President Vladimir V. Putin has been waiting for the opportunity to undermine the United States power in the Middle East. Seizing on that opportunity in Syria was in part due to a lack of U.S. policy that allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda linked Islamist groups to make massive gains against Mr. Putin’s longtime ally Bashar al-Assad. Putin wants to also protect Russia’s main Mediterranean naval facility at the Port of Tartus, continue to be the major arms supplier in the region, and gain access to the vast oil reserves.
The former Soviet Union was active in the Middle East shortly after World War II, supporting Egypt and Syria militarily. After the October War of 1973, in which Israel humbled both of these countries, the Soviets withdrew from the region. They also did not want to confront the U.S. which was considered to have stronger interests there.
Putin remembers the humiliation the former Soviet Union suffered in Afghanistan when the U.S. clandestinely provided intelligence and military armaments to mujahedeen fighters. The Afghan tribal clans used the massive Tora Bora caves for protection to attack Soviet troops and launch surface to air missiles. After a decade of fighting to support the pro-Soviet Afghan government, Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 ceased military operations in the ‘no-win’ war in which 15,000 Soviets lost their lives.
In 1985 Putin as a young KGB agent was stationed in Dresden, East Germany for his first foreign posting. He enjoyed being part of the power that the Soviet Union enjoyed in Europe. President Reagan’s rhetoric to tear down the Berlin Wall, ultimately led to the unification of East and West Germany. The uprisings that led to the demise of the East German government changed Putin’s plan of becoming a leader in the KGB. He had asked Moscow for military assistance from the troops and tanks stationed there—but instead they were told to stand-down. “Nobody lifted a finger to protect us,” Putin reportedly lamented. He remembers well the role the U.S played in the unification of Germany, which led to the Soviet Union losing power in Europe.
Vladimir Putin was out of a job when he returned to St. Petersburg (Leningrad) his hometown. Tenaciously though he worked his way into the political structure by becoming the deputy mayor. At the time Mikael Gorbachev had become more engrossed in political reforms than expanding a global military presence. He instituted a new electoral system, and became the first president to be elected democratically on March 15, 1990. A year later he dissolved the Soviet Union. During Gorbachev’s presidency he worked to promote more peaceful international relations.
By 1996 Putin had worked his way into Boris Yeltsin’s administration, being appointed in 1998 to head the Federal Security Service (FSB). Soon thereafter he became acting prime minister of the Russian Federation, and in March 2000 was elected president. Due to constitutional limits of two consecutive terms, Putin orchestrated Dmitry Medvedev to become president for one term, and then assumed power again in 2012.
After the Cold War ended in 1989, exiled Tatar clan members were allowed to return to their ancestral home in Crimea. Older Tatars still remember being expelled from Crimea by the Soviet’s during the Stalin regime. Several thousand Crimean Tatars, Chechen and North Caucasian recruits have joined the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar militia fighting in Syria. Putin understands that the radical Islamists could return to Russia and undertake terrorist attacks. Many were involved previously in the bombings of an apartment house in 1999, a theater in 2002, a school in 2004, the Metro in 2010, and the Moscow airport in 2011; in Dagestan suicide bombers struck in 2012 and 2013. The Tsarnaev brothers involved in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 were ethnic Chechens who trained there.
Mr. Putin had helped his long-time ally Bashar al-Assad in his negotiations for the removal of chemical weapons, which prevented an eminent attack by the United States. Putin’s incursion in Syria now is to militarily support al-Assad, and take-out the opposition rebels supported by the United States along with taking out ISIS militias that threaten al-Assad’s control. Putin will also use this opportunity to diminish the threat of radical Islamists returning to Russian soil. Currently Russia has 600 troops there, joined by 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and several hundred Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to support al-Assad’s forces. With 30,000 Islamist fighters in Syria and neighboring Iraq, many have come from Europe, North Africa and nearby Arab states with the goal of removing al-Assad from power.
Although al-Assad deserves to be removed for his brutal acts against the Syrian people, such a regime change would cause a major void that will allow radical Islamists to take control as they have in Libya and Yemen. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring Islamist groups have continued to attempt to take control of Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. ISIS also has made major inroads in Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa. There is a growing discontent in Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain where rulers have made major concessions to pacify demonstrators, however radical Islamists could destabilize these Arab States.
Russia’s military presence in Syria may force the United States to negotiate with Mr. Putin, if there is the slightest chance of finding a peaceful solution in Syria. Ousting al-Assad will not bring peace or democracy to this fractious tribal society, with his minority Alawite tribe living in fear of annihilation. The U.S. led incursion into Libya in 2011, to remove Muammar Gaddafi, emboldened al-Qaeda linked Islamists that slaughtered Warfalla tribal members in his hometown of Sirte.
The Obama administration needs to find a diplomatic solution, since a military approach is filled with fraught. Mr. Putin must be convinced that his ambitions in the Middle East should be limited to helping defeat the radical Islamist groups, and partner with the U.S. in seeking a peaceful outcome in Syria and Iraq. Otherwise the U.S. military operation if not coordinated with Russia’s, could exacerbate the crisis and inch closer to an expanded war.
The U.S. may misunderstand Mr. Putin’s real motives in Syria, and overestimate his desire of rebuilding the Russian Empire. We need to understand that Putin grew up under several leaders during the decline of the Soviet Union. He has developed a strong nationalistic pride and possible expansion goals, which could be at the root of his actions. However he also realizes that the endgame plan in Syria must be to find a peaceful solution or he will become entombed again there as the Soviet Union was in Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to understand that the removal of al-Assad alone will not bring about peace.
Partitioning of Syria may satisfy Shiite, Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish and Christian factions, but may not bring about a lasting peace either. There is a long history of partitioning in the Middle East beginning with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, which created Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Yemen, and the expansion of Saudi Arabia. After World War II the partitioning of Palestine gave Israel a homeland, and Jordan more territory. However these divisions did not take into account ethnic, cultural and religious differences, which are at the root of today’s conflicts in the region.
Putin remembers well the breakup of the Soviet Union and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s that added twenty-one independent states. He also remembers the war with Georgia in 2008, when Russia fought American-trained forces in the breakaway region. The annexing of Crimea in 2014 which has destabilized Ukraine should not be overlooked, however it should not overshadow the goal of finding a peaceful solution in Syria.
The civil war in Syria continues to kill thousands, and displaces millions of refugees, which cannot be an acceptable option to Mr. Putin. Whether the U.S. agrees with Mr. Putin’s actions or not, the deep mistrust that exists between both world powers must be put aside. The focus must be on achieving a negotiated peaceful outcome in Syria, in order to avert ISIS from establishing a caliphate, or a more expanded conflict which could lead to another world war.