Machiavellian Statecraft: Vladimir Putin's Syrian Gambit and the Fallacy of Western Policy

  Alexei Nikolsky / Associated Press

Alexei Nikolsky / Associated Press

The withdrawal of the majority of Russian forces from Syria has caught the international community by surprise. By withdrawing the majority of Russian forces and waging a limited war across Syria, Vladamir Putin has succeeded in becoming drawn into a destabilising quagmire which would drain Russian financial and military resources and man-power. The Middle East is the graveyard of superpowers and extended military adventures, occupation and attempts to alter regimes have produced catastrophes for regional and global powers in across the 20th and 21st century including Israel in Lebanon, the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

Since 2011, the Middle East has shifted from revolution to a series of civil wars which have escalated into deadly proxy wars hastening the return of unpredictable great power politics. Western policy, covert and overt, in the Middle East has produced instability, fuelled decentralised sectarian and tribal conflict, exacerbated violence and contributed to a destabilising refugee crisis. The Libyan state lies shattered, in Iraq there were zero suicide attacks in the country's history until the U.S led-invasion of 2003 (Since then, there have been 1,892) while half a million in Syria lie dead as NATO, through regional allies, covertly tried to depose of the House of Assad. Public opinion across the United States and the majority of European countries is divided and largely shudders at getting sucked into another direct military intervention in the Middle East.

At a regional level, the results of intervening in the Syrian Civil War have backfired dramatically on regional allies, most notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey both of whom have fanned the flames of sectarian conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This has nurtured ultra-violent jihadist groups across the region including ISIS who have targeted the populations of both countries in a string of major attacks since 2014. 

The string of catastrophes produced by Western policymakers have been exploited and worsened by the Kremlin and Bashar al-Assad. Russian and Syrian bombings in northern Syria have increased the flow of refugees crossing into Turkey and Eastern Europe as concentrated Russian airstrikes and logistical support appears to have finally broken the deadly five year stalemate decisively in the favour of Assad's ground forces. Since 2013, the escalating conflict has created the conditions in which ISIS, Jahbat al-Nusra and extremist terrorist cells could emerge as major factions shaping the Syrian conflict. For the first time since the onset of civil war, the direct intervention of the Russian-led coalition including Iran, and Hezbollah to bolster the Syrian government's position has produced tangible results which could hasten the war's end and the fall of ISIS.  

Strategically it is a successful military and diplomatic coup by Putin. Domestically he will strengthen his popularity within Russia (sixty per cent of Russians supported air strikes in Syria) and after a controversial campaign in Ukraine which led to damaging sanctions being placed on the Russian economy, he has"forced the West to deal with Russia again." 

Despite this, there is no guarantee the Geneva talks will create a sustainable peace agreement nor will it end the suffering of the Syrian people; vast swathes of territory still remain under the control of ISIS and uncompromising extremist elements, the Syrian government, while still standing, controls a state in ruins, is despised and has been considerably weakened by years of war. 

However, the Syrian people's plight will be of little concern in Putin's calculations. As Mark Leonard writes advancing personal, national and international objectives remain his priority: "If the west falls into the trap and goes to war alongside Putin and Assad against not just ISIS but all Islamist opposition groups, it will be the ultimate funeral pyre for the aspirations of the Arab Spring. Western idealism will be presented to the world as the empty hypocrisy that Putin always thought it was."

These predictions have become a reality in recent weeks and months. The savage attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 and the murder of 217 civilians (212 of whom were Russian) abroad a Russian airline over the Sinai played into Putin's hands. The increase of major ISIS-sponsored attacks across the Middle East and Europe gave the Western powers and Russia a common enemy and common ground to operate and cooperate on even it meant being at the expense of the historic Arab revolutions. In Moscow, the presentation of ISIS as a direct threat to Russia's national security acted as a catalyst for the Russian military to decisively shape the conflict in their favour by consolidating Assad's government and eliminating and/or critically weakening all rebel strongholds in northern Syria. 

