As a child, one of my great fears was being the victim of a chemical attack. I read and reread the article on chemical warfare in the Encyclopedia Britannica in the school library with horrified fascination. When we practiced getting under our desks “in case of an atomic attack” I was relieved that it was only an atomic attack that was expected. Gas would be 100 times worse, I thought. Maybe this was because I was a Jew and heard that the Nazis had gassed Jews, even though as far as I knew my own relatives in Ukraine had been shot and not gassed.
The sarin gas attack carried out this Tuesday in Idlib by forces controlled by Bashar al Assad (the word ‘alleged’ is not necessary) was a war crime, a mass murder of civilians by horrific means. To make it even worse, hospitals where victims being treated were also bombed. It’s not the first time the same criminal has committed the same crime. But Assad could not have done it alone. He has a powerful accessory to his crimes.
Russian planes are not dropping sarin (or chlorine or barrel bombs), but they are supporting Assad’s forces with more conventional weapons, and killing plenty of civilians in the process. The Obama Administration, which initially provided some minimal support for the rebels that had opposed Assad, more or less gave up on the idea of deposing him when Russia stepped in, and recently the Trump Administration admitted that it too is “focused” on defeating Da’esh and not on removing Assad.
Interestingly, although Putin initially claimed that he was intervening in Syria in order to defeat Da’esh, he has actually done very little against it. The Atlantic Council, which is funded primarily by European governments, said this about the Russian intervention in Syria:
The results have been grievous. Russia carried out its air strikes with scant regard for the rules of war: Open-source footage shows the repeated use of banned cluster munitions, and strikes on targets including mosques, hospitals, and water treatment plants. Imagine the outcry if the United States or its allies conducted military operations in this manner. Russia’s military campaign allowed Assad’s forces to retake lost ground, a task they did with great brutality and immense human suffering. It barely dented the ISIS terrorist group, whose recent territorial losses have largely come at the hands of Kurdish militias backed by a US-led coalition. Far from shortening the war, it exacerbated it—and in so doing, it sent yet more waves of refugees flooding into Turkey and Europe.
Until recently, I hadn’t understood Putin’s motives. It’s been clear that he wants to protect and expand his naval and air installations in Syria, but by putting his eggs in Assad’s basket he is enabling the Iranian project of creating a corridor from its western border to the Mediterranean, something that might prove dangerous to Russia in the long term.
But if his goal is to destabilize his traditional enemies in Europe by flooding them with refugees, then both his intervention and the brutal way it is carried out – as well as his tolerance of Assad’s even worse behavior – become understandable. The wars going on in Syria and Iraq serve his purpose, and so does the continued existence of Da’esh.
This also explains why Russia has not interfered with Israeli activities in Syria. Although Assad and his Iranian patron are interested in building up Hezbollah as a threat against Israel, Putin doesn’t necessarily share their goals, and may even wish to limit the advance of Iranian hegemony in the region. Russia has its problems with radical Islamic jihadism, and Iran either has or shortly will have missiles that can reach Moscow. What does serve Putin’s purpose is chaos – which he promotes by helping Assad stay in power and kill anyone associated with (or stuck in the same town with) the opposition. Israel’s bombing of weapons bound for Hezbollah doesn’t detract from his goal.
It’s also an incentive for Israel to not interfere. There have been suggestions that Israel should intervene against Assad for humanitarian reasons. It is highly unlikely that Israel would take such a step. Not only would it place Israel in direct conflict with Russia, but Israel is dependent on Russia to allow it to operate against Hezbollah in Syria. The greatest direct threat against Israel today is Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran, and it would be disastrous if Putin were to decide to protect it.
I think Putin is the big winner here. In a stroke of malevolent genius, he managed to turn the Syrian civil war, the rise of Da’esh, the struggle between the Sunni and Shia worlds, the advance of Iran toward the Mediterranean, and the concomitant suffering of the peoples of the region, to his advantage. He now controls the airspace of the eastern Mediterranean region and is building up important air and naval bases here, a strategic coup against Europe and the US. Meanwhile, Europe is being destabilized by the waves of refugees from the conflicts in our region. All this on the backs of a few million dead and displaced Arabs!
Whether or not Russian activities had any effect on the American election, there is no doubt that Russia is carrying out psychological warfare against the US with the intent to create as much dissension and chaos there as possible. This isn’t anything new – the Soviet regime did it too – but social media have made it easier and increased the leverage of a small number of operatives.
Putin is a remarkable figure. I would call his actions in fanning the flames of war in Syria psychopathic, although maybe any despot has to be a psychopath. He seems to have suppressed internal opposition to his regime quite effectively (and brutally, in part by murdering anyone that threatens him). He has drastically improved the strategic position of Russia relatively cheaply, and is on his way to restoring the Soviet empire.
Various pundits have said that Putin is playing chess while Western leaders play checkers (or even simpler games, like marbles). I agree – except that the pawns he sacrifices so unemotionally are people.