The news has been abuzz with talk about the Russian airstrikes in Syria. More than a few people have asked me about it, and seeing as how I am not currently under contract to analyze this sort of thing for anyone else just now I am actually free to blather about it here and get this out of my system.
(I’m actually sort of annoyed so this is almost guaranteed to come out rather ranty and never benefit from an edit in the coming days…)
I haven’t gone to any great trouble to find out the names of places hit or who did what when or whatever. I don’t really need to. I have been expecting Russia to become (more overtly) involved in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict for quite a while now. The news reports I’ve read confirmed the expected: Moscow is not yet picking sides, but is definitely picking targets that will provoke Washington to double-down on its already deep investment in meaningless, expensive actions in the Middle East.
The frustrating part about those “news reports”, however, is they they pretend to be news reports but are just pages and pages of unfounded speculation designed to satisfy emotional needs, not explanations of how Moscow’s actions may fit into the framework of this or that possible ongoing strategy, evaluation of western assumptions about what is going on (and whether or not Moscow’s activity supports or challenges these assumptions), etc.
The basic explanation the media seems obsessed with is that Putin’s goal is to support his good buddy Assad. The slightly more interesting version goes on to explain that neither Assad nor Putin have attacked ISIS directly, but have instead attacked the smaller factions. Some speculate that this is so that Assad can force any decision about foreign support to be a polar decision between himself or ISIS. By excluding other factions as viable alternatives he can appear to be the only reasonable choice by comparison. At least that is an interesting take on things, and probably not far from the truth. Assad’s truth, anyway. But it doesn’t explain Putin at all; he doesn’t really have a horse in that race unless we assume that he just really, really likes Assad.
To believe in this deep and abiding love between those two naughty star-struck dictators we have to answer a few difficult questions: Why is the only support a few airstrikes on minor targets? Why hasn’t Putin leveraged any of his other influence in the region to gain support for Assad? Where is Kadyrov & co. when they are needed? Why hasn’t Tehran been massively empowered by Moscow to do anything about their mutual (supposed) pal? Where is the old Hezbollah magic when its needed? Why he has waited this long to actually do anything?
I could go on, but suffice to say this isn’t about any Putin-Assad bromance as much as it is about distracting Washington. Its pretty obvious which of those two goals is more important to Russian strategy.
“Hmmm… should our strategy focus on Washington or Damascus… I just can’t make up my mind! Man, this political stuff is really hard! Decisions decisions…”
— What is not going through Putin’s mind
It is silly to make an explanation consist purely of “to support Assad” and then go on for page after page of humanistic moralizations, vague calls for the “international community to act”, regurgitation of random violence statictics, fun factoids about how shitty the Middle East often is, or even go off on a long explanation about target selection without addressing why Assad would be Putin’s choice. And even that is premature without addressing the possibility that perhaps Putin has not made a choice. It should absolutely be explained that for Moscow there does not have to be a meaningful distinction of choice. Neither of these guys are amateurs nor is either stuck in the Geopolitics lvl1 Tutorial Playground the way the Americans have been for the last nine years or so.
I saw some rather lengthy articles about the Russian airstrikes, many well over 4 pages. None of them referenced the history of external influence in the region. Not a single mention of the Turks, not a single mention of how WWI impacted the region, not a single mention of the whole King Faisal I thing (no, not that set of Faisals, the Syrian ones), no reference to how the typical “put a minority in power to foster future political dependency on you” play works. Not any of that. All the newspapers just make it look like Putin’s desperately in love with his long-time buddy Assad — just two great pals against the world, backs against the wall, willing to do anything for each other. Which is ridiculous.
Off the cuff I would say Putin is definitely angling to create space for Assad, but the reason for that is probably to achieve two goals, neither being “to support Assad”:
- Tie Washington down in a pointless game (or rather deepen its investment in the ongoing one).
- Maintain the status-quo in Syria.
The West, and especially the US, has already invented a rhetoric that mandates unlimited amounts of political agitation whenever anything totally unrelated to Europe or the US happens in the Middle East. Lighting a fire larger than a BBQ grill, for example. It prompts Washington to invest ever more deeply in pointless actions designed to deflect other pointless actions which may or may not come to pass in the Middle East (like countering Russian influence with Assad, for example). This is very easy for Moscow to exploit.