  AP, Moscow

AP, Moscow

The statement from the Russians is clear; counter-revolution and authoritarianism is preferable to people power, revolution and the potential power vacuum it leaves behind in Middle Eastern politics. The potential consequences of Assad being removed from power, the potential dismantlement of Syria's basic political infrastructure and replaced by an opposition dominated by jihadi groups and there hyper-aggressive ideology is an unacceptable option to Hezbollah, Iran, and the elements of the Syrian population which continues to support Assad, including non-Islamist Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and Druze. 

The attacks across Europe by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, both of which have long operated within military branch of the Syrian opposition, and the refugee crisis in Europe have finally convinced Western policymakers that the replacing Assad's regime with a pro-Western puppet is fantastical. Even then the funnelling of weapons, man-power and finances into radical jihadist groups by the Gulf States, the Turkish authorities reluctance (to Barack Obama's fury) to close the border which the majority of foreign fighters crossed to reach the war-zone and the determination to undermine Syria in the proxy war against Iran had all-but destroyed these expectations years ago. The odds of establishing a democracy, if not slim, were destroyed by the Assad regime in 2011. 

The United States, nonetheless, has succeeded in accomplishing its secondary objective established in 2006 (according to Wikileaks); destabilising the Syria government and what it considered to be sponsor of terrorism. According to Filiu, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was 'one of the main partners of Assad's regime (and) was the main entry point' into Iraq for foreign jihadists from 2003 onwards to undermine the U.S occupation. However destabilising Syria has produced dire consequences for the United States' own regional allies, Europe and the wider region while strengthening Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. 

The United States' stuttering and contradictory Syrian policy and the attacks in Europe have convinced European leaders such as Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel to seek closer cooperation and more assertive action with the Kremlin in tackling ISIS and solving the Syrian Civil War. This closer alignment with European security interests is allowing Putin to "execute his war on revolutions both on a practical level and as a battle of ideas." The Middle East matters to European states, particularly concerns for national security and Putin has successfully exploited the fears of European citizens and politicians alike provoked by hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on its doorstep. 

The migrant/refugee crisis has catalysed the rise of populist, anti-migrant, Islamaphobic groups and right-wing parties wrapping repugnant and often racist policies in the rhetoric of security across Europe. Suffering from crisis, the increasing issue of separatism, dangerously polarised politically, and enduring economic stagnation, the EU has become vulnerable. This weakness has, to some extent, been deepened by Putin. As Alaister Sloane argues, Russian actions over Syria (which have killed 2,000 civilians) have contributed to Europe's instability by stoking a fresh refugee exodus in northern Syria. The uprooting of 40,000 - 70,000 refugees from Aleppo threatens to destabilise and divide European countries further, and more importantly from a geo-strategic perspective Turkey which remains has descended into an increasingly volatile civil conflict and authoritarian tendencies. 

The scale down of the Russian presence in Syria indicates that Assad, for now, is here to stay. Following the deposition of autocrats Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of Iraq and Libya into violent civil wars, Western leaders have been forced to accept the continuation of Assad's brutal regime after trying and failing to force him from power. While American influence and the work of John Kerry remains pivotal in resolving the civil war, European leaders recognise that what happens in the Middle East effects Europe's stability more directly than it will impact the United States as the Obama administration has sought, unsuccessfully, to disengage from the region. This hesitancy in Washington stands in stark contrast to the decisiveness shown by Putin's inner circle in dealing with the Syrian war and the consequences of American mismanagement of its geo-political strategy. 

The failure of American and European policymakers and the success of Putin is a bitter pill to swallow for the West.  At home Putin's successes presents him as the key peacemaker in the Syrian civil war and consolidates his plutocratic regime, regionally it increases Russian credibility and weakens Western allies, and internationally it damages the credibility of the United States and divides Europe. It has also, at-least in the short-term, curbed Russia's regional security problems in the unstable provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan. It is believed that the Russian authorities have channeled 2,000 extremists into Syria and Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State. 

 The Russian annexation of Crimea drew international condemnation. 

The Russian annexation of Crimea drew international condemnation. 

The Russian operations in Syria stand in contrast to the mistakes made in Ukraine where the Russian military's wages a covert war alongside Ukrainian-Russian separatists which has killed 8,000 people and displaced 2.4 million more. Russian efforts to destablise the country stoked Ukrainian nationalism, invited crippling economic sanctions and  the annexation of Crimea, while audacious, combined with the downing of a Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired by Russian-supported insurgents severely tarnished Putin's international reputation. 

