Putin is Taking a Gamble: Russians Well Remember Their Last Jihadist War
For four years, Syria’s civil war has raged unchecked, spawning both a refugee crisis that has engulfed Europe and an Islamist terror group of unprecedented reach and financial resources.
Throughout that period, while Bashar al-Assad has continued to rain barrel bombs and chemical munitions on his own people, the West has largely stood by, paralysed by indecision.
Vladimir Putin has many shortcomings as a leader, but indecisiveness is not among them. By first deploying Russian forces to Syria and then ordering air strikes in the rebel-held areas of Homs and Hama, Mr Putin has shown his willingness to use force to prosecute his own strategic goal – namely the preservation of the Assad regime.
At a stroke, Mr Putin’s rough gambit has exposed the obvious limits of Western policy on Syria – a policy of containment in which the US and it’s allies did just enough to protect the Kurds and stem the jihadist tide at the gates of Baghdad. The half-hearted air campaign was designed to create the “strategic space” for local forces to stand up against the menace of Isil, but to date that has not happened. Instead Syria’s civil war has only intensified.
The cost of indecision turned out to be all the consequences that those who eschewed all action feared intervention would bring – chemical weapons strikes, regional chaos, mass casualties, a global refugee crisis and the broader undermining of confidence in the notion of a global commons.
Even when the White House realised its policy was failing, its efforts to intervene have descended into farce, with latest reports suggesting that only four or five of the “Division 30” rebel force that was intended to turn the tide against Assad are still fighting in Syria – at a cost of $9?million (pounds 5.9?million) each.
The shabby incoherence of Western policy created a vacuum into which Mr Putin has stepped, challenging the West to join him in a bogus alliance with Assad against the jihadist threat.
This is a disingenuous offer that the West can never accept, since it would both entrench the Assad regime and very possibly further swell the ranks of Isil as mainstream Sunnis were forced to choose between annihilation at the hands of Assad or fighting alongside their co-religionists.
For now, as Russian bombs fall in support of Assad, the West has little alternative but to protest and remind Mr Putin that his intervention comes with costs both at home and abroad.
Mr Putin still boasts approval ratings of above 70 per cent, but this unilateral intervention in Syria will surely harden the resolve of both the US and Europe to maintain sanctions when they come up for renewal at the end of the year.
Mr Putin’s unspoken bargain with the Russian people is to provide economic and physical security in return for their support – but that has already been tested by a 10 per cent fall in wages and mounting casualties in Ukraine.
His move in the Middle East exposes Russia to a significant risk, in Syria but also at home. As Dr Igor Sutyagin, Russia specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, notes, Isil has only two declared foreign enemies – the US and Russia – and Russia’s borders are long and porous.
Even before things start to go wrong, public support for Mr Putin’s intervention appears lukewarm. A survey by one of Russia’s only independent pollsters this month found only 14 per cent of Russians agreed that Moscow should provide “direct military support” to the Syrian government.
Mr Putin has chosen to ignore that sentiment, which is a gamble that he will quickly come to regret if Russian forces are dragged into a protracted fight to save the Assad regime.
Russians well remember Afghanistan, the last time they became embroiled in a jihadist war of attrition. Taking casualties in Ukraine is one thing; fighting a long campaign in Syria or terror attacks at home would be a different proposition altogether.