Flight of the Black Tulip: The Russians in Syria

The Russians have offered to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad drive Islamic State (IS) from his borders But a US official surmises that Putin has an ulterior motive.

A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter (photo credit: REUTERS)
A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On December 24, 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It became an imbroglio for the superpower, that was driven back within its own borders in ignominious defeat. The Russians were so determined not to acknowledge their defeat that they christened the plane carrying the coffins of their young soldiers back to Russia the Black Tulip. The AN-12 four-engine cargo plane was aptly named, as black signifies death, and the tulip is the flower of youth.
The Western World will likely never know how many young Soviets died in the mountains, valleys and plains of Afghanistan as the conflict could not be scrutinized by the media. There is speculation that as many as 40,000-50,000 young soldiers were casualties of the Afghan invasion and returned home aboard the Black Tulip.
The Afghan warriors fighting the Soviets were aided by the United States. It was thought that when the Afghans defeated the Soviet Union, the USSR would collapse, and it did. But among those jihadists from throughout the Middle East who were trained, armed and funded by the US was Osama bin Laden. The man who eventually sent the terrorists who caused such devastation on American soil on September 11, 2001 had been on the US payroll.
Now, the Russians have offered to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad drive Islamic State (IS) from his borders. But a US official in Iraq, Ali Khedery, surmises that the Russian leader has an ulterior motive.
Khedery believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move indicates a “fundamental shifting of the balance of power in the Middle East” and will have key global consequences. Khedery also suggests that “there is now a Shia axis locked in combat across Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.... This has the potential to escalate into a regional war, a holy war, and global cold war.”
Pundits need look no further than Baghdad to find the “Friends of Putin” who form the axis. The nexus consists of Iran and its Hezbollah proxy, Iraqi leaders and Syria.
Another reason the Russians may have sprinted to Assad’s aide is because Syria has a number of warm-water ports; something in short supply for Putin. Russia currently leases facilities at Tartus, Syria, as a base for repairing and resupplying Russian warships. Lack of support for Assad could cost Putin this port in a storm.
Far from targeting IS and bringing peace to the Middle East, Putin’s move could likely have the same effect as president Jimmy Carter had on US allies during his presidency. Carter destabilized the Middle East by not supporting America’s strongest Muslim ally in the region, the shah of Iran. He approved the covert funding of Ayatollah Khomeini, making it possible for the imam to birth radical Islam from his retreat outside Paris.
I learned that the consensus in the shah’s palace was that Carter was more responsible than anyone else for the chaos that resulted from Khomeini’s takeover in Iran. Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of the late shah, told me during an interview in her home, “My husband said to me that if Jimmy Carter keeps this up [his apparent vendetta against the shah], ultimately Khomeini will come back and with him will come an Islamic revolution. The Russians will invade Afghanistan, Iraq will go to war against Iran, and who knows what horror will come upon the world.”
French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing later explained to me that in 1979 he, Helmut Schmidt of Germany and James Callahan of Great Britain met with Carter on the island of Guadalupe. Carter informed this group that the US was going to support Khomeini instead of the shah. The French leader said he realized the US was trading its strongest Persian Gulf ally in favor of a terrorist Muslim cleric.
D’Estaing said he knew that without US support the shah’s regime would be lost, and defined Jimmy Carter as a “bastard of conscience, a moralist who treated with total lightness the abandonment an ally that we had supported in exchange for a cleric Carter thought would be better for human rights.”
In his address to the UN in late September, Putin attacked the US for having created a void into which terrorists such as IS have poured. His seeming concern is thought to be a cover for sending troops into Syria, ostensibly to battle IS. He apparently has little fear of US President Barack Obama jumping into the fray to battle Assad and bolster US-backed rebels in the region. Putin’s gambit at the UN only serves to make the Obama administration weaker and even less effective that it has been until now.
The winner in this face-off will likely be radical Islamists who will use this latest Russian escalation as nothing more than another recruiting tool to draw jihadists into the region. Rather than ending the civil war in Syria, the move will likely only prolong, and perhaps escalate, what has always been an untenable conflict.
Under cover of targeting IS command posts in the region, Russian Sukhoi-34, Sukhoi-24M and Sukhoi- 25 warplanes have flown numerous sorties over Syria. Sadly, and although Russia claims to have hit five IS targets in Syria, the attacks also led to the bombing of groups opposed to Assad. After several days of denying having hit non-IS targets Putin finally acknowledged the error.
The Russian forays into Syria will likely lead to retaliation from Muslim fanatics who will flock to fight a new faction of atheists and infidels who have targeted them. The risks for Putin may well outweigh the rewards as he finds himself a target for jihadists bent on his destruction. The Bear may well have wished it had stayed in hibernation rather than dip into the beehive that is the fanatical Islamist Middle East.
It presents difficult problems for a cash-strapped Russian economy. How long will Putin be able to sustain his backing of Assad with weapons and warplanes? Will his decision lead to another Afghanistan- like quagmire? How long can he survive before his forces have to turn tail and rush back to Russia? With the Russian incursion, yet another dilemma arises: Putin has only a small hope of defeating IS with the support of Sunni Muslims – fundamentally, Saudi Arabia. That has little chance of happening as the Russians are backing the Shi’ites in Iran. Israel, too, is faced with a new quandary: how does it fight terrorism on its border without a head-to-head confrontation with Russia? And Israel isn’t the only nation in the region that could be caught in the maelstrom. This latest move by Putin could mean dire consequences for Jordan.
The small country had taken in approximately 630,000 Syrian refugees by April of this year. Jordan has experienced the threat of a revolution. The PLO tried to overthrow king Hussein in 1970, only to be thwarted and driven from Jordan. Terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi was Jordanian-born, but learned his trade under bin Laden.
The world seems ripe for a perfect storm with Obama and Vladimir Putin facing off in Syria. US allies also have a stake in this fight. The coalition backing rebels in Syria has called for the Russian Federation to end bombing runs in Syria. A coalition spokesperson has expressed grave reservations “with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially attacks... on Hama, Homs and Idlib...
which led to civilian casualties and did not target [IS].”
The writer is the author of The Columbus Code, his latest novel. It is available online and at booksellers.