However Putin's Syrian gambit has not been without major risks. The diplomatic confrontation between NATO and Russia following the shooting down of a Sukhoi Su-24m bomber deemed to have violated Turkish airspace illustrated the risks of potential miscalculations turning a regional affair into a direct global conflict. 

Similarly while the Kremlin has accomplished its short-term geopolitical objectives there is a debate that intervention will place the Russians, military and civilian, in the sights of global and regional jihadist groups. As argued by Shiraz Maher, 'Russian involvement in Syria has strengthened the idea that those who join jihadist groups "are defending the entire umma (world Islamic community). Not only are the Russians "ultra-crusaders" fighting with the blessing of the Orthodox Church, they are also allying with' neo-Wahhabists and neo-Salafists arch enemy; Shiite Iran, whom many radicals consider to be a heretical entity. 

As The Economist emphasised in July, 2015 'while the chances of ISIS recruits from Dagestan and Chechyna returning are slim,' government lawlessness combined with inadequate de-radicalisation programs for young men who manage to slip past Russia's tightly governed borders present a major future problem to Russian security in the Caucasian province. This problem has taken on an increased severity in 2015 after the North Caucasus insurgency (Wilayat al-Qawqaz) a major ideological transformation and rebranded itself as a province of ISIS. 

  Screen Capture: YouTube: Caucasian insurgents pledge allegiance to ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Screen Capture: YouTube: Caucasian insurgents pledge allegiance to ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

ISIS, like its predecessor flourishes in exploiting local grievances to achieve its objective and increase its influence. Its poisonous ideology, ultra-violent methods and turbo-charged social media campaigns promoting hatred and violence sow political, communal and societal divisions and alter national and military policies for the worse through hyper-aggressive guerrilla warfare and urban terrorism. The results have been deadly as exemplified in Baghdad, Ankara, and Paris and equally successful in nurturing racial and religious war.  The Caucasian provinces present an opportunity for ISIS to fall back on should there wars in Syria and Iraq falter. Putin presents himself as Russia's strong-man and Russia's new brand of nationalism, yet if he is unable to provide security to the Russian people his regime will be subject to a potentially backlash and increase political and economic pressure on his regime. 

As Crisis Group notes, the Caucasian problem will become a significant threat to Russian security if the grievances of Caucasian Muslims continue to be left unaddressed: "The Kremlin should aim to generate a more open and just system of government in the region, improve the rule of law, stop prosecuting religious dissent, continue investing in socio-economic development, especially education, and attempt more soft-power de-radicalisation if it wishes to deprive IS of a new front and an important source of recruits." 

Given the bloody history of the region which has endured two violent wars and caused tens of thousands of deaths among Chechens and Russians (civilian and military), the short-term gains of Russia in Syria and the receding influence of jihadist extremists in the region does not shut out the potential storm heading Russia's way; the prospect of renewed holy war and insurgency on its doorstep.

Putin's current string of personal coups, domestic and international, will return to haunt the Russian people. However given the president's record of thriving on instability, the Caucasian crisis brewing may offer a future opportunity in times of domestic crisis. Low-intensity war and conflict has frequently been deployed by Putin to consolidate his brutal regime when and if it comes under fire. 

Nonetheless there are questions as to whether war is a sustainable strategy for Putin. However the current state of global affairs suits Putin's tactical and strategic outlook. Many Western politicians have struggled to adapt to this world which has produced the Information Age, perpetual warfare, the polarisation of politics across the political spectrum, economic stagnation, the proliferation of civil wars and conflicts across the globe, vast population movements and with regards to the Middle East, a bloody combination of authoritarian and decentralised tribal and sectarian bloodshed. In stark contrast, this dark, fractured world is perfectly designed for Putin's personality, his Machiavellian statecraft and doctrine of "manageable chaos". Catastrophic policymaking and failures by regional and Western policymakers alike in the wake of the Arab revolutions have allowed this deadly political blueprint to not only survive, but flourish. 

Matthew Williams