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For Russia, Syria Is Not Afghanistan, But It's Bad Enough

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 6/10/2015 Dr. Josef Olmert
PUTIN © ASSOCIATED PRESS PUTIN

It is almost a Pavlovian reflex to compare one foreign military intervention to another, particularly if involving the same foreign interventionist power. So, the reaction of many in the West is that so far as Russia in Syria is concerned, it is Afghanistan all over again for the Russians. There may be some similarities, but they are overtaken in significance by the differences. Afghanistan is much bigger, a different geographic terrain and population composition. In the case of Afghanistan, the entire population was instantly hostile to the invaders as of 1980 onward, whereas in Syria, at least the Alawites and many Christians (a lot of them Orthodox with traditional sympathy to Russia) may be very happy, as for them, the Russian intervention is an insurance policy against Sunni Muslim jihadists.
That said, the Russians may be well advised to learn from the experience of others, not just themselves. Perhaps even listening to the Israelis, who intervened in Lebanon (not exactly like Syria, but very similar), and can tell them one or two things about the human terrain in the Levant... maybe even when high officers of the Russian and Israeli armies meet in Tel Aviv to coordinate military activities in Syria, in itself an historic meeting, and one which indicates, that Syria circa 2015 is not Afghanistan circa 1980. If the American military will also coordinate flights with the Russians it will be another indication that they want to evade mistakes made in Afghanistan; and surely, the more they coordinate with neighboring and interested countries, the less freedom of action they have. Here is one important impediment to a Russian success in Syria. Even if they solidify the Assad regime's hold of power in the regions where it is already in control now, though somewhat tenuously, they will not be able to restore this regime all over Syria.
Syria of pre-2011 is no more, and Russia cannot and will not change it. Then the question really is, Why is Vladimir Putin ready to do so much in order to save Assad so that the once proud dictator will be a formal ruler in Damascus, and an actual one in an extended Alawistan? The immediate answer is that the Russian intervention is designed primarily to prevent a complete collapse of the Alawite regime, something which would have been interpreted as a defeat to Russia. It is the opinion of this blog that since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Russians were in for business with the West, chiefly the US, about a political settlement in Syria. What they had in mind then was to keep Assad in charge of a loosely united Syria, a figurehead maybe, but still the formal, internationally recognized ruler. Internationally meaning the Arab and Muslim worlds on board. That cannot happen now. Egypt of President Sisi may utter some support for the Russian intervention, as the Egyptians remember, that former President Morsi allied his regime with the Sunni rebels in Syria, but in this case Egypt is the exception in the Arab and Muslim world. Here is where the Russians will have to accommodate themselves to the realities of the Middle East situation. They are positioning themselves now as enemies of the Sunni world, and this is where the similarity to Afghanistan may still haunt them. Statements by the Turkish President, as well as displays of anger in Saudi-Arabia, may be the shape of things to come. The vast majority of Russian Muslims are Sunnis, and fighting Sunnis in Syria may very quickly become a problem in Russia itself.
The Russians state that they will not send ground troops (and it remains to be seen whether they mean it or not), and if this is the case, then the aerial activity is bound to achieve only limited success, as the Western coalition can attest to; as can the Israelis in Lebanon in 2006, and in the Gaza campaigns since 2009. It may be a temptation to Putin to extend his involvement, if the American policy will continue to be unclear and hesitant. On the other hand, an American imposition of a no-fly zone in most of Northern Syria (as advocated by Hillary Clinton), as well as avoidance of Russian activity in South Syria, in recognition of Israeli interests (as the Russians say that they do), will be the best and most realistic solution of the immediate Syrian problem. Putin will be able to claim a victory, as Bashar Assad will stay nominal head of state, Israel will be satisfied with no Iranian and Hezbollah presence along the Southern border, and the Americans will be able to claim their success in containing the Russians.
This is the Middle East though, with its built-in hatreds and climate of mistrust, and add up to that the suspicions and bad blood between Russia and the US, so a scenario like the one described above, while desirable and possible, is still far from being the most likely. That said, the ball is in Putin's court. He calls most of the shots now; he may be intoxicated with a sense of power and initiative, but he ought to remember that while it is not Afghanistan, it is still a bad and very dangerous hornet's nest.

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