechnya … is the continuation of the collapse of the USSR…. If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist…. I was convinced that if we did not immediately stop the extremists [in Chechnya], then in no time at all we would be facing a second Yugoslavia across the entire territory of the Russian Federation — the Yugoslavization of Russia.” And we know how Putin feels about the demise of the Soviet Union; in 2005 he called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” a comment that was meant to bemoan the collapse of the Soviet state rather than the demise of communism.

 

For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart. Ever since he took office (first as prime minister in 1999 and then as president in 2000) and was confronted by the Chechen war, Putin has expressed his fear of Sunni Islamist extremism and of the risks that “jihadist” groups pose to Russia, with its large, indigenous, Sunni Muslim population, concentrated in the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and in major cities such as Moscow. A desire to contain extremism is a major reason why Putin offered help to the United States in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is also why Russia maintains close relations with Shia Iran, which acts as a counterweight to Sunni powers.

In the case of Chechnya, Putin made it clear that retaking the republic from its “extremist opposition forces” was worth every sacrifice. In a speech in September 1999, he promised to pursue Chechen rebels and terrorists even into “the outhouse.” He did just that, and some opposition leaders were killed by missile attacks at their most vulnerable moments. The Chechen capital city of Grozny was reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, along with jihadist fighters who came into Chechnya with the encouragement of extremist groups from the Arab world, including from Syria. Moscow and other Russian cities endured devastating terrorist attacks. Putin’s treatment of Chechnya became a cautionary tale of what would happen to rebels and terrorists — and indeed to entire groups of people — if they threatened the Russian state. They would either be eliminated or brought to their knees — exactly the fate Putin wishes for today’s Syrian rebels.

 

After two decades of secessionist strife, Putin has contained Chechnya’s uprising. Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who switched his allegiance to Moscow, now leads the republic. Putin granted Kadyrov and his supporters amnesty and gave them a mandate to go after other militants and political opponents. Kadyrov has rebuilt Grozny (with ample funds from Moscow) and created his own version of an Islamist and Chechen republic that is condemned by human rights organizations for its brutal suppression of dissent.

 

For the past two years, Putin has hoped that Assad would be able to do what he did in Chechnya and beat back the opposition. Based on the brutal record of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, in suppressing uprisings, Putin anticipated that the regime would have no problem keeping the state together. But now Assad seems to have failed, and Putin is not one to back a losing horse. He and the rest of the Russian leadership are well aware that their staunch support for Assad has damaged Russia’s standing in the Arab world, but they have no alternative plan to get out of the stalemate. Putin is still not ready to sanction an intervention that could lead to the dismantling of the Syrian state and to risk creating a situation akin to that in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when warring groups of extremists fought each other and created a breeding ground for global jihadism. In Putin’s view, lawless post-Qaddafi Libya, which has become an exporter of guns, fighters, and refugees to its neighbors, only further underscores the dangers of international intervention.

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Al-Qaeda’s brutal tactics in Syria forces out moderates

“I was handcuffed, blindfolded when I was taken to their base. Like the six other detainees with me, we were whipped 70 times every day.”  “We were mostly accused of setting up ‘Sahwa’ – Awakening Councils – against the state.”  Mohammed’s horrific tale of torture from Syria might not sound that unusual if the “state” his captors’ were referring to was the government of President Bashar al-Assad.  But they were from the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become an equally feared force in rebel-held areas.  Mohammed, an engineer in his early 50s who is the father of four children, joined the peaceful protest movement against Mr Assad when the uprising in Syria began in 2011.  When Raqqa province fell under rebel control, he helped set up a local council to provide basic services in the absence of the state.  On 9 July 2013 – the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan – Mohammed and six other members of the council in the border town of Tal Abyad were detained by members of ISIS, who handcuffed and blindfolded them and took them to the city of Raqqa.  Over the next 33 days, Mohammed was tortured on a daily basis by the jihadists

