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Russians Play Roulette in Syria


What’s the new game?

Same as the old game.

We are being fooled again*                                       

*apologies to The Who

 Vladi in Wonderland

The old game never really was a long-term success. I mean, you spend years and billions propping-up semi bankrupt dictatorships, both in the financial and moral sense of semi-bankrupt. All you ask in return is that they buy arms and products from you and repress the general population. For their own good, naturally. At the first hint of liberalization what do the ungrateful formerly repressed bastards do? They organise a revolution, overthrow their your, undemocratically elected government, open a burger franchise and apply to join NATO. I tell you, I can just see a group of old commies crying into a collective samovar.

Life used to be so simple for the Kremlin Crowd. They’d pitch up first thing in the morning and check that last-nights Secretary General was both still alive and in power. Have a quick rifle through everybody elses in-trays to see if they could find anything useful to stab a comrade in the back, then spend the rest of the day dreaming up revolutionary slogans and rewriting production targets so that their department’s output slightly bettered the target.

The enemy was America so some things haven’t changed. The World was divided up into Spheres of Influence, and where those spheres overlapped there was always the prospect of a small war, fought by proxies with the odd battalion or three of ‘technical advisers’ on hand to shore up the home team if things went a bit awry. If the Kremlin won and you could claim any credit you got promotion and a few more medals and if it lost and you couldn’t blame anybody else, you were shot. The last being a great motivator for getting to work early and checking through everybody elses in-tray.

The World turned and mostly communism passed into history’s recycle bin. Dictators, repressive minority governments and Russian dreams of world dominance remain with us. In those long-passed halcyon days when it looked like communism was ‘the future’, if the Soviet Union couldn’t install a communist government in some flyblown corner of the globe then they would settle for a local strongman who would buy Soviet military equipment and back the Soviet Union in the UN. One such strongman was of course Hafez Al-Assad. He and the Soviet Union did very well out of each other. He brought about ninety percent of the Soviet’s arms exports and enthusiastically repressed his population. In return he could be more or less counted on to toe the Soviet foreign policy line. All good things come to an end however, the Soviet Union collapsed and Hafez shuffled off his mortal coil. Enter son Bashar, a chip off the old block or something different?

Up until 1994, Bashar Al-Assad had trained as a doctor in Damascus, served four years as an army doctor then gone to London for post-graduate studies as an ophthalmologist. When elder brother Bassel, who was being groomed as heir apparent although the ‘Old Man’ never publicly stated that he would be, managed to write himself off in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was recalled to the army.

In 1998 he was in charge of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and by the time Hafez died in 2000 had managed to sideline any political opponents. He always claimed that he wasn’t interested in politics, but for somebody who was ambivalent about the ‘greasy pole’, he’d done a damn fine job of ensuring his election in 2000 would be a ninety-three percent success. Ninety-three percent who said the election was rigged? Any self-respecting dictator would have got at least ninety-nine point seven percent of the popular vote.

Possibly things might change then? Yes and mainly no. There were some modest reforms of the economy, a slight easing of banking restrictions allowing those not directly connected with the regime to get credit, provided they lubricated a few wheels. Bashar talked about political reform and did mention democracy. Unfortunately, somebody did notice and a few people thought he might have meant it. He clarified his position by saying of course he did but not just yet and arrested a few of the more excitable who had begun to agitate for un-rigged elections and a say in how the country was run. In the main, the economy was doing reasonably well and Sunni merchants in Damascus and other larger cities could sleep soundly in their beds, undisturbed by a midnight knock on the door, provided they kept their mouths firmly shut. In the meantime, good old Vladi had consolidated his position in Mother Russia and it looked like business as usual.

Then came the ‘Arab Spring’, which is beginning to look more like a mild spell in the depths of winter than spring itself. With apparent democracy in some countries came demands from rural Syria for a bigger slice of the cake. It’s important to recognise that the Syrian civil war started in the rural areas, the Sunni middle-class, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment, were happy enough to go along with the Assad regime. Bashar reacted like any good dictator. He announced reforms whilst signing arrest warrants. The reforms never actually materialised whilst the arrest warrants were executed. Not in the literal sense, at least not in the beginning. Vladi and the Mullahs of Iran approved and all was well in the Al-Assad empire.

Well not really. The opposition didn’t have a leader, much like the Egyptian revolution. They were unorganised and as yet largely unarmed. This changed as ‘Sunni Brothers’ began to smuggle in light arms, which gradually became heavier arms. The Russians probably advised more repression and continued to arm the Syrian regime. After all, the improvements to the port of Tartus were coming along nicely and the Russian Mediterranean fleet would soon have a new home. The demonstrations turned noisier and the repression turned bloodier. Bashar held his nerve and the Russians continued to hold his hand whilst batting-off any attempts by the UN to actually do something.

 So what went wrong?

From the Soviet, oops sorry Freudian slip, from the Russian perspective Assad probably didn’t crack down hard enough soon enough. He continued to mutter about political reform, which is always a mistake for a dictator unless he actually means it. I can’t think of one off- hand who did and successfully implemented it, but if you can please post in the comments section. Somewhat ironically, the talk of reform actual did raise expectations and had Assad instigated even modest reforms his own position might well have remained secure. However, the ‘Old Guard’ knew full well that any real reform would see them out on their ears and quite possibly dangling from lampposts. The Sunni middle class were and probably still are, worried that their rural Sunni coreligionists will accuse them of supporting the regime and putting profits and an easy life before justice. Come the revolution brothers the second ones up against the wall are the middle-class. The cosmopolitan Sunnis continued to keep their heads down.

