Putin Turned Syria Into His Private Playground

Even Washington is no longer sure that Moscow's solution for Syria is terrible, as the Kremlin’s power-grab a la Chechnya dwarfs even the war on ISIS.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Capt. 1st Rank Stanislav Varik the commander of the Russian navy destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov, gestures as he speaks to reporters on board his ship in eastern Mediterranean on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016.
The commander of the Russian navy destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov, gestures as he speaks to reporters on board his ship in eastern Mediterranean on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Aleppo is in bad shape. More than 60,000 families in the suburbs outside government control will soon run out of the mazut they use to heat their homes and run their bakeries. It is also doubtful that the new civilian organizations can significantly ameliorate the damage wreaked by the massive Russian airstrikes. Supply routes for food, fuel, medicine and weapons to the “liberated,” rebel-controlled parts of the city from Turkey are increasingly being strangled. Over 350,000 people remain in zones controlled by the rebel militias, which must soon decide how to continue waging urban warfare against the regime that is encircling it.

It’s premature to declare Aleppo’s fall to the Syrian regime. More tough fighting is anticipated, and it’s not yet clear how involved Russia will get in attacking crowded areas. But the joint Russian-Syrian-Iranian strategy leaves no room for doubt. Russia is not fighting for President Bashar Assad or his regime, and certainly not in order to let Iran collect the political fruits of victory, if and when it comes. Intelligence experts, including in Israel, initially believed Russia intended only to help Assad on limited fronts and were quick to declare that Russia was not shifting the tide, in view of the Syrian army’s meager achievements. In fact, Russia has engineered both a military and strategic about-face, not only because of its military assistance to the army but primarily because its activity in Syria prevents practically any other forces — American, Turkish or European — from operating beyond the area that Russia is willing to allow.

Moreover, Russia created a situation in which it is perceived as the only power that is willing and able to stabilize all of Syria, not only the regime, in the face of a host of militias and opposition movements that fail to reach political agreement and constitute a viable alternative. It turned Syria into its exclusive project. The Russian monopoly presents Europe and the United States with a fait accompli: Anyone who wants to intervene in Syria, politically or militarily, will be forced to either clash with Russia or to cooperate with it. Because Washington has neither the will nor the inclination to take action against Russia in Syria, but is also unable to persuade the fractured Syrian opposition to adopt a united position, it will continue to bite its fingernails as Russia advances.

But even from the perspective of Washington, and not only Washington, the “Russian solution” is not necessarily a terrible one. It would seem that anyone who seeks to fight the Islamic State organization needs a stable and unified Syria, and Assad is the only one who can guarantee that. This view is rooted in a small bluff, as there is no certainty that a “new” Syria under Assad would agree to fight the Islamic State, with which it cooperates. But even assuming that Russia and Assad do join the fight against the Islamic State, Russia will still be the one to dictate the rules of the game.

There is nothing new about that. Before the eruption of the Syrian civil war it was Russia and Iran, not the United States and Saudi Arabia, that held the reins of influence in Syria. The possible innovation is that Russia’s standing will be superior to that of Iran, which was pushed aside somewhat from the battlefields and decision-making centers, especially regarding diplomatic dialogue. The Iranian leadership is not blind to Russian ambitions, but Tehran cannot give the Syrian forces the arms and airpower that they need, and that Russia supplies. In this contest between Iran and Russia, it is interesting to observe that the Iranian media recently ignored Russian airstrikes. To go by them, only Hezbollah, the Syrian forces and Iran’s own Revolutionary Guards are involved in the fighting.

On the other side of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia fired a warning flare signaling an intention to deploy ground forces in Syria. The Pentagon welcomed the plan, whose aim is to bolster the forces fighting the Islamic State, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the follow-through. Still unclear are the number of troops the Saudis have in mind, their mission, the command structure (it’s ostensibly an “Arab coalition”) and whether air cover will be provided by Saudi Arabia, or by Turkey and the United States. In short, for now it looks like a trial balloon that’s only partly inflated.

Failed trial balloons of this kind can have a negative impact if the Western and Arab coalitions seek to salvage a measure of their reputations and avoid getting drunk on their own words. The coalitions have not yet proved themselves in the fight against the Islamic State organization in Iraq, and their combat performance in Syria to date isn’t going to earn them any medals. Overall, it seems the war against the Islamic States pales in comparison to Vladimir Putin’s power grab a la Chechnya in Syria.

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