Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday October 11, 2015


“We ain’t got no dog in that fight.” That has been the premise of American policy in Syria for the past four years. Given the experiences of the expansive use of U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the losses have been staggering while problems are on-going, such a policy made sense. Beyond that, Syria had become site of a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia – a quasi-religious war that America was determined not to be dragged into.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was killing his own people by the tens of thousands and turning millions of Syrians into refugees was clearly the bad guy. And President Barack Obama was willing to provide some assistance to “moderate” rebels- weapons and training - to see him replaced. But the Syrian opposition eventually morphed into a toxic mix of al-Qaeda extremists and the fanatical Islamic State. The fear that they might prevail became the Middle East’s nightmare scenario.

It was against this background, that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his military intervention into Syria, which appears to have upset all previous American calculations. Putin, you see, did have a dog in that fight – and his dog, dictator Bashar Assad, was losing.

The Russians have had significant ties with the Assad regime going back to 1970 when Bashar’s father Hafez Assad, took over Syria after a series of military coups. Syria became the Soviet’s only Arab ally after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke with Moscow in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War.

Having watched the United States lead the fights to over-throw secular dictators Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Putin decided at the onset of the Syrian Civil War that he would join with Iran to back Assad. (Iran too has a long term relationship with the Assads, who are members of the Syrian minority Alawite sect - an off- shoot of the Shiites who rule Iran.)

Until very recently Russia provided significant arms supplies to Syria, and was willing to use its threatened veto in the United Nations Security Council to successfully prevent international pressures on Assad.

Putin’s decision to step up Russian military intervention in Syria, was clarified this week in the New York Times, based on reporting out of Beirut, where an official of the pro-government alliance (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah) spoke to Times reporter Anne Barnard. This is the explanation for Russia’s initial moves.

“Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on the Islamic State, according to the official from the pro-government alliance, because it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia. Islamic State forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit. Latakia is Mr. Assad’s family’s ancestral home and the heartland of his fellow Alawites, who provide a critical bloc of (his) support.“

This area of the far northwest corner of Syria is the place Assad might retreat to, if Damascus were to fall to the Islamic State - not a farfetched notion.  Latakia is also the area where Russia established a new military base and is continuing the expansion of its Mediterranean naval base nearby in Tartus.


 In other words, Russia’s first moves have been to come to the rescue of its “dog” in the Syrian fight- and more broadly to protect what Putin sees as his country’s strategic interests. From what we know of Putin- this should come as no surprise. Armed forces bent on overthrowing a recognized, established government are terrorists by his definition, and the ones he is going after right now, are the ones that pose the most immediate threat to Assad and to Russian interests.


However in the longer term, the Islamic State is the greatest threat to Syria, and to Iraq, Iran and Russia itself. Islamic separatists in places like Chechnya in the Caucasus Mountains region, were ruthlessly squashed by Russia in the ten year Chechen War. But if the Islamic State were to be successful in establishing itself as an actual state by taking over and holding large parts of Syria and Iraq, this could well rekindle Muslim separatism in Russia.


 Whatever is happening at this moment in Syria, Russian concern about the dangers of Islamic State should not be minimized. I further believe this fear of the Islamic State’s success -which Russia shares with the U.S., Iraq, Iran and Syria is the common interest which could lead to a cease-fire and ultimately to a political settlement in Syria. The problem is, how do we get there from here? It’s going to take some time. Meanwhile, in spite of Putin’s brash and bullying tactics,(tactics evidently much admired by American hardliners,) it is not in America’s interests to get into a proxy war with Russia in Syria.


But by that I am not suggesting that the U.S. and NATO, roll over and let the Russians call all the shots. On the contrary, there must be clear assertions and actions that America too has interests in Syria and Iraq which it is determined to defend- including its right to fly its aircraft wherever it chooses. No fly zones to protect civilians should also not be ruled out. 


We need to keep in mind these are early days for the new Russian intervention in Syria, although it’s difficult to maintain perspective when the American news media get hysterical over what is increasingly being treated as a new Cold War. I’m reminded, as during the real Cold War, there were always those here who tended to see the Russians as ten feet tall. They were not. Neither is Putin and his military. For instance, those Russian cruise missiles fired at Syrian rebels this past week may not have been as deadly accurate as first reported. The Pentagon claims at least four missiles landed several hundred miles off target, apparently on Iran, Russia’s ally in this fight.

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