Russia presents: Southern exposure

Vladimir Putin’s Syrian gambit is fraught with anti-American ambition and imperial risk, but it lacks the Cold War’s context and may in fact benefit Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Though obviously better at filmmaking than at diplomacy, 20th Century Fox set out to make the most of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to its Hollywood studios in autumn ‘59.
Caring for their interests more than for America’s, the cinematic powerhouse’s executives sniffed an advertising coup and led their flamboyant guest to a shooting of a scene from Can-Can, the musical about Parisian showgirls in the 1890s starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.
When it was over, the famously impulsive Khrushchev responded with one word – “Disgusting!” – to his improbable encounter with a flock of dancers whose frequent kicks in the air unveiled their fishnet stockings, before the troupe finally came to a standstill with skirts flung above their necks and their buttocks facing the leader of the communist world.
Fifty-six years on, it is Russia that is kicking in the air and teasing the world, exposing Washington’s allies and shielding its foes.
With Russia’s military presence in Syria dramatically expanded and its interference in that theater now direct, blunt and official, many suspect that the Cold War is back, with dire repercussions for the Jewish state.
These impressions are wrong. The Cold War is not returning, and the Russian gambit’s implications for Israel are as unpredictable as the aftermath of the upheaval across the Arab world.
BACK IN 1959, with the Cuban Missile Crisis yet to flare and the Berlin Wall yet to rise, the Cold War had yet to peak. Even so, it was well under way. With Europe split by the Soviet-American ideological rift and competition for global sway, misunderstandings abounded and suspicion reigned.
When he dined with Sinatra in Hollywood, Khrushchev represented an intimidating empire and industrial behemoth that only the previous week shocked the West by successfully firing a missile at the moon. It was a time when public drills sent millions of Americans to nuclear shelters while spies swarmed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, a time when the Soviet leader’s threat in a televised conversation with then-vice president Richard Nixon, “We will bury you,” sent shivers from Tokyo to Rome.
Understandably, then, President Barack Obama’s admonition this week to President Vladimir Putin that his Syrian moves are “a recipe for disaster” brought to many minds yesteryear’s strife.
Faced with Putin’s unabashed backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ongoing assault on his own citizenry, Western leaders responded the way Khrushchev did after having been shown Shirley MacLaine’s behind. The Russians, said British Prime Minister David Cameron, “are actually backing the butcher Assad and really making the situation worse.” Washington, Paris and Berlin all shared his dismay.
The Red Army’s hyperactivity in Syria is indeed dramatic. What until recently was mainly about one naval base and several hundred advisers in Tartus has now mushroomed into a fresh air base outside Latakia swarming with newly arrived jets, cannons, tanks and troops; Russian troops.
The matériel had hardly arrived when Russian missiles rained from red-starred bombers at anti-regime rebels along a north-south front east of the Syrian coast.
When the smoke settled, it turned out the Russians, despite declaring their intention to target Islamic State, had hit mainly other rebel groups, such as the Nusra Front and Jaish al-Fatah.
The plot quickly thickened when it turned out that some of the targeted rebels were torching Syrian tanks with US-made TOW missiles. Suspicions that an American-Russian proxy war is under way grew when it turned out that the Russians targeted repeatedly, and effectively, the CIA-backed Tajamu al-Ezzeh’s fighters in the strategic town of Hama, halfway between Damascus and Aleppo, respectively Syria’s political and commercial centers.
While Western leaders decried Moscow’s choice of targets, Moscow upped the ante, first when the Russian air force violated Turkish airspace, then when the Russian navy fired cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, across Iran and Iraq, into the Syrian heartland.
Russia, it became clear, means business, the very business that Washington unwittingly abandoned to Moscow’s devices two years ago, when Obama violated his vow to attack Syria should it use its chemical weapons.
Calculating that Obama will not send the US military back into the Arab world from which he retrieved it, and monitoring Assad’s steady loss of ground in the civil war, Putin set out to save his ally. The methods and rationale of this aim are clear. Its prospects are not.
