Russia is Playing a Losing Hand like a Winner
History is back and so are the Russians.
After an interregnum of twenty years, during which the communist Soviet Union was demolished and a crony capitalist, Russian kleptocracy turned inward to establish firm control of journalists (oh wait, that might have been the Obama Administration), civil society practitioners including lawyers, businessmen, and little girl punk bands, Vladimir Putin has laid down a marker in the Middle East. The suggestion that advanced SS300 air defense missiles are already in Syria and that Yakhont ship-to-ship missiles are coming, plus Russian warships steaming toward the region along with obstruction in the UN are all steps toward establishing Russia as the "go to" imperial power to control or end the Syrian civil war.
The Russian interest is twofold. First is to be the master of the diplomatic front. Whether the Russian-touted "peace conference" results in "peace" or a change of government in Damascus is less relevant than whether the Putin is in the driver's seat. Second is to stop the spread of Sunni expansionist Islam that threatens Russia with the potential to reignite the Caucasus. Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ossetia are historically restive, but now are increasingly Islamic rather than nationalistic in their hatred of Orthodox Russia.
Two things make this really interesting. First, Putin is dealing with Israel much more forthrightly than he is with the United States, something that should be considered less a sign of respect for Israel's red lines than disdain for the Obama Administration. Second, he has taken a narrow view of a broad problem -- and thus is playing a losing hand.
On the American side, neither Secretary of State Kerry nor the president he serves seem to understand Russia's goals in the region, and thus neither is prepared to uphold our own interests. When Kerry flew off to Moscow in early May to find a mechanism for an international conference on Syria, Putin kept him waiting three hours and, according to the London Daily Mail, "continuously fiddled with his pen as the top American diplomat spoke about the ongoing crisis." Ever the good guest, Kerry told Putin, "The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria -- stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere."
Actually, we don't. Kerry touted "stability," but without specifying acceptable and unacceptable parameters for achieving it, he abdicated fundamental American principles. "Stability" is a tricky word. Russia was stable under the communists at a price of millions dead, and is working its way out of the messier parts of capitalism and back to stability by jailing people and having prominent "enemies of the State" conveniently drop dead. (See Berezovsky, Magnitsky and Politovskaya for starters.) Syria was stable for years under Assad & Fils -- and Russia would like to see it stable under Assad control again. If "stability" is all we seek, Kerry can just jump on the Russian bandwagon.
Moreover, aside from the rude treatment Kerry received in Moscow, contrasted with the very polite reception Prime Minister Netanyahu received a week later, the Russians waited until Kerry left to drop a bombshell. On May 16, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Lebanon's Al-Madayeen that Iran would have to take part in any international conference. The State Department spokesman was forced to say the U.S. wouldn't rule it out, because to do so would admit that Kerry's trip was a failure. The U.S. may find itself negotiating directly with Iran on an issue other than nuclear weapons, which would be an abject failure for stated U.S. priorities.
David Kramer, President of Freedom House, reminded Washington Post readers that Moscow also detained a former U.S. official in the airport for 17 hours without food or water before deporting him; had camera crews film a civil-society activist when Kerry arrived at his home; and publicized the name of the presumed CIA station chief in Moscow, calling him a spy.
President Obama chalked it all up to the Cold War. "I don't think it's any secret that there remains lingering suspicions between Russia and other members of the G8 or the West... It's been several decades now since Russia transformed itself and the Eastern Bloc transformed itself. But some of those suspicions still exist." On the one hand, he gives Russia far too much credit for "transforming" itself; the roots of Russian imperialism haven't changed in centuries. On the other hand, he can't imagine that the current situation is driven by current Russian needs, not the old Cold War.
Never mind, if it can't be President Bush's fault, best it be Nixon's or Reagan's fault.
But if Putin appears to be on a roll, how is he holding a losing hand?
The Russians have planted their red line for the United States, Israel, and the West on the Syrian border. The line is deep but thin, and they have alienated large swaths of Arab and Sunni Muslim (not even close to the same thing) opinion. The reason countries have imperial allies is to keep things from getting out of hand. Putin may think he's got a reputation as an ally who will do anything for his client -- a presumed good thing -- but he's actually developing a reputation as one for whom no amount of killing of his allies or by his allies is too much.
No one wants to be Russia's friend except Iran, and Iran's stock is falling rapidly in a region that was already skeptical about Persian, as well as Shiite, hegemony. It was one thing for Arab countries plus Turkey to form at least a rhetorically united front with the Mullahs when Iran proclaimed the battle against "The Great Satan" and "The Little Satan." But Iran is battling Sunni Muslim Arabs now, and that's something else.
Furthermore, the war in Syria won't end in Syria. Even if Assad regains control of every inch of territory (not likely), the ongoing Sunni-Shiite expansionist war will continue. Even if Assad kills or exiles every single Sunni Islamist (even less likely), they will migrate to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf States, the Stans, and yes, back to the Caucasus where they represent Putin's greatest fear.
Israel's red lines are the transfer of weapons systems, representing a broad understanding of the transnational nature of the war. The Obama administration has sort of pinkish lines that support Israel's maintenance of its lines, but serve mainly to keep the U.S. out of another war in a Muslim country. Russia has the worst of red lines: like King Cnut, Putin is trying to stop the tide of Sunni-Shiite fighting within the borders of Syria, where he plans to control the outcome.
In 1982, Hafez Assad killed perhaps 40,000 Syrians in Hama in an attempt to bury the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood emerged like cicadas 30 years later. How many remain in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ossetia, waiting for an opportunity to rise?
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.