Vladimir Putin’s evil stroke of genius

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.

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3 Responses to Vladimir Putin’s evil stroke of genius

  1. Keefe Goldfisher says:

    Nothing is damaged in your points’ publication on the night of our attack on Syrian military infrastructure. More Putin brilliance, in an odd way.

    Victor Davis Hanson also saw fit to publish points about going to war in NR… this morning. You both are tuned in!

    Putin’s backup plan is ruthlessness; you really have to want it to defeat him. Americans and Israelis have to be driven to such behavior.

    Let no one push us that far.

  2. Roman Blitt says:

    I’d like to share this analysis by Arik Elman, which seems to me sensible enough, at the least in regard to Putin and his calculations:

    Trump, Syria, Putin.
    1) Many Americans will feel much better about Trump now, knowing that:
    – America under Trump is ready to use force to discipline assholes
    – Trump and his national security team know how to deliver measured, practically surgical response to a difficult challenge.
    Trump didn’t attacked some cowshed or empty warehouse – he really leveled an airbase, causing Assad real damage. Yet the loss of Syrian lives is minimal and no Russian was hurt. The message was very clear – annoy me, and I will bomb your ass. Trump demonstrated what Obama was loathe to show – that United States remains a biggest bully everywhere it desires to be, and can do what it wants without waiting for any multilateral institutions. Remains to be seen how this reflects on his ratings; probably won’t hurt.
    2) If Assad and his Iranian enablers thought that Trump is too weak at home right now to push the button – he clearly got the man wrong and misunderstood the freedom that US Supreme Commander enjoys. While regime change in Syria is not in the cards, the attack definitely created a new momentum for anti-Assad forces.
    3) Putin. American effort to coordinate the attack clearly succeeded – Russian assets remain unscathed and Russian air defense systems in Syria didn’t operate against American cruise missiles. However, this doesn’t mean that Russian presence in Syria is at its end or, on another hand, that Russia and US will come to real blows over Assad. For Puitn, Syria always was a leverage. He wanted to show that Russia can be an effective spoiler for the West and to convince the West to make an exchange – give him Crimea (in crude terms) and get Syria instead. Ukraine is a strategic interest of Russia, with Putin or without; Syria is not. All that bluster about an access to warm seas, naval presence in the Med etc etc is just propaganda – Putin is a rational cynical actor and as such knows very well the balance of forces in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Now Putin probably believes that Trump will appreciate his restraint, which provided the White House with easy win and no real complications, and hopes that a new sense of urgency and risk of larger conflict will impel the West to open to Russia an exit ramp from Syria.

    The source: https://www.facebook.com/Elmanarik/posts/10155285234598960
    Some comments are also in English

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    The movement of Russia into the Middle East in a much bigger way has limited Israel’s freedom of operation and has made it more difficult for us to take on Hezbollah and Iran when the time comes. Despite all the Liberman and Netanyahu conversations Putin put in the advanced air- defense system in Syria. He cannot be trusted in any way and of course the last thing we could want is to have to directly confront any Russian forces.
    The analysis you give makes a certain sense of his actions, but considering the internal state of Russia one has to wonder at the wisdom and sanity of the pursuit of global superpower status at the cost of all else.
    The big question as to how the United States will deal with this is still very much open One strike against an airbase is a symbolic more than a substantive gesture.
    We had the hope that the U.S. and Russia would get together to somehow halt the progress of Iran but now it seems for the moment he is in synch with them.

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