PUTIN PLANS to save Assad in three phases.
First, Russia will consolidate Assad’s grip on the coast and the Nusairiyah Mountains to its east. Then it will help Assad proceed to the cities to that ridge’s north and south, from Aleppo to Damascus. And finally, when the rebels have been pushed east, Russia will help restore Assad’s rule over the rest of the country, in line with Moscow’s insistence that Assad is Syria’s only legitimate ruler, and that he faces no such thing as “moderate rebels.”
It is not clear just how tightly all this is coordinated with Iran and Hezbollah, but it is clear that Assad has successfully marshaled a potent counteroffensive for which his enemies have no proper reply, because they lack comparably committed and organized allies.
Militarily, this effort already produced one major accomplishment for its masterminds.
With Putin’s Mig-29s now parking on Syrian soil 70 miles south of the Turkish border, all previous talk of imposing on Assad a no-fly zone has become fantasy.
Diplomatically, Putin has also achieved a major goal, by demonstrating to prospective client states that he is a reliable sponsor, the inversion of Obama, who in 2011 abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Washington’s most veteran and loyal Arab ally.
These, then, are the accomplishments.
The risks, however, are much larger.
First, victory in this war will have to involve troops on the ground. Assad’s ability to unleash this attack is doubtful, with his bloodied troops lacking the motivation and Hezbollah lacking the numbers that such an offensive will require. That is why there is wide expectation that what has just begun with foreign interference from the air and the sea will evolve into foreign intrusion on the ground, whether Iranian, Russian, or both.
The military prospects of such interference are actually good, considering that Assad’s enemies are varied and disjointed, and bearing in mind that the prospective battlefields will be mostly flat and, as such, convenient for modern military deployment.
The political prospects, however, are less promising, because Assad and his Alawite minority have earned the Sunni majority’s indefinite enmity. Foreign troops speaking foreign languages and representing alien faiths will be seen as occupiers and infidels, and treated accordingly.
The structure won’t stand, unless Iran and Russia accept Assad’s shrinkage into western Syria; and even then, whatever emerges to Assad’s east will continuously challenge him and his allies.
Worse, Putin is provoking not only the Syrian majority but also Turkey.
ANKARA’S WARNINGS this week over the violation of its airspace, conveyed to the Russian ambassador in two separate summonses, underscored the scope of the gamble Putin would likely not have been allowed to make had he been scrutinized by democratic institutions.
Turkey and Russia have fought 12 wars in recent centuries. Worse, due to their historic and cultural ties, the Russians are natural allies of the Turks’ historic enemies, from the Armenians and Greeks to the Cypriots and Bulgarians. Russia’s Syrian adventure, in short, can result in a war with NATO-member Turkey’s mighty army.
Even so, this isn’t the Cold War.
First, unlike his communist predecessors, Putin carries no ideological gospel, much less a quest to rearrange the world. Second, Moscow has nothing like the USSR’s network of allies, nor is it in a position to build one. An economic basket case whose strategic reliance on exporting commodities has collapsed along with oil prices and the ruble, Putin’s Russia has nothing to offer prospective allies except arms.
Russia’s Syrian adventure, then, is a struggling empire’s battle for a southern outpost, a battle of the sort it has waged in Ukraine to its west and Georgia to its east. It is not part of an effort to dominate the world.
That also goes for the Russian intrusion’s Israeli aspect.
The USSR caged its Jews, defamed the Jewish state and encouraged its enemies’ belligerency. Putin treats Russian Jewry with toleration and the Jewish state with respect.
The meetings this week in Tel Aviv between Russian and Israeli generals, as agreed last month by the two countries’ leaders, reflected Russia’s appreciation for Israel’s neutrality in the Syrian civil war, as well as 25 years of fruitful dialogue and vigorous bilateral trade.
Such harmony was unthinkable during the Cold War. In fact, if indeed Russia emerges as postwar Syria’s political sponsor, it might keep a lid over Israel’s northern enemies.
It might not be as pretty as the peace America sponsored to Israel’s south, but it will be as welcome.