Is Putin’s ‘holy war’ aimed at saving the Middle East or bolstering Assad’s regime?

Published: October 14, 2015
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Putin himself admitted that Russia’s military in Syria is to bolster Assad’s regime. PHOTO: REUTERS

The last time Russia conducted military operations in the Middle East, the word ‘Nazis’ was not preceded by the prefix ‘neo’ and Russians were still called ‘Soviets’ without any accompanying nostalgia. In other words, the last time Russia warred in the Middle East, it was World War II.

That is, at least, according to CBS News’ Steve Kroft, who last week interviewed President Obama on 60 Minutes. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seems to have been lost to oversight, but that’s another matter.

Perhaps in tribute to the American adage of ‘coming back with a bang’ (but don’t tell the Russians that), Mr Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Syria shifted suddenly, going from only supporting Bashar al Assad through strong-toned rhetoric befitting of a staunch ally like Mr Putin, to an all-out, nigh-apocalyptic warfare (with even more supportive rhetoric). Witness Russia’s zealous airstrikes over the past two weeks and you would be forgiven to think that Assad finally buckled and pleaded with his Russian cohort for help. And perhaps, that is what really happened.

However, regardless of whether Russia’s foray into Syria was the result of Assad’s SOS or Putin’s megalomania looking for its next high after invading Crimea – and regardless still of whether military interference had been a last-ditch card buried in Russia’s deck, or if Putin was simply waiting for the opportune moment to execute a royal flush –  the fact remains unassailable: Russia is now in Syria, seemingly to stay until Daesh is defeated and Assad is sufficiently bolstered, or, as in the case of Afghanistan, until they can no longer stay.  The Soviets probably didn’t think that invading Afghanistan would lead to a war lasting over nine years.

Until recently, advocates of Russia’s military interference in Syria could have relied on the only argument that barely justifies Russia’s behemoth display of military muscle – that Russia entered Syria to fight Daesh. Opponents of this argument could, until two days ago, assert that Russia’s tactics were solely aimed at aiding Assad. As for Syria’s other ally, Iran, the opportunity to hail Russia’s intervention as a rightful challenge to the Great Satan’s influence in the region will probably be welcome. But all that changed when Putin himself admitted, with the bone of his own tongue (as the Arabic proverb goes), that Russia’s military in Syria is to bolster Assad’s regime.

Putin told the state-run Russia 24 TV:

“Our task is to stabilise the legitimate government and to create conditions for a political compromise.”

Then, he couldn’t help but clarify,

“By military means, of course.”

But Mr Putin’s caveat was unnecessary, because by the time he had made the preceding statement, any moral justification for Russia’s airstrikes, any ammunition of Russia’s intervention’s advocates, in fact, was lost. The fight against Daesh became a corollary of Putin’s “holy war” in Syria, but by his admission, not the reason for it. The real reason is simple and requires no mention: keep Assad in place.

So if Russia’s efforts end up obliterating Daesh like Putin clearly hopes, the bill for exterminating ISIS the Russian way would come bearing the expense of another evil – longer life for the Assad regime.

It’s impossible to disagree with the necessity of defeating Daesh, but it’s also difficult to disregard that it’s only being done to keep a war criminal in office. The trade-off leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

As for Putin himself, his loyal cadre and advisors get to reassure him of his strategy’s premature success –  they might wish to inform him of reports that a “Putin craze” sweeps the Middle East and that people kiss photos of him in public, or that Iraqis, desperate for Daesh’s removal from Iraq,  hail him as “Sheikh Putin”, or they might get him up to speed on the Western media outlets wondering if the offensive of the Spetsnaz (Russia’s elite military force) signals the end of ISIS. It’s difficult not to imagine the former KGB agent feeling a prickle of pride.

As for me, I really would join in the chorus welcoming Russia back to the Middle East after a 26-year absence.  In fact, I wish I could. Except, knowing their motivations, I can’t.

Ahmed Samir

Ahmed Samir

The author is an undergraduate journalism student and journalist-under-training at the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. His posts have also been published in The Huffington Post, The Hill, and others. He tweets as @AhmedSamirS (twitter.com/ahmedsamirs)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Robert2011GB

    ISIS is the closest thing to pure evil in this World.

    It must be annihilated and eviscerated.