The revolt began to spread and the regime were always one-step behind. The repression got bloodier, the Russian arms continued to flow and America began to fret a bit. Other middle-eastern Sunni regimes increased their arms supplies to the opposition, who were becoming a little more organised. Defections from the army gave them a nucleus of fighters who actually knew how to fight and a few officers who knew how to plan military operations. The UN became mildly agitated and thought that they should do something. Vladi told Bashar to keep going and put the rebellion down, he’d block any moves in the UN that might threaten his position. The fighting got worse.

Something of a stalemate developed. The regime couldn’t put out the fires and the opposition, becoming more organised politically, couldn’t stage a successful revolution and overthrow the regime. Realizing that the West was unwilling to get militarily involved, certainly without the UN sanctioning it, the Russians most likely told Assad to hurry up and really crush the revolution. He tried, he really did. But he was unable to do it fast enough. The Russians had headed off several attempts by America to get the UN to approve strong sanctions, but things were beginning to slip out of control. Brutal massacres occurred which didn’t end the revolt but prodded the UN into putting forward a peace plan. Whether off his own bat or at Russian prompting, Assad accepted the plan, but certainly Putin would probably have advised him to accept the plan and then ignore it. I say probably, because there were some signs that the Russians were beginning to recognise that they had backed the wrong horse.

At this point, Assad could have packed and gone to Moscow or Tehran. That he didn’t indicates that either he was so isolated from events that he believed the situation wasn’t as bad as it actually was or he came up with Plan B. Or the Russians came up with Plan B. Vladi and his crew couldn’t afford to lose another client state and in particular wanted to be seen as a reliable ally, unlike America who apparently ditched old dictator-allies as and when it suited. Besides which Syria was still a major arms buyer and had oil. Not much it’s true, not in the global scheme of things, but enough to make it worthwhile preventing Syrian oil becoming a replacement for Iranian oil and so thwarting American efforts to increase pressure on Iran, also one of Assad’s backers.

 Russians changing talk?

Nope, not really. Faced with the clear collapse of the UN peace plan and the growing possibility that somebody will actually do something to stop the violence, Russia had to safeguard their future position in world affairs. Assad could go, but only if the Syrian people wanted him to go AND they booted him out without external help. Al Qaeda’s tentative involvement in the revolt added to the West’s sense of urgency. Russia continued to supply arms. Plan B became a real possibility. It’s worth restating Russian interests in all this.


  • They want to be perceived as a reliable ally, an alternative to America.
  • They want a Mediterranean base for their navy.
  • A destabilized Middle East threatens oil supplies and Russia has lots of oil.
  • If America is unwilling to tackle Iran then Israel will. That will drag in America.
  • Russia can then present themselves as ‘honest brokers’.

 Plan B

I’ve become convinced, and even more so after reading Abdullah Bozkurt’s article, that either Assad or the Russians have a fall-back position. Namely that of creating an Alawite state on the coastal plains of Syria. On the coastal plains and anywhere else they can ethnically cleanse, including chunks of Lebanon. This new state, heavily armed and supported by Russia now enjoying their new Mediterranean port facilities, has the potential to completely destabilize the entire area, just by existing. Does that sound like another state in the near vicinity?

The break up of Syria could well lead to a demand for an independent Kurdish state. America has already tried to head this off by refusing to speak separately to the Syrian Kurds. As a result of this, the revolution now has a new leader, Abdul Basit Sieda, a Kurdish activist currently living in Sweden. You would have thought that after the fiasco and political fallout from attempting to parachute-in a pro-American Iraqi exile as head of government after Saddam Hussein’s defeat that America might have learnt a lesson, but seemingly not. They have been pushing the Syrian opposition to be ‘all inclusive’ and they have what they wanted. Mister Sieda is not known for favouring an independent Kurdistan, so how that will sit with Syrian Kurds remains to be seen. Of course an independent or even autonomous Syrian Kurdish enclave might lead to Kurdish demands for that entity to unite with the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which itself is most likely heading for a break-up. Additionally, all this may encourage Turkish Kurds to press for more autonomy or even to try to breakaway and unite with another Kurdish entity. There is a small Alawite community in Turkey who might want to unite with an independent Alawite state. If Russia plays their cards right, they might just succeed in destabilising Turkey, a NATO member. That would cause a great deal of satisfaction in the Kremlin and no little angst in Washington.

An interesting little wrinkle in all this is who might support an independent Alawite state. Iran for sure, Russia obviously and Bozkurt suggests Israel. I don’t agree with him, I think it more likely that Israel would make overtures to a troubled Lebanon. It’s unlikely that there would be any form of rapprochement between a Sunni Syria and Israel. No opposition party right now is mentioning Israel and there is no Israeli appetite for handing back the Golan Heights, for sound strategic reasons. There might however be some empathy between a Syrian Kurdish enclave and Israel.

 The American response

On the face of it, the revulsion that the recent massacres in Syria have caused might give America a window of opportunity to militarily intervene. If they are going to do this, they will have to commit to nation building. Simply swapping Assad’s minority repressive Alawite regime with a majority Sunni repressive regime, not only persecuting Alawites but possibly ‘Sunni collaborators’ as well, will not be helpful and most likely would lead to further violence. All of which the Russians would be quite happy to see, no doubt, the ‘old enemy’ becoming embroiled in yet another mess.

There is no indication that America is prepared to nation build, so they had better keep out of it. The Russians on the other hand will keep supporting Assad as long as they can in the hope that he might just prevail. Failing that, Plan B and support Assad as long as he is useful to them, or support his successor if he starts sulking about losing the rest of Syria.

So indeed the game remains the same, only a few names have been changed. We won’t be fooled again, or will we?


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