If Mikhail Bulgakov had come back to life and written a Levantine sequel to The Master and Margarita, he could not have devised a scenario more lurid than what we now observe in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin is now the leader of the Free World against Islamist terrorism, directing the efforts of France and Germany and setting terms for American involvement. Reeling from last week’s massacre in Paris, France lacks both the backbone and the brute force to avenge itself against ISIS, but in alliance with Russia it will make a more than symbolic contribution.
In 2008 I endorsed Putin for the American presidency, in jest, of course. Now he is leading America’s president by the nose and directing the anti-terror efforts of France and Germany. No-one could have anticipated Putin’s sudden ascent to global leadership during the past several weeks. Russia is in the position of a a vulture fund, buying the distressed assets of the Western alliance for pennies on the dollar. Faced with an American president who will not fight, and his European allies whose military capacity has shrunk to near insignificance, the Russian Federation seized the helm with the deployment of a mere three dozen war planes and an expeditionary force of 5,000 men. One searches in vain through diplomatic history to find another case where so much was done with so little. As an American, I feel a deep humiliation at this turn of events, assuaged only slightly by Schadenfreude at the even deeper humiliation of America’s foreign policy establishment.
The world runs by different rules than it did just a few weeks ago. Putin has answered the question I asked in September (“Vladimir Putin: Spoiler or Statesman?”). President Obama declared at the Nov. 17 Antalya summit, “From the start, I’ve also welcomed Moscow going after ISIL…We’re going to wait to see whether, in fact, Russia does end up devoting attention to targets that are ISIL targets, and if it does so, then that’s something we welcome.” After this week’s Russian and French airstrikes on ISIS’ stronghold in Raqqa, that is a moot point. It seems like another epoch when Mitt Romney declared that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical threat. Russia, on the contrary, is pulling America’s chestnuts out of the fire. Obama is utterly feckless; by the time the next American president is sworn in, the world will be a difference place. Ukraine? Never heard of it.
Obama wants to follow, not lead, as he told reporters at Antalaya: “What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people and to protect the people in the region who are getting killed and to protect our allies and people like France.. I’m too busy for that.” Russia is happy to give him the opportunity to follow. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground took America out of contention, along with aerial rules of engagement so risk-averse that only one in four American sorties against ISIS released it bombs. The Russians are not squeamish about collateral damage and likely to be far more effective.
Putin meanwhile told his commanders, “A French naval battle group led by an aircraft carrier will arrive in your theatre of action soon. You must establish direct contact with the French and work with them as with allies.” Just what sort of alliance this will be is clear from raw numbers. The Russian air force has 67 squadrons flying modern fighters (against France’s 11), including 15 bomber squadrons (the French retired their Mirage VI bomber in 1996) and 14 assault squadrons. 25 squadrons fly ground-attack aircraft a bit lighter than America’s A-10 “Warthog,” namely the SU-24 and SU-25. Even allowing for poor Russian servicing, which leaves many planes unable to fly, Russia has vastly more air power than its French ally.
To make more than symbolic contribution to the Syria campaign, France will have to remove fighter aircraft now supporting its more than 5,000 military personnel in Africa. Germany’s air force, I am told, will assist by picking up the slack in Africa so that French aircraft can redeploy to the Levant. Although Germany is not officially part of the Syria campaign, Berlin appears to be coordinating closely with Russia and France, although its own military air fleet is in notoriously poor condition.
Russia’s willingness and ability to use force in Syria gives Putin considerable diplomatic flexibility. Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested today that Russia might throw Syrian President Basher Assad under the bus and agree to a power-sharing agreement along ethnic and confessional lines on the Lebanese model. As the leader of a military coalition to reduce ISIS, Putin can afford to let Assad go, provided that the West agrees to preserve its naval station at Tartus. In the broader diplomatic context, Putin would expect the quiet expiration of economic sanctions against Russia directed at its seizure of Crimea as part of the overall bargain.
