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The Logic of Putin’s Syria Campaign

Russia's president cuts through the Beltway groupthink in explaining his country's interests.
Putin presser

When Vladimir Putin sat down with Charlie Rose of “60 Minutes” last Sunday, there was something refreshing about the Russian president’s encounter with the American media. A world leader discussed the Middle East by using terms of Realpolitik such as the “national interest.” There was little if any of the Wilsonian globaloney favored by members of our foreign policy establishment—Democrats and Republicans alike—who seem to share the belief that the only thing missing from the region today is American “leadership.”

As Rose recycled all the clichés of the editorial page of the Washington Post (which he even quoted during the interview), he inquired whether the Russian leader agreed that the lack of U.S. leadership in the Middle East had helped create a “strategic vacuum,” one that Moscow was now trying to fill. Putin replied by recalling that the last time the United States had tried to project its leadership in the region—by ousting Saddam Hussein and “liberating” Iraq (he apropos also mentioned Gaddafi and Libya)—things had not turned out so well. It did indeed create a huge void, which in addition to strengthening Iran, ignited a bloody civil war that spilled over into Syria, destabilizing the entire region.

Meanwhile, on other channels and programs, you can watch critics of President Obama’s Syria policy (including presidential candidate Marco Rubio) bemoan Russia’s involvement there. These parrots on speed go on and on about how he should have retained more U.S. troops in Iraq and provided assistance to “moderate” Syrian insurgents. The subtext of all these arguments—as well as the suggestion that Obama could have negotiated a “better” Iran nuclear deal—is that all these proposed policies would not have worked, and that the United States would have eventually been forced to deploy a large number of ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, topple Assad in Syria, and end Iran’s nuclear program.

And as everyone knows, the majority of Americans do not want the United States to be drawn into a new war in the Middle East. The public does not care about achieving goals that do not seem to be in line with the nation’s strategic and economic interests.

There is also an element of retro-strategic thinking, if not nostalgia for the Cold War, in the spectacle of American politicians and pundits warning us of Russian expansion into the Middle East. Last time I stepped back to look at world events, it seemed clear that we do not have a bi-polar international system, and that Moscow is not trying to export communism into the Middle East or harm the interests of the United States and its regional allies. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, it is the United States that has been trying to export its universal ideology of liberal democracy into the Middle East and oust regimes that used to be clients of the Soviet Union, including in Iraq and Syria.

When Rose pestered Putin repeatedly about why he was providing support to the ruthless and bloody Baath regime in Damascus, the Russian President reminded viewers that once upon a time, Washington provided assistance to the ruthless and bloody Baath regime in Baghdad. That was when Saddam Hussein was fighting the Ayatollahs in Iran (he could have mentioned our alliance with the Saudis who are planning to “crucify” a young human rights activist in the coming days).

You do not have to be a great strategic thinker—or an ardent Russophile who wants to recreate the Byzantine Empire—to agree that Russia has legitimate national security interests to protect in the Middle East. After all, the Greater Middle East is in Russia’s strategic backyard and the current chaos in the region could spill over in the form of growing radicalization of its Muslim population. There is also the prospect of a regional war that could affect not only Russian interests, but also those of Germany and other European countries.

It should be noted that Russia is also helping the members of the Alawite minority in Syria, as well the endangered Christian communities under threat of being annihilated by the forces of the murderous Islamic State. Isn’t that also a U.S. interest?

Unlike during the Cold War, relations between Moscow and U.S. allies in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel—are quite friendly. Putin was the first world leader that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met since his re-election early this year.

Many American policymakers have been programmed under the influence of the great ideological struggles of the 20th century, and view the international system as an arena where Good (the United States) fights Evil. So it is difficult for them to accept that the pursuit of U.S. interests sometimes requires partnering with those who do not share our dreams and aspirations. Not so long ago, we allied with Stalin to fight Hitler, and then partnered with Mao and Jihadists in Afghanistan to battle the Soviets. From that perspective, Putin does not look like Satan Incarnate.

Moreover, the notion that Russian military intervention in Syria amounts to a great win for the Russians (and therefore a big loss for Americans), assumes that Putin might actually succeed there. Yet the idea that Russia will bring stability, peace and prosperity to Syria—and turn average Syrians into Russia’s best friends—runs contrary to the historic American and Soviet experience in the Middle East. The American misadventure in Iraq and attempt to remake the region, not to mention the close to half-century Israeli rule over the Palestinians, suggest that no one is going to come out as a winner from Russia’s new intervention in the Levant.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.