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Hundreds of Britons fighting in Syria – MI5 chief

Brits Jihad

The number of British Islamists who have gone to Syria to fight in the war there is in the “low hundreds”, a senior UK intelligence official says.  Andrew Parker, head of domestic intelligence service MI5, told a parliamentary hearing the conflict was attracting al-Qaeda UK sympathisers.  Their interaction with militant groups abroad was a “very important strand of the threat” the UK faced, he said.  One in 10 foreign militants in Syria is believed to be from Europe.  Most of them come from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Libya. MI5 has previously said that up to 200 British fighters are in Syria.  Last month, BBC News learnt that a group of 20 young men from the UK were fighting against forces allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the Turkish border.

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The Incredible Shrinking Buffer

On the eve of a basketball game between the United States and Angola during the 1992 Olympics, a reporter asked NBA superstar Charles Barkley how he felt about the coming matchup. “I don’t know anything about Angola,” Barkley replied, “but Angola’s in trouble.”  Two weeks ago, a Lebanon-based journalist told me that a Salafi Syrian rebel commander gave him a similar response when asked what he thought about the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the multinational force put in place in May 1974 to preserve the cease-fire between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The mere presence of UNDOF, the militant said, would not change his military calculations nor make him more cautious in his fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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Israel quietly feeding Syrian refugees

(ISRAEL TODAY) – Over half a million refugees fleeing Syria’s ongoing civil war have flooded into northern Jordan over the past year. Nearly half of them are living in a large U.N. refugee camp, but the rest are relying on care from various NGOs, including at least one from Israel.  Among the organizations funding and distributing physical and emotional aid to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians is IsraAid, an Israeli humanitarian group with years of experience in Africa and other regions. In Jordan, the group is buying and putting together large sacks of essential goods that are passed out to Syrian refugees daily. But, they must do so discreetly.

Entire Christian community fleeing Syrian crisis

Christian leaders in Syria are expressing dismay at the large number of members of their faith who are simply fleeing the region, which now is battered by violence as Muslim jihadists likely linked to al-Qaida try to overthrow the regime of Muslim President Bashar al-Assad.  The bishops say that the emigration stories are a rerun of the situation in Iraq a decade ago when a coalition of forces invaded to remove Saddam Hussein from power and will change the character of the region, just as it did in Iraq.  Father Nicola Antiba and his Chaldean Catholic counterpart Pope Raphael Sako both issued statements decrying conditions forcing Syria’s Christians to leave their native country.

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Syrian rebels’ links to al-Qaida strengthen

BEIRUT — The takeover of Syrian rebel posts by al-Qaida-linked fighters undercuts Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion to Congress this month that moderates make up the bulk of the guerrilla movement against President Bashar Assad’s regime and are growing stronger.  Kerry told Congress that Islamist extremists make up 15 to 25 percent of the rebels. But a closer examination of the composition of fighting groups suggests his figure is low.  Charles Lister, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in Great Britain, circulated a study last week that showed that al-Qaida-linked fighters and “hard-line Islamists” who coordinate closely with them number more than 40 percent of the anti-Assad forces.

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Islamist faction takes control of town from the Free Syrian Army Read

A Syrian town on the border with Turkey has been captured from the Free Syrian Army — not by forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but by Islamist rebels backed by al-Qaeda. The violent takeover of the town has laid bare the deep rifts that plague the movement to oust Assad.  According to reports from the BBC, the fighting in Azaz, a town just south of the Turkish border and north of Aleppo, broke out after a wounded fighter from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was filmed at a field clinic by a group of German doctors or someone connected to their work for a production to be used in fundraising back home. The fighter demanded the film be handed over, accusing the man filming him of being a journalist — a dangerous charge in Syria, where Islamist rebels often deem Western journalists to be spies, according to the BBC.