A very different sort of Middle East might emerge. Russia and China in the past have allied themselves with Iran against the Sunnis, largely because their own restive Muslim populations are entirely Sunni. If the Russian-led coalition succeeds in humiliating ISIS, the two Asian powers will have less use for their obstreperous Shi’ite allies of convenience. Although Russia and Iran are allied against ISIS, they have quite different objectives, according to Saheb Sadeghi, the editor of the Iranian foreign policy journal Diplomat. Writing in Al-Monitor, Sadeghi explais:
Russia is thus pursuing the revival of the Syrian military as its leverage in the country, with the belief that the only way to influence the future of Syria is through restoring the Syrian military to its condition before the eruption of the civil war in 2011 — in other words, a secular army that can easily be controlled.
Iran, on the other hand, has chosen a completely different path. When Iran saw that the Syrian army was near collapse, it sought to strengthen irregular forces made up of volunteers. The Islamic Republic thus established a massive force composed of Alawites. The latter has now become the main force combating the different armed opposition groups and is more powerful than the Syrian army on the battlefield. These volunteer forces, which number about 200,000 men, take orders from Iran rather than the Syrian government. According to some reports, about 20,000 Shiites from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan have also joined them. These forces may very well come to play an important role in the future of Syria. Moreover, the Islamic Republic hopes to use them as a viable alternative to the Assad government.
The Iranian-backed irregulars have been singularly ineffective in taking territory back from ISIS, however, compared for example to the Kurds, by far the most effective fighting force on the ground. Russia and its allies probably will solve the problem by sending in ground forces. ISIS cannot stand up to the combination of a modern ground army with close air support. That will devalue Iran’s contribution to the military effort and its ability to influence a future political outcome. Russia wants to win the war on the ground and control the terms of the peace without interference from the apocalyptic adventurers in Iran.
It is noteworthy that Russian officials and news media kept mum about Israel’s reported air strikes against a Hezbollah weapons depot at the Damascus airport last week. As usual, Israel’s defense ministry neither confirmed nor denied the reports in the Syrian media, but the working Israeli press reports reflect off-the-record confirmation. Israeli sources tell me that the attacks did indeed occur, and under the nose of the Russian air force. BBC’s Russian service notes that previous Israeli strikes drew official condemnation from Moscow. Russia’s silence on this occasion suggests that Moscow sanctioned the strikes. If so, Moscow will have sent a message to Hezbollah that it should avoid a fight with Israel and stick to killing Sunnis in Syria.
There have been reports in fringe media that China has gotten involved in the Syrian conflict, repeated by the hapless US presidential candidate Ben Carson. That is surely wrong; not only does China lack the intelligence and diplomatic resources to involve itself in the Syrian tangle, but its air force does not currently possess a single ground attack fighter like the American A-10 or Russian SU-24. The People’s Liberation Army is not equipped for foreign intervention, and China has neither the intent nor ability to intervene. Beijing is happy to stay in the background and quietly support Russia’s role in the region.
Beijing has enormous economic influence over Iran, though, and could use it to dissuade Tehran from stirring up trouble in the region. I speculated two years ago that China might preside over a “Pax Sinica” in the Middle East. Former Reagan National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane and Ilan Berman argue in the Nov. 18 Wall Street Journal that “pressing Beijing to exert its extensive influence over Tehran to force it to steer a more moderate course can and should be a top American priority.”
China has a great deal to worry about from its Sunni Muslim population, especially the 15 million Uyghurs in its westernmost province of Xinjiang. Hundreds of Uyghur separatists are fighting for ISIS in Syria, and the Chinese accuse Turkey of providing passports and safe passage for separatists leaving China for Turkey through Southeast Asia. A Chinese official told me that Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia have stockpiled 100,000 blank passports for the use of Uyghurs. Wealthy Saudis are funding Wahhabi madrassahs in China, and a large part of China’s Muslim population has become radicalized.
For all these reasons, China has a deep interest in the defeat of ISIS. It has as much reason to fear the metastasis of Sunni jihad as does Russia, as well as the quiet support for the jihadists coming from Istanbul and some elements in Saudi Arabia. A humiliation of the self-styled Islamist Caliphate would crush the morale of its emulators in China as well as Russia, and Beijing will find ways of supporting Putin’s efforts without any direct or visible commitment of military resources.
As for France: several days ago I wrote that France will do nothing in response to the Paris massacre. I may have been wrong. Russia will do a great deal, and in consequence, France will do more than round up the usual suspects.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.