Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow last month appears born of the confidence that no one would depose him in his absence.
It completes Vladimir Putin’s cycle of Middle Eastern visitors: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plus Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO partner; Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a long-time American partner; and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt, which has not had Russian interlocutors since the Yom Kippur War.
After his meeting with Assad, Putin called Erdogan, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and el-Sisi, as well as King Abdullah II of Jordan to update them.
It is unsurprising that Arab leaders and Israel, traditional American allies, are listening carefully to Putin. Even Afghanistan and Pakistan are making overtures to the Kremlin and requesting military hardware.
It behooves the American government to understand Russia’s strategy – not to agree with it, not necessarily to cooperate with it or with him, but to understand the logic behind it, which is not altogether contrary to American interests.
Strategy can be viewed from either end of the telescope; small to large or large to small. Small to large is to look at a problem and ask, “How did that happen and what should we do about it?” The benefit is that it produces discrete situations with which to deal. On the other hand, it tends to lead to small, binary choices.
President Obama had posited a red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons, perhaps in hopes of deterring Assad. But presented with evidence that Syria had indeed used such weapons, the president retreated, saying America’s choices were to do nothing or to enter Syria’s civil war.
In another instance, having limited P5+1 negotiations with Iran only to the nuclear issue, the president framed the choice to a reluctant US Congress as binary: Accept the document or go to war with Iran.
The problem of Syria is not incidents of chemical warfare use; it is war that has caused the collapse of Syria and Iraq as countries and allowed large swaths of territory to lie ungoverned and primed for ISIS. The problem with Iran is not its nuclear program; it is Iran’s revolutionary ideology that informs its 35-year war against the United States and Israel.
Consider Russian strategy from large to small. Vladimir Putin has two strategic goals:
■ To restore the 25 million Russians who, as he told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, woke up one morning as former Soviet citizens living in someone else’s country – Ukraine, the Baltics, etc. He wants to reincorporate them, and the territory on which they live, into Russia.
From this, Putin’s Europe policy becomes clear. Ukraine, Crimea, the 2008 Georgia war, cyber attacks on the Baltics, the drive to control oil and gas resources in the Middle East and Arabian Gulf are all ways to squeeze Europe, to punish Europe for bringing the former Soviet colonies into the EU and/or NATO, and to make the former colonies believe he may forcibly restore the Russian Empire.
■ To deal a blow to Sunni jihad. Putin has no particular love for Shiite Iran, Assad, Alawites or Hezbollah. He and Netanyahu get along pretty well. But Putin has a passionate hatred for Sunni jihadists – particularly, but not only Chechens, some of whom are fighting with ISIS and whom he believes will return to Russia and restart the wars that he so brutally extinguished.
Saving the secular Assad regime is essential, in his view, to keeping the lid on Sunni jihad.
Ah, you say, “But Russia isn’t striking ISIS; it’s striking those ‘other’ rebels in Syria.” True, but from Putin’s point of view, that is a small problem. “Should I drop a bomb on ISIS today? Should I drop a bomb on Jabhat al Nusra?” His concern is the large problem. “How do I hold the Syrian state together until some end game can be reached through which Russia will keep its bases in western Syria?”
Putin is taking out the Sunni enemies of the Syrian state – sometimes rebels and sometimes ISIS – and using the military to create conditions for a political settlement that serves Russian interests. That is, in fact, the essence of political-military leadership. FDR’s strategic goal was the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, and he told Eisenhower to go to Berlin to get it.
That is not to compare Putin to FDR, and several things could ultimately derail Russia’s plans. Specifically, Russia cannot afford a long, drawn out war; it doesn’t have enough troops for a large-scale ground campaign; the Russian public is very opposed to foreign military adventure; and finally, indiscriminate bombing and shelling in Sunni Syria will, indeed, breed more Chechen-like Sunni jihadists.
The recent phone call between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was not a coincidence; Putin wants help. But to find a cooperative mechanism that serves American interests, the US will first have to understand Putin’s bottom lines.