What Russia’s Syria Intervention Tells Us About Its Interference in the US Election

What Russia’s Syria Intervention Tells Us About Its Interference in the US Election

What Russia’s Syria Intervention Tells Us About Its Interference in the US Election

Playing on ethnic and racial divisions has become a hallmark of crony-capitalist Russia.


The attempted Syrian revolution is over save for the shouting, and the winner is the corrupt and authoritarian Assad family, a dynasty that has ruled the country with a titanium fist since 1970. This outcome is largely owing to the intervention in that country since 2015 by Russia’s air force. Last week a Russian lawmaker declared that ISIS (aka ISIL or the Islamic State) will be completely defeated by the end of the year. The Syrian intervention of President Vladimir Putin gives clues about how he sees the world and how his post-Soviet crony-capitalist state is attempting to shape it to Moscow’s liking.

Given that Soviet Communism virtually outlawed ethnic chauvinism in favor of justice on the basis of economic class, it is highly ironic that the successor state to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, has become a world-class instigator of ethnic bigotry for political gain. The Putin intervention in Syria depended heavily on a strategy of picking a side and crushing the other, eliding the ethnic overtones of doing so. In October Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who also oversees the defense ministry, affirmed at a summit in Moscow with Iraqi officials that he sees Damascus as fully committed to the war on terrorism and was sure the defeat of the terrorists in Syria would have a positive impact on Iraq. This identification of the largely Sunni Syrian opposition as terrorists tout court has been typical of Russian discourse on the war.

The Syrian opposition reflected a broad spectrum of Syrian society. In 2011, even old strongholds of the ruling Baath Party such as Deraa went into revolt. Some Christians and members of the Alawi sect, from which many high-ranking Baathists were drawn, joined the uprising. Admittedly, the big, ethnically diverse metropolitan populations largely remained with the regime, considering that they depended on it for their livelihoods and security. Most of Damascus proper, the major Mediterranean port of Latakia, and tony West Aleppo never joined in. The fiercest discontent was in the medium-sized cities of the center of the country and in the countryside, predominantly Sunni Arab. The Muslim Brotherhood and some hard-line Salafis, supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, among others, played an outsized role in the growing guerrilla movement. Still, prominent liberal oppositionists anticipated democratic elections in the aftermath of the overthrow of Assad, as happened in Tunisia when its dictator fled. The rise of ISIS after its split with Al Qaeda in 2013 cast an undeserved shadow over the entire opposition.

Assad appears to have deliberately pushed the opposition to militarize by attacking peaceful demonstrations with sniping and artillery barrages, and then declared them terrorists when they responded by picking up the gun. As the revolution became a war, the advantage went to the best-equipped and most dedicated fighters, many of whom went over to Sunni Muslim extremism in search of Saudi and other Gulf patronage and of the street cred that would attract volunteers and money from abroad.

President Putin gave a major speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club in mid-October in which he used the same language. He said, “Russia is opposing terrorists together with the legitimate Syrian Government and other states of the region, and is acting on the basis of international law.” He contrasted this full-bore aerial support for the Syrian army as an alternative to what he implied was an American approach of managed chaos and covert support for the terrorists Washington alleges it is fighting.

What isn’t transparent to those who do not know Syria well is that Putin is implicitly coding opposition Syrian Sunnis as terrorists or potential terrorists, and the ensconced Alawite Shiites at the top of the regime as the “legitimate Syrian Government.” It is a policy of ethnic divide-and-rule by an authoritarian state in the hands of a small group of like-minded people. Syrian aspirations for a free press, for above-board multiparty elections, and for an end to dynastic leadership have been thwarted. In part, these ideals were crushed by the turn of rebels to Sunni extremism and an unsavory alliance with outside powers like Saudi Arabia. But what was left of them was ground out of existence by Putin’s heel.