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U.N. Data on Gas Attack Points to Assad’s Top Forces

Details buried in the United Nations report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack point directly at elite military formations loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, some of the strongest findings to date that suggest the government gassed its own people.  The inspectors, instructed to investigate the attack but not to assign blame, nonetheless listed the precise compass directions of flight for two rocket strikes that appeared to lead back toward the government’s elite redoubt in Damascus, Mount Qasioun, which overlooks and protects neighborhoods and Mr. Assad’s presidential palace and where his Republican Guard and the army’s powerful Fourth Division are entrenched.

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Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed, annotated and fact-checked

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has an op-ed in today’s New York Times urging President Obama not to strike Syria. It’s a fascinating document — a very Russian perspective translated into American vernacular, an act of public diplomacy aimed at the American public and the latest chess move in the U.S.-Russia standoff over Syria, one in which we the readers are implicated. Putin does make a number of valid and even compelling points, but there is an undeniable hypocrisy and even some moments of dishonesty between the lines.

Below, I’ve annotated the op-ed, line-by-line, elaborating and translating at some points, fact-checking a bit in others. Putin’s writing is set off in italics and bold; my notes are in plain text.

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Reprisal threats on U.S. interests grow louder

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WASHINGTON – As the Obama administration considers bombing Syria’s capability to launch chemical-weapons attacks, various Middle East groups beyond Syria are speaking out, threatening reprisals against U.S. interests should Washington order an attack.

Such reprisals, in fact, could occur anywhere there are U.S. assets, including Iraq.  Sheikh Watiq al-Battat, leader of Iraq’s Jaysh al-Mukhtar, or Al-Mukhtar army, has vowed to target U.S. interests in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region using what he describes as “thousands of martyrdom-seeking operations.”  Al-Battat said that he has some 23,000 “fully trained and equipped martyrdom-seeking forces” whom he said “can blow (up) U.S. interests in Iraq and the Persian Gulf at any time if the U.S. commits such a stupid act.”  The U.S., he added, will not be “immune from martyrdom-seeking operations” of his fighters.

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President Bashar al-Assad’s interview with Le Figaro

September 03, 2013 “Information Clearing House – “Sana” -  Damascus, (SANA) – President Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to Le Figaro. Following is the full text:

Le Figaro: Mr. President, the Americans and the French have accused you of perpetrating a chemical attack on the 21st of August in Ghouta, which led to the death of hundreds. Do you have evidence to suggest that your army did not launch the attack?

President al-Assad: First of all, anyone making such an accusation is also responsible for providing the evidence to substantiate the allegation. We have challenged them to present a shred of legitimate evidence, which they have not been able to do. Since their foreign policy should be tailored to suit the interests of their own people, we have challenged them to present legitimate evidence to their own public opinion to substantiate their claims; again they have not done so.  Secondly, where is the logic in us carrying out an attack of this nature: two years into the crisis I can confidently state that the situation on the ground is much better now than it was a year ago; how is it conceivable then that an army making significant advancements on the ground through conventional armament would resort to using weapons of mass destruction?  I am neither confirming nor denying that we possess such weapons – this is not a matter for discussion. For the sake of argument, if the army had such weapons and decided to use them, is it conceivable that it would use them in areas where its own troops are deployed? Where is the logic in that? Additionally is it really plausible that the use of these weapons in a heavily populated area in the suburbs of the capital did not kill tens of thousands; these substances travel in the air.

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Responsibility to Protect — Or to Punish

There are two distinct conversations going on about the legitimacy of the West’s expected military campaign against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The first has to do with whether military action is an appropriate response to the wanton violation of a near-universally held norm — in this case, the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime allegedly violated last week. The second centers on whether military action is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities (of whatever kind) committed by their governments. These conversations, although often conflated, have very little to do with one another, since each policy goal suggests a very different form of intervention.  Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. It has more to do with protecting a set of shared international understandings about the proper conduct of warfare. If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago: bombs and guns have killed far more civilians, at least as horribly, as last week’s gas attack.

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