By attacking anything that is both not Assad nor ISIS in Syria Putin is subject to the following effects:
- Very little money
- Very little military supply
- Exactly zero international standing (any faction that matters has already decided their support/neutrality/opposition to Moscow)
- Actual pilot experience
- A live, public, and very well photographed showcase for Russia’s new aircraft and weapons (Hey! Its not 1988 anymore!)
- Vastly improved domestic political standing (He made a point of being seen sidestepping both the “save face at the UN before doing whatever we were going to do anyway” and “coalition building” games. Russians love this. Incidentally, Americans would too…)
- Massive media blather and especially social media buzz in the US (Obama’s kryptonite)
- Massive white-knighting around the world about how “someone should do something!” where “someone” always really means “Americans” and “do something” always means “blow something/someone up (but without actually offending or hurting anyone or actually blowing anything up… on second thought, just talk convincingly tough about taking action and then censor the media to make it appear that things that don’t affect my life at all but rile me up all the same have actually ceased to occur)”
- The US to double-down on its “anti-terror” investment in one form or another
- The US to bleed money it doesn’t have
- The US to commit resources it can’t afford
- Prolong ongoing American strategic distractions in politically irrelevant areas
- Prolong ongoing developmental and structural distractions within the US military
I think this is the primary goal, not actually supporting Assad or causing problems for American-aligned groups. Support for Assad and causing problems for whichever groups happen to be American proxies this week is incidental to the goal of cheaply stirring shit up. He’s trying to suck the Americans in somewhere that is cheap for Moscow but very expensive for Washington (both politically and financially).
This strategy worked very well for him in Afghanistan. It bought him an opening to get its way with Poland (after the demise of almost the entire Polish government in a profoundly well-timed plane crash inside of Russia), invade Georgia, take over Ukraine and demonstrate that American security promises were empty whenever Washington was distracted. These actions have had the side effect of deflating the European economy, prompting France to create an opening for itself (of a similar nature) to re-establish its West African empire and destroy ENI’s main gas alternative (by blowing up Lybia — and before you ask, no that had nothing at all to do with Ghaddafi, freedom or the “Arab Spring”).
Making your opponent expend massively more effort than you do is a winning strategy. The US actually used to be very good at making this sort of play itself, but has apparently lost the touch ever since it bought into the totally bullshit idea that peace was about to break out all over the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Oops.
Interestingly, one of the most outspokenly “pro-peace” sort of nations, France, has recovered its knack for both low-cost/high-yield military operations and empire building all while continuing to make the Americans look like the “real bad guy” most of the time (even if its half tongue-in-cheeck). Paris and Moscow are both riding pretty sizeable winning streaks achieved through some heavy-duty, but subtle, geopolitical maneuvering over the last fifteen years or so. Impressive.
The appearance of support for Assad works in Putin’s favor because it makes Washington get even crazier about not being his supporter, and reality be damned because politicians are absolutely going to be tripping over each other to be the first to condemn and then be seen as acting against these “ill intended and dangerous Russian activities”. The air strikes aren’t designed to actually support Assad winning the civil war, they are designed to create space for him. This delays any conclusion to a conflict which is itself potentially useful to Moscow. This gives Moscow time to decide whether it is worth the trouble to support the Alawites once things are over, and judging by how easy it was to dupe Washington into blowing a decade of prosperity in Afghanistan for absolutely no reason at all, it may just be able to turn this strategy around again in Syria.
The Turks, Sunnis and Kurds are all much more important geopolitically. Being a sponsor of Assad’s Syria would turn out the same way Russia’s “sponsorship” of Iran has turned out (lukewarm on the hottest of days). The Arabs are fundamentally more important to Moscow, so the Persians will only get anything from Moscow when it would hurt Washington to give Tehran anything. Other than that, they are just the red-headed stepchildren Russia doesn’t really have much use for. These are “meh, take-em-or-leave-em” allies. The Alawites in Syria are in very nearly the same situation, as evidenced by several political generations of foreign influence now.
(As a side note, what France and Russia have been doing is not evil, but it is not favorable to me as an American citizen living in Japan. Geopolitics just is what it is, don’t try moralizing about it just because your side is getting the losing end of things or this or that particular aspect of history is emotionally significant to you or because you really, really want the world to be some great centrally-administered perfect Eutopia. That just doesn’t get anyone anywhere.)