After weeks of dancing around the issue, the Obama administration has expressed concern about “heightened military activity” by Russia in Syria.
But what if we are facing something more than “heightened military activity?” What if Moscow is preparing to give Syria the full Putin treatment?
For years, Russia has been helping Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad cling to a diminishing power structure in a shrinking territorial base without trying to impose an overall strategy.
Now, however, there are signs that Russia isn’t content to just support Assad. It wants to control Syria.
The Putin treatment is reserved for countries in Russia’s “near neighborhood” that try to break out of Moscow’s orbit and deprive it of strategic assets held for decades.
In such cases, unable to restore its past position, Russia tries to create a new situation in which it keeps a sword dangling above the head of the recalcitrant nation.
Russia’s military intervenes directly and indirectly, always with help from a segment of the local population concerned. Russia starts by casting itself as protector of an ethnic, linguistic or religious minority that demands its military intervention against a central power vilified with labels such as “fascist” and “terrorist.”
The first nation to experience the Putin treatment was Georgia in 2008, when Russian tanks moved in to save the Persian-speaking Ossetian minority and the Turkish-speaking Abkhazians from “the fascist regime” in Tbilisi.
Initially, Putin had feared that the US or the European Union might not let his war of conquest go unpunished. But nothing happened. President Obama talked of “reset” with Moscow, agreed to set up a joint committee to look into the matter and then allowed the whole thing to fade away.
Tested in Georgia with success, the Putin treatment was next applied to Ukraine, where a pro-West regime was talking of joining the European Union and even NATO. Russia intervened in Crimea to “save” its Russian-speaking majority from oppression.
Facing no opposition, Putin simply annexed Crimea before giving the Donetsk area of eastern Ukraine the same treatment, this time with the help of “Russian volunteers” coming to help fellow Russian-speakers.
In Ossetia, Putin gained control of key passages to Chechnya and upper Caucasus.
In Abkhazia, he extended Russian presence on the Black Sea.
In Crimea, he saved the Russian Navy’s largest base.
In Donetsk he obtained a political pistol aimed at the temple of the government in Kiev.
Pro-West Azerbaijan, meanwhile, is threatened after Putin helped Armenia snatch the enclave of Upper Qarabagh (Nagorno Karabakh) in Transcaucasia.
What about Syria?
The Soviet Union had a military presence in Syria since 1971, when Hafez al-Assad, father of the present despot, signed a defense pact with Moscow. The pact gave Russia mooring rights in two of Syria’s ports, Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean. The older Assad, however, shied away from granting Russians permanent bases.
Last year, Putin asked Bashar to let Russia build aero-naval assets on the Syrian coast to facilitate support for the regime in Damascus. Then still hopeful of surviving the civil war, Bashar managed to dodge the issue with help from his allies in Tehran.
Now, however, both Assad and the mullahs of Tehran know that they cannot fight this war much longer. Assad has publicly admitted he does not have enough men to keep the territory he still controls let alone recapture what he has lost amounting to 60% of the Syrian landmass. Reluctant to risk Iranian lives, the mullahs have sent Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and “volunteers” from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight for Assad. But they, too, have suffered irreparable losses.
After weeks of talks between Assad and the Russians with the mullahs also engaged by both sides, it now seems that Russia has obtained what it wanted: the right to build permanent aero-naval bases on the Syrian coast. Recent satellite images show that massive construction work has already started. At the same time, Russia has won control of Bassel al-Assad airport, the second-largest in Syria, transforming it into a hub for its “air-bridge” operations spanning Iranian and Iraqi air spaces.
Russia is bringing in new aircraft and surface-to-surface missile ostensibly for transfer to Syrian forces but in reality under direct Russian control. According to estimates in the Iranian media, Russia now has some 20,000 military “technicians and advisors” in Syria.
The stage is set for the full Putin treatment. Russia no doubt looks to the 1920s scheme under which Syria was divided into five segments, with France, then the colonial power, retaining direct control only of the area between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean coast. The French called that “la Syrie utile” (useful Syria) allowing the rest of the country, much of it thinly inhabited desert to morph into ungoverned territory.
Accounting for about 15% of territory, “Useful Syria” is now home to more than half of the population, partly thanks to influx of displaced people from other parts of the country. The strip between the coast and the mountains has the added advantage of being the principal base of the Alawite community to which Assad and his clan belong.
Get ready for Russia to cast itself as the protector, not only of the Alawites but also of other minorities such as Turcoman, Armenians and, more interestingly for Moscow, Orthodox Christians who have fled Islamist terror groups such as ISIS.
Russia has always seen itself as the “Third Rome” and the last standard-bearer of Christianity against both Catholic “deviation” and Islamist menace.
By controlling a new mini-state, as a “safe haven for minorