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Putin the Peacenik?

By Seth Thompson

The Russian intervention in Syria may actually be a positive step toward an end to the nightmare that the Syrian civil war has become. To see why what has been widely regarded in the United States as a significantly negative development is in fact a potentially positive one, it is necessary to dispel some myths..

Myth. # 1: Bashar al-Assad is the bogeyman who singlehandedly turned Syria’s Arab Spring moment into a nightmare.

The popular image of a “dictator” is a solitary figure – probably crazy – who says “jump” and all his minions ask “how high?” In fact, the Syrian regime that has grown up in the 40 years since Hafez al-Assad came to power via military coup rests on an interlocking elite sitting atop the military, economic, and political establishments. It is important to remember that Assad is only the accidental face of that regime. 

There was a great deal of hope in Syria when Bashar al-Assad took over after his father’s death in 2000.  The regime — that had once been markedly successful in the 1980s for developing the economy, expanding education and health care, improving the lives of rural peasants, and creating an urban middle class — had suddenly become old and tired. Instead of infusing new blood into the tired old elite, getting the economy back on track, reducing corruption, and allowing greater latitude for political expression, Assad fell under the sway of his father’s inner circle and, at long last, there were no reforms and no progress, just declining support for the regime.

Myth #2: Bashar al-Assad could have been thrown under the bus by the Syrian elites.

Faced with massive unrest and protests, the Egyptian military and political powers that be chose to arrange for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak rather than engage in bloody repression. But the Syrian elite is drawn heavily from the Alawite minority. The vagaries of history and geographical isolation created a tightly knit community in a mountainous area of rural Syria that was regarded with suspicion and disdain by their neighbors. Faced with periodic persecution and aggression, the Alawites developed a distinctive culture accommodating a version of Shi’a Islam that relies on esoteric teachings known only to the elders of the community. French colonial policy in Syria after World War I, as elsewhere in the world, actively recruited members of minority communities to participate in the administration. A key to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power was a cadre of fellow Alawite military officers. 

The Egyptian elites could coolly calculate that Mubarak could be removed from power without threatening their own status and position; the Syrian elite perceived an attack on Assad as an attack on the Alawites and feared that they and their community would be swept away if they opened the floodgates.

Myth #3 The “Syrian Civil War” is a Syrian civil war.

There are multiple dimensions of war in the area marked “Syria” on maps. At the local level, there is conflict between a shifting array of militias and armed groups and the Syrian armed forces.

However, there is no single entity opposed to the Syrian regime. There are mostly small local militias organized around a local notable or tribal chief, and there are Islamist fighters in several distinct groups. While they all share the loose goal of getting rid of the Assad regime, they are more often divided by local issues, and distinct visions of what the ideal future looks like. On any given day, two or more of these groups may be cooperating. Yet it is equally likely they are shooting at each other.

Forces outside Syria are involved. Some came to support the regime; some came to oppose it.  Iran offered aid and comfort to its long time friends in Damascus, and Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters from Lebanon. Some money and arms came from Saudi Arabia and Gulf States to the diverse forces fighting the regime. 

The interlocking conflicts moved to yet another dimension with the increasing involvement of the United States, France, and Britain. A host of international agencies tried to deal with the flood of refugees to neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Syria.  The U.N. Security Council called for an end to the conflict. 

The eruption of the so-called Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria adds another layer of complication and brutality.

Myth #4 Putin is Just Out to Cause Trouble in Syria

Saying “Putin” is convenient shorthand but it obscures far more than it reveals. The Russian government is a constellation of large bureaucracies, each with its own turf and interests. Putin is undoubtedly the most important player in decision making, but he is not alone. Governments always have multiple reasons for what they do. And what they do is always the result of an interaction between the goals, intentions, and interests of the people making the decision and the situation in which they find themselves.

The Potential Positive Consequences

The Russian military has changed the dynamics in Syria. Its air strikes and cruise missile attacks have supported a renewed offensive by the Syrian army. Any damage done to the Islamic State is a more or less accidental bonus. Whatever hopes opponents might have had that the Syrian army and/or regime was on the verge of collapse have vanished.

The immediate impact has been significant: Iran, a critically important player, has now been invited to join the talks (about talking about talks) that have been held periodically in Vienna. And the Russians tabled a proposal for a transitional regime that was immediately rejected by everyone else, but it did suggest that Assad would not necessarily remain in power indefinitely. If a bus came along some months from now and Assad were standing close to the curb ...

There is a painfully long way to go before there will be any hope the suffering of Syrians will end and certainly no guarantee that some kind of solution will emerge from Vienna, let alone on the ground. Still, as strange as it may sound, Putin may have increased the odds of peace.

*****

*****

Seth Thompson is Professor Emeritus at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of Freedom House]

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