In politics, what is not necessary is imprudent. This is the lesson that Russian President Vladimir Putin would do well to ponder when he reviews his handling of the Syrian crisis.
Rightly or wrongly, there is international consensus that Russia has played a negative role.
Last week, two-thirds of the United Nations’ members implicitly held Russia responsible for blockage in the Security Council and thus continued bloodshed in Syria. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan went further by blaming Putin personally for the failure of his “peace plan.”
Before the end of Ramadan a conference of Islamic nations is expected to echo that sentiment.
So far, Putin’s pro-Assad stance has also earned Russia opprobrium from a majority of the non-aligned movement, not to mention a majority of Arab and Islamic nations. It has also cast a chill on Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States.
Putin’s policy has antagonised Russia’s principal trading partners in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and the Americas. Regardless of how the crisis ends, the policy has injected a dose of bitterness into Russo-Syrian relations for years to come.
It has done harm in other ways as well. It has paralysed the Security Council, setting a precedent that could be used by other veto-holding powers. Effacing the post-Cold War diplomatic gains, Putin’s policy has returned the international system to the bad old days of the 1950s and 1960s.
Russians would do well to wonder what benefits they might have drawn from uncritical support for Assad.
As a professional intelligence man, Putin must know how to read the tea-leaves in distant lands. He knows that a majority of Syrians, including many of those who supported the regime for various reasons, are now fed up with Assad.
Putin’s Syrian policy has been shaped by several questionable assumptions.
The first of these is that the strategy of rule by massacre, tested by Putin himself in Chechnya could also work in Syria.
However, in Chechnya the Russian army was fighting in a territory with a non-Russian population. Chechnya was a classical foreign war fought within the Russian federation’s legal boundaries. In Syria, however, the army is composed of Syrians and is unlikely to continue the massacre, even if it wanted to, in the teeth of rejection by the nation.
What worked for Putin in Chechnya, at least temporarily, may not necessarily work for Assad in Syria.
Putin’s second assumption is that by saving Assad he could cast Russia as the protector of other despotic regimes, from that of the mullahs in Tehran to the Kim clan in North Korea and passing by Robert Mugabe’s set-up in Zimbabwe.
But what good would that do to Russia?
Even supposing Putin succeeds in keeping that gallery of rogues open for a bit longer, the fact remains that Russia, the imperfections of its fragile democracy notwithstanding, is not in the same league as those suffering nations.
Putin’s third assumption is equally problematic.
He claims that by protecting Assad he would be able to maintain Russia’s naval base in Tartus.
However, a base that backs into a troubled hinterland is of little military value. In any case, if Russia is not in a state of war its navy would continue to enjoy the right of innocent passage and mooring throughout the Mediterranean. But if there is a state of war, Turkey, as a member of NATO, would have the right to shut the Dardanelles to the Russian fleet before it reaches Tartus.
Putin’s final assumption is that, by protecting Assad, Russia would prevent the coming to power of an “ideological enemy” in the shape of an Islamist regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yevgeni Primakov has echoed that sentiment by claiming that an Islamist regime in Damascus could amplify secessionist trends among Russia’s Muslim republics.
It is true that some crackpots in the so-called Caliphate movement dream of “taking back” chunks of Russian territory. But they also want the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, Italy up to Rome and a good portion of France. However, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has never evoked irredentist claims against Russia. (Paradoxically, it has against Turkey!)
Putin may not know it but the Constitution of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party, Assad’s political instrument, includes territorial claims that would imply the dismantling of the Russian Federation. Claiming “Arab unity” as its goal, the Ba’ath Constitution speaks of a “single and indivisible Arab nation” within its “historic boundaries” stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
That vast area consists of lands that were once raided and/or ruled by Arabs as part of various Islamic empires, including most of Ethiopia, the Sahara, much of the Mediterranean, south-western Iran, south-eastern Turkey and chunks of what is now Pakistan. The Ba’ath also regards as Arab a big arc of territory from the Ak-Tash (White Crown) mountains in Central Asia to the Caucasus, taking in virtually the whole of the Caspian Basin.
More interestingly from Putin’s point of view, the Ba’ath claims several autonomous republics of Russia as part of the historic “Arab homeland”. These include Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Charkess-Qaracahi, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Udmurtia and Ossetia among others.
Putin would do well to ponder a simple question: how could a leader who treats his own people as enemy be a true friend to a foreign power?
Putin must not confuse diplomatic strategy with intelligence campaigns. In the latter all manner of skulduggery may be in order only if because things happen in the shadows. In diplomacy, however, especially in this age of increasing transparency, no one, not even Putin, could for ever hide the true nature of Assad’s brutal regime. And when Assad falls, as he is likely to do, Putin would be left as a self-deluded accomplice rather than a visionary leader projecting machismo.
Even in the most cynical version of Realpolitik backing Assad is bad for Syria, bad for Russia and bad for international peace and stability.