By Daud Abdullah
President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch airstrikes against targets in Syria has effectively changed the rules of engagement in the war-torn country. In the long run, this may well be the most serious miscalculation that the Russian leader has made in his whole career.
In some ways the gamble is strikingly similar to Leonid Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Current attempts by the Kremlin to justify the airstrikes as part of the global “war against terror” have failed to allay fears of an unfolding Russian occupation of a predominantly Muslim country.
While many in Syria absolutely reject Daesh/ISIS and its deviant practices, they will not under any circumstances be throwing rice or flowers onto their newest invaders, if and when ground operations begin. In fact, the public endorsement by the Russian Orthodox Church of the strikes and its description thereof as a “holy war” have given a whole new dimension to the conflict in Syria. No sooner had the church Patriarch Kirill given his blessings to the operations did social media activists across the Middle East call for Muslims to go to Syria’s rescue in the same way that they had rescued Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Back in 1979, the Soviet Union was “invited” to prop-up an unpopular client state in Afghanistan. On the eve of the invasion most of the countryside, as in today’s Syria, was in open rebellion. The communist government in Kabul carried out a brutal campaign against its own people during which more than 27,000 Afghans were executed.
Bashar Al Assad’s response to popular demands for reform has been very similar. Having lost control over four-fifths of Syrian territory he has also “invited” the Russians to come to his rescue. This, of course, was after the combined mercenary forces of Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Lebanese-Hezbollah fighters had failed to prevent the country’s territorial and military meltdown.
Significantly, the Western alliance bombing of Daesh/ISIS targets for more than a year has not changed the situation on the ground either. The chances of the Russians doing any better, even with the best of their air power, are remote.
As it now stands, Moscow’s military intervention has set it on a collision course with Saudi Arabia and Turkey; both have condemned the operation. Syria, like Afghanistan in the 1980s, is thus fast becoming a theatre for a global confrontation, with numerous state actors trying to secure their own geo-strategic interests.
Alexander Rahr, a prominent German expert on Russia, pointed out that although Washington and Moscow both see the need to act against Daesh/ISIS, they act in line with their different priorities. “We see different priorities in Syria,” he explained. “The Russian priority is to prevent this critical region of the Middle East, Syria and Iraq from going under the control of the Saudis and of the Gulf States who are very close to the US.” Rahr believes that while Saudi Arabia is trying to reduce the influence of Iran in the region, Russia is for a strong Iran, as a counterweight to the Saudis.
Even the Israelis have joined in on the act, threatening to intensify their own airstrikes in Syria. They are positioning themselves to grab more territory as Syria disintegrates. Hence, we are witnessing the emergence of an undeclared, unholy alliance between the Russians, Iranians and regional players like Israel and Egypt.
As the battle lines are drawn Egypt’s position is noticeably ambivalent, to say the least. Unlike the Saudis who helped to install and keep him in power, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi refuses to call for Assad’s departure. In a recent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he ducked the question repeatedly on whether Assad should go, claiming instead that he fears the disintegration of the Syrian state and the fall of its weapons into the hands of extremists. The undeclared subtext of this is his paramount concern for Israel’s security.
All told, nothing in the present web of alliances and counter-alliances suggest that a political solution is within reach in Syria. Russia’s involvement endorsed by its Orthodox Christian establishment alongside Iran and supported by Israel will only enflame the situation. Whatever the reason behind it, Russia is now well and truly trapped in the Syrian quagmire. Sooner or later, Putin will have to commit ground troops if he wants to avoid a long war of attrition that will drain his already ailing economy.
Whether he makes that fateful decision to commit ground troops or not, the fact remains that Russia is now perceived as an invader and occupier. Vladimir Putin seems not to have learnt anything from Brezhnev’s misadventure in Afghanistan. For this, he is likely to pay very dearly.
– Dr. Daud Abdullah is the director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) in London. (This article was first published in Middle East Monitor.)