Setting up a straw-man argument, Putin contrasted the salubrious calm into which he had bombed Syria with the chaos produced by the policies of George W. Bush. He implied that Bush tried to “reshape and reformat” the Middle East “and to impose on it a foreign development model through externally orchestrated coups or simply by force of arms.” Putin means by “a foreign development model” any sort of democracy, free press, or human rights of the sort Tunisians strove for in 2011 and some important portion of which they have attained. Putin is perfectly correct that Bush’s daft notion that he could impose a new order on Iraq from the outside has caused no end of trouble. He is perfectly wrong in implying that people in the Middle East don’t deserve a decent life with basic human rights.

Putin’s view of Washington verges on conspiracy theory. He added, “Instead of working together to redress the situation and deal a real blow to terrorism rather than simulating a struggle against it, some of our colleagues are doing everything they can to make the chaos in this region permanent. Some still think that it is possible to manage this chaos.” While ham-fisted US intervention in the region has been a total failure, this description is a Potemkin village of obfuscation, a façade of reasonable words that can be translated as saying that all dissent in Syria is “terrorism” and that discontent with the Assad oligarchy and its brutal torture regime is artificial, fomented by a hypocritical Washington using jihadis with the covert aim of creating a string of fundamentalist Muslim states.

Putin is not completely incorrect here, since it is becoming clear that US allies like Saudi Arabia were much more centrally involved in supporting the opposition and in herding it toward a hard-line fundamentalist Salafism than was earlier recognized (though the Saudi favorite was the Army of Islam, not ISIS or the Al Qaeda–linked Nusra Front), and the United States itself was implicated in this unwise militarization of the revolution. That Washington policy elites are often ill-informed and overly ambitious, however, is not an excuse for backing a seedy police state.

On the other hand, the United States has quite effectively linked up with the leftist-anarchist Kurds of the People’s Protection Units to defeat ISIS in Raqqa, which can’t be characterized either as the promotion of fundamentalism or as a mere simulation of fighting terrorism. Putin’s simplistic conspiracy theory cannot account for the full range of actual Washington policy, which is as realist and narrowly self-interested—and therefore complex—as his own.

Putin may not be completely wrong in implying that the United States covertly (if unintentionally) promoted the Muslim fundamentalism it claims to be combating; the CIA reportedly spent $1 billion on the Sunni Arab rebels over a four-year period. That allegation, however, could easily be turned back on him. His Syrian adventure involved giving close air support to the Lebanese Shiite fundamentalist militia, Hezbollah, its Iraqi counterparts, and to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which came into Syria to defend Assad’s secular proto-Stalinist regime at the direction of Iran’s theocratic leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—now one of Putin’s closest de facto allies.

Russia could also be accused of playing with Syrian lives by declining to expend significant resources against ISIS until very recently. Putin’s intervention concentrated for most of its first two years on defeating the Sunni guerrilla groups, whether local moderates, Muslim Brotherhood, or the Al Qaeda–linked Syrian Conquest Front (formerly the Nusra Front) in western Syria.

Playing on ethnic and racial divisions has become a hallmark of crony-capitalist Russia. In the United States, as well, during the 2016 presidential campaign Russian websites pretending to be American waged vicious campaigns against African-American dissenters such as Black Lives Matter and against Arab-Americans, and attempted to tie both to the Clinton campaign. At the same time, some Moscow-linked sites attempted to stir African-American militancy in order to slam Clinton. The aim was to put Trump and the Breitbart gang of alt-white supremacists in power in Washington, in hopes they would prove to be isolationists and stop sanctioning Putin’s government over human-rights issues. Putin appears to have attempted a similar creepy alliance with the French National Front, whose Marine Le Pen obligingly sided with Moscow over the annexation of Crimea.

Both in the Middle East and in North America, Putin prefers strongmen and police states, dependent on public fears and ethnic bigotry for their popularity, to the “chaos” of dissent and a free press and messy parliamentary politics. In Syria, he has won. It remains to be seen if over the long term he will prevail in North America and Western Europe.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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