Revenge of the Bear: Russia Strikes Back in Syria
Source Dave Anderson
Date 13/05/22/08:52
Revenge of the Bear: Russia Strikes Back in Syria

President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation has drawn a line in
the sand over Syria, the government of which he is determined to
protect from overthrow. Not since the end of the Cold War in 1991 has
the Russian Bear asserted itself so forcefully beyond its borders in
support of claims on great power status. In essence, Russia is
attempting to play the role in Syria that France did in Algeria in the
1990s, of supporting the military government against rebels, many of
them linked to political Islam. France and its allies prevailed, at
the cost of some 150,000 dead. Can Putin and Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad pull off the same sort of victory?

Even as Damascus pushes back against the rebels militarily, Putin has
swung into action on the international and regional stages. The
Russian government persuaded U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to
support an international conference aimed at a negotiated settlement.
Putin upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his
country’s air attacks on Damascus. Moscow is sending sophisticated
anti-aircraft batteries, anti-submarine missiles and other munitions
to beleaguered Assad, and has just announced that 12 Russian warships
will patrol the Mediterranean. The Russian actions have raised alarums
in Tel Aviv and Washington, even as they have been praised in Damascus
and Tehran.

The Syrian regime has been on a military roll in the past few weeks.
It has made a bloody push into the hinterlands of Damascus, fortifying
the capital. With Hezbollah support, it has assaulted the rebel-held
Qusair region near northern Lebanon, an important smuggling route for
the rebels and the key to the central city of Homs. The Baath
government needs to keep Homs in order for Russia to resupply the
capital via the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean. The
Syrian government’s victories would not have been possible without
Russian and Iranian help.

Regionally, a Moscow-Tehran axis has formed around Syria that is
resisting Qatari and Saudi backing for the rebels. The increasing
dominance of rebel fighting forces in the north by radical groups such
as the al-Nusra Front, which has openly affiliated itself with
al-Qaida, has resulted in a falloff of support for the revolution even
in Saudi Arabia. Most Syrians who oppose the government are not
radicals or even fundamentalists, but the latter have had the best
record of military victories. Russian characterizations of the rebels
as radical terrorists are a form of war propaganda; however, they have
been effective. The Saudi and Jordanian plan to create a less radical
southern opposition front at Deraa has met with a setback, since the
regime recaptured that city last week. Doha and Riyadh are reeling
from the Russia-backed counteroffensive.

At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pulled off a
coup two weeks ago by persuading Kerry to support the international
conference on Syria, to which both the Baath government and the rebels
would be invited, as a way station toward a negotiated settlement of
the conflict (Russia’s holy grail). The agreement represented a
climb-down for the Obama administration, which had earlier insisted
that Assad leave office as a prerequisite to a resolution, language
that the joint Russian-American communique issuing from the
Kerry-Lavrov meeting in Moscow conspicuously avoided. Lavrov, a South
Asia expert and guitar-playing poet, speaks as though what happened in
Yemen, with a negotiated solution and a government of national unity,
is a plausible scenario for Syria. But so much blood has been spilled
in the latter that a military victory by one side or the other now
seems far more likely.

When sources in the Pentagon leaked the information that explosions in
Damascus on May 5 were an Israeli airstrike, Putin appears to have
beenlivid. He tracked down Netanyahu on the prime minister’s visit to
Shanghai and harangued him on the phone. The two met last week in
Moscow, where Putin is alleged to have read Netanyahu the riot act.
Subsequently, the Likud government leaked to The New York Times that
its aim in the airstrike had been only to prevent Syrian munitions
from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon, not to help in
overthrowing the Baath government. The Israelis were clearly
attempting to avoid further provoking Moscow’s ire, and wanted to send
a signal to Damascus that they would remain neutral on Syria but not
on further arming of Hezbollah.

Putin, not visibly mollified by Netanyahu’s clarification, responded
by announcing forcefully that he had sent to Syria Yakhont anti-ship
cruise missiles and was planning to dispatch sophisticated S-300
anti-aircraft batteries. Both U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Israeli military analysts protested the
Russian shipments. Although Netanyahu went on insisting that Israel
would bomb Syria at will when it suspected supplies were being sent to
Hezbollah, Putin had clearly just raised the risks of such

Russia’s motives have sometimes been attributed to the profits it
realizes from its arms trade with Syria, going back to the Soviet era,
but that business is actually quite small. Others have suggested that
Syria’s leasing to Russia of a naval base at Tartous, Russia’s only
toehold on the Mediterranean, is a consideration. Rather, Russia’s
support of Assad is part of its reassertion on the world stage as a
great power with areas under its control. Putin wants to raise Russia
from the world’s ninth- to fifth-largest capitalist economy. Smarting
from the aggressive American expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and
the planting of U.S. bases in Central Asia, Moscow is determined to
recover its former spheres of influence. In addition, some senior
Russian military analysts see “color revolutions” as a ploy by the
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow unfriendly governments
and then to plunder the resulting weak states of their resources, a
tactic they fear menaces Russia itself. Drawing a line at Syria, in
this view, is a way of underscoring that Putin’s own neo-authoritarian
regime will not go quietly.

Russia is only a 24-hour drive from Aleppo, Syria’s northernmost
metropolis. Having crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in
Chechnya and Dagestan at the turn of the century, and having stood up
a friendly Chechen state government in the aftermath, Moscow is wary
of the spread of radical Muslim movements in the nearby Levant.
Moreover, some 10 to 14 percent of Syrians are Christians, many of
them belonging to the Eastern Orthodox branch that predominates in
Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church, a key constituency for
Putin, has opposed the overthrow of the secular Baath government,
seeing it as a protector of those coreligionists.

The thinking of the Russian foreign ministry is clear from its
Saturday press release on the revival of the radical Sunni insurgency
in Iraq in recent weeks. Complaining about what it termed terrorist
attacks in Mosul and Baghdad, the ministry’s website said, according
to a translation done for the U.S. government’s Open Source Center,
that “We are particularly concerned about growing sectarian tensions
in Iraq, which are turning into a direct armed confrontation between
radical elements in the Shi’a and Sunni communities. This is largely
due to the crisis situation in neighboring Syria and the spread of
terrorist activities of militants operating there.” In other words,
Russia sees the Syrian revolution as dominated by al-Qaida-linked
groups such as the al-Nusra Front. Moscow views the civil war as a
destabilizing event with the potential for radicalizing the Middle
East, which it views as its soft underbelly.

The momentum of the Syrian rebels has palpably slowed in the last
month, as Putin’s riposte has stiffened the resolve in Damascus and
given its military the wherewithal to regain territory. The Russian
president is weaving a protective web around his client, fending off
the Wahhabi winds of Muslim fundamentalism blowing from the Arabian
Peninsula. He has also pushed back against opportunistic Israeli
intervention, worried that it might further destabilize Damascus. At
the same time, he has impressed on Washington the need for a
negotiated settlement, an idea that President Obama, long skittish
about sending troops into further possible Middle East quagmires, has
begun to tolerate. Putin’s supply of powerful new weapons systems to
Assad’s military, and his dispatch of warships from the Russian
Pacific fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean,
make clear that the full force of Russian military might is, if need
be, at the service of its Baath client. Putin’s gambit may or may not
prove successful, but he is indisputably demonstrating that the age of
the sole superpower and of American unilateralism is passing in favor
of a multipolar world.

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