Why Russia Won't Let Syria Fall

  • The kind of extremism ISIS represents is a threat to Russia
  • Moscow can not stand idly by as yet more Middle East Christians are forced to flee
  • Damascus has been a partner to Moscow for decades
Tue, Sep 22, 2015
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This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly


Russian President Vladimir Putin is running increased risks of clashes with the United States, Saudi Arabia, other major Muslim nations and Israel by intervening in Syria.

Although the move is being painted in the US media as reck­less, meaningless and dangerous, Putin is making a rational calcula­tion. And once again he has caught Obama administration policymak­ers and Israeli Prime Minister Biny­amin Netanyahu by surprise.

First, Putin is moving decisively to rescue the last Russian foothold in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean.

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Russia is a country deeply con­cerned with maintaining the status quo and preserving its increasingly challenged position in the world. That is a far cry from the revolu­tionary communist ideology of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras that fantasised with perfect faith about toppling every Sunni Arab monarchy and emirate from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.

Putin has every reason to be con­cerned about stopping the Islamic State (ISIS) in its tracks. Russians fear a triumphant ISIS in Syria and Iraq would re-radicalise Chechens and other Muslim nationalities in Russia and set off a new wave of terror.

The fact that Putin made his decision in early September is significant, too. At the beginning of September Russians remember and grieve the 186 children killed by Chechen terrorists who had held them hostage during three days of terror at Beslan school in the Caucasus from September 1st to September 4th, 2004.

Putin has consistently worked to re-establish the standing and prestige of the Orthodox Christian Church in Russia. Traditionally, until the 1917 Bolshevik revolu­tion, Russia took its role as the defender of Christians — especially Orthodox ones — across the Mid­dle East very highly. Russia fought the 1853-56 Crimean War against Protestant England and Catholic France precisely over the issue of which Christian power should have the dominant role in protect­ing holy sites and Christians in the old caliphate of the Ottoman empire.

Syria was about 10% Christian 20 years ago; now its historic Christian communities, among the oldest in the world, are virtually extinct. Much as secular West­erners may sneer, the motive of protecting and restoring what is left is also a factor in Moscow’s calculations.

Most of all, Syria represents Rus­sia’s last foothold in the region and on the Mediterranean shore. And the Assad dynasty has been a loyal ally of both the Soviet Union and modern Russia. Russian policy­makers feel a comparative loyalty to Damascus as the United States has felt for so many years to Tel Aviv.

The United States’ still-ascend­ant neo-cons and neo-liberal hawks led by Susan Rice, Saman­tha Powers and Victoria Nuland remain committed to their 21st-century crusade of spreading secu­lar democracy, peace and freedom Washington-style across the Mid­dle East by fire, sword and drone — heedless of the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who get in the way of US friendly fire.

The neo-liberals, like the neo-cons before them, continue to grind up every pre-existing, previously stable government that stands in their way. The pattern of Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Libya looked set to be repeated in Syria. Then Putin stepped in.

There is one more motive for Putin’s intervention: It is retalia­tion for the continued, enormously dangerous US game of arming and training Ukraine troops and feeding the fires of anti-Russian prejudice both in Ukraine and in the United States.

Putin’s move to support Syrian President Bashar Assad is a strong signal to Washington that Rus­sia is perfectly capable of striking back.

Initial reports suggest Putin’s decision to send aid and military advisers to Syria have prompted Washington to show it is prepared to cooperate with Russia over craft­ing a compromise political solution for Syria.

The US government had shown it was prepared to outrage and ignore Russia by installing its favourites next door to Moscow in Ukraine. Putin is determined not to let them get away with it again in the Mid­dle East.

From the Kremlin’s perspective the risks of intervening in Syria are far outweighed by the oppor­tunities and by the danger Russia believes it can prevent through its intervention.

One thing above all is clear. The Russians are back: They aren’t go­ing away soon.

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