Russia expert Mark Galeotti has provided an excellent preliminary explanation of what is going on between Russia and Syria at the moment. As it turns out, if you were expecting massive combat action involving Russian naval infantry, paratroopers, and spetsnaz, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. I was in fact surprised to learn that Russia’s “naval base” in Tartus is barely a base at all. Obviously Russia wants to defend its quasi-client state and keep selling it arms, but losing the regime and the base won’t be too much of a disaster for the Kremlin.
What is striking about the explanation are these paragraphs near the end, where Galeotti writes:
“Putin is coming to the UN General Assembly in September, itself a big deal given that his last attendance was in 2005. With the prospects of an acceptable deal over the conflict in Donbas receding, with the Russian economy expected to continue to decline, he’s looking for his own “reset” and sees it in some civilizational anti-jihadist coalition.
For some time, Moscow has hoped that cooperation against IS and terrorism in general could be the leverage point to get the West to relax its tough line over Ukraine. The appointment in March of former FSB deputy director Oleg Syromolotov to a new deputy foreign minister for counter-terrorism cooperation position was an early indication, one which has borne little fruit.
So the Russians seem to be upping the ante, making Syria a battleground not so much for the preservation of an ally – though they will hardly mind if they also manage to save Assad – but instead the formation of an anti-jihadist coalition. That way Moscow does its best to wipe out IS militants in the Middle East, before they manage also to infiltrate the North Caucasus, and also makes its case to be the West’s ally against a common enemy.
It is unlikely to work. The West will gladly take what intelligence cooperation Russia offers – even while treating the fruits with a certain skepticism – and will hardly mourn any IS fighters killed by Russian bombs or Russian guns. Just as the US and Iran have an arm’s length understanding in Iraq against IS without becoming friends, so too a Russian role in Syria is not going to create any deep or lasting amity.”
If you’ve been following Russian foreign ministry statements on the Middle East, Galeotti’s theory makes a lot of sense. This strategy of finding common ground in the struggle against international terrorism goes all the way back to 2001, when Russia became a willing partner in Bush’s “War on Terror” and a founding member of US CENTCOM. In recent times there has been this refrain of “let’s all put our differences aside and unite to regulate these conflicts and fight murderous fanatics.”
Indeed, that’s a great idea. The problem is that the Kremlin blew this chance when they decided to throw a tantrum over Ukraine and pretend to be a great power opposed to the West. In my first years in Russia, you could easily find the anti-Western rhetoric if you were looking for it. The conspiracy theories, the paranoia about NATO encirclement even as the US reduced troop levels and closed bases in Europe- they were all there too. The difference in those days was that everyone kind of rolled their eyes at all of this- the people, the government, the West. You’d have various “geopolitical experts” babbling about Russia opposing “globalization” while Putin and Medvedev would be charming Western investors and ultimately managing to secure Russia’s membership in the WTO. And good for them for doing all that, because it was precisely that kind of realistic policy that helped attract investment and by extension bring better living standards to Russia. The problem was that Putin could never really take credit for it. His most reliable base consisted of nationalists, xenophobes, and generally bitter people unable to adapt to modern reality.
Western Europeans and Americans probably weren’t too aware of the anti-Western rhetoric, but who cared? There was money to be made in Russia and Russia’s elite were stocking their money away in the West. Of course we all know how that worked out, however, and with Ukraine and the subsequent failures of the Russian economy, the seeds of which predated Maidan, Putin was forced to play his anti-Western card, louder than before. He needed the new Cold War. Now the cat’s out of the bag. As Russia has begun to descend into something resembling a more traditional dictatorship, more people in the West are paying attention to its propaganda, and learning the truth: “They hate us!” People are starting to notice the disparity between what Russia’s diplomats say to their Western counterparts, and what they say to their own populace. In the former case, it’s “Let’s work together to solve the biggest problems in the region.” In the latter it’s “Look how those Gayopean degenerates bend over for the United States in their never-ending war to destroy Russia.”
In spite of all that, Russia’s leaders actually expect the West to just ignore this constant hostile rhetoric so we can all team up in Syria and Iraq like G.I. Joe and the October Guard. The worst thing is that it can’t just be dismissed as rhetoric for domestic consumption, as bad as that is. Now there are deeds to match Kremlin rhetoric, in Ukraine and in the Baltic states. I’m sorry whose fault is this? Did NATO force Russia to annex the Crimea and sponsor a military insurgency in Eastern Ukraine? Whatever Team Russia fans might say- no, it did not. Did NATO force Russia to kidnap an Estonian policeman? Nope. Putin did this, and we know why he did this. He’s painted himself into a corner and now everyone knows that he can’t normalize relations with the West at this point. Any attempt to actually do so will be seen as backing down, actually bending over, as vatniks love these prison rape metaphors, for the West. The West can happily forgive a Russia that has the courage to admit its recent mistakes and go back to normal relations with its neighbors. Nobody intelligent will cry about humiliation. Not so in Russia, and Putin and his political technologists made it this way.
So once again we have another potential gambit, no doubt cooked up by the same “geopolitical experts” who have failed to produce anything of value for Russia to date and yet who still get to keep their jobs for some unknown reason. Once again it will fail, in this case largely because it is another one of these have cake and eat it too scenarios. Russia wants to be in the club, but when they don’t measure up to the standards (which to be fair aren’t really that stringent), they start screaming about their “special path” and how they won’t be “rushed.” If Galeotti is right about the Kremlin’s motives in Syria, he’s most likely right about the outcome. The West will welcome the aid against the Islamic State, if any is truly forthcoming, but still tell Putin to fuck off from Ukraine.
The dream of a united Europe, America, and Russia saving the Levant from a mess that was arguably originally caused by the US is long dead. Putin killed it. Master strategist indeed.