    If Russia destroys ISIS then Russia will earn the gratitude of the entire World.Recommend

  • PatelPara

    hahahaha this is expected by any pro american journalist nowadays. Russia is killing all the investment of Americans in that region.

    http://ronpaulinstitute.org/archives/peace-and-prosperity/2015/october/12/breaking-washington-airdrops-tons-of-weapons-to-rebels-in-syria/Recommend

  • Aalia Suleman

    By inviting the Russians in, Assad has sold his soul to the devil. Recommend

  • Buba

    Most of Russia’s attacks have been in direct support of Assad’s troops – and those troops tend to avoid IS and attack the moderate opposition. A callous approach designed to leave the West with the difficult choice of IS vs Assad.Recommend

  • cautious

    Name one time when Putin has done anything that isn’t self serving? He wants to save the Assad regime which is his only footprint in the Middle East and he doesn’t care whether it alienates 10% of his own population which are largely Sunni. Most evidence indicates that Russian forces are concentrating their attacks on the moderate opposition – a tactic that Assad has used to send a message to the West that it’s him or IS.Recommend

  • curious2

    “As for me, I really would join in the chorus welcoming Russia back to
    the Middle East after a 26-year absence. In fact, I wish I could.
    Except, knowing their motivations, I can’t”

    Anti American bias trumped by a bit of common sense .. that’s a first.Recommend

  • pappu the rockstar

    ISIS are sunnisRecommend

  • marik

    Assad is bad, why? You want Syria to turn out like Libya and Afghanistan?Recommend

  • Jayman

    This is the beginning of the Second Crusade.Recommend

  • Jayman

    Nothing wrong with that. What has Assad done that the Saudis have not? If Assad’s regime is brutal, the Saudis are even worse. In fact, dismantling the Al-Saud family will fix the problems of the Middle-East to a large extent.Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    WW3 is in the making people. Lets all go to Australia!Recommend

  • Mr.Putin

    ISIS are not sunnis, they are mercenaries, they fight for who pay more.Recommend

  • Parvez

    America’s penchant for ‘ regime change ‘ without accepting responsibility when it goes horribly wrong ( history shows this happening more than once ) is irresponsible policy, to put it mildly……..Syria is the latest addition to the list.Recommend

  • Milind A

    That’s a simplistic assertion.. Dismantling Al-Saud will result in additional chaos and may be replaced by some other brutal or self-serving ruler.. Let’s face it.. Muslims don’t have it in them to form a self-governing, democratic & progressive society…Recommend

  • pappu the rockstar

    they are.Recommend

  • cautious

    Al-Saud family may have it’s faults …. but to my knowledge they haven’t used chemical weapons on their own civilians or dropped barrel bombs in populated cities. Assad is as bad as it gets – makes Saudi’s look like angels.Recommend

  • Jane Stein

    there’s nothing like Australia!Recommend

  • Jane Stein

    its exactly what the US and allies wantRecommend

  • Matt Canadianintokyo

    NOBODY is buying the media`s story anymore. “Assad is bad, Putin is bad,” I`ve heard it over and over again. Why is Putin bad? Because he`s killing terrorists? Is that bad? Why is Asad bad? Because he`s fighting terrorists? And guess what…by the looks of the comments below, and 90% of the comments I see around the internet – NOBODY is buying Obama`s (wishy-washy, side flipping) story or the mainstream media anymore either. I`d say the MAJORITY of US + Canadian + European citizens feel more connected with Putin, than they do with their “leaders.” European and American “Leaders,” who are arming terrorists, and brining in “refugees,” (aka. the Trojan horse) into Europe en-masse. I`d never thought I`d see the day when a Russian president seems to be the more trustworthy person out there. Who believes the New York Times? Or Reuters? Or CNN anymore anyways? It`s all crap – does Obama have a plan or not? Cause I`m thinking Putin has clear goals.Recommend

  • Matt Canadianintokyo

    it would`t be fair fight- the west would CRUSH the middle east.Recommend

  • Jayman

    That doesn’t mean that you condone the terrible Al-Saud regime.Recommend

  • Fahimuddin

    I think west should put their faith in Shia Islam and leave alliance with wahabi Islam ASAPRecommend

  • David Dzidzikashvili

    Putin is smart and cunning and every move he makes is very thoroughly calculated to further his own goals and agenda. It’s no secret that Putin himself is pursuing an aggressive revisionist policy designed to undermine the post WW2 and post–Cold War orders…

    His possible disengagement from Syria can be associated with the following three scenarios: A. Putin miscalculated and saw the raise of Iran and all the victories going to Iran in the region, who is merely borrowing the Russian Air force. Therefore, once Putin realized there were no bigger prizes for him other than the airbase in Latakia, he decided to pull out and let Iran pursue the remainder of strategic war goals. Also, what Putin achieved at a minimum strengthened Assad regime, so he has a bigger negotiating power during the peace talks.

    B. Domestic economic pressures – bombing runs and maintaining effective military power needs serious financial resources. Once Putin had achieved his minimum – strengthened Assad regime, he claimed the credit at home and made another strategic move to pull the bigger force, while maintaining the minimum presence.

    C. This might be just another trick & maneuver in Putin’s handbook and this might not mean any sort of withdrawal on the short-term or long-term, since the Russian air force is still continuing bombing the rebels in Syria after the withdrawal announcement. What did Putin want to accomplish? Time will show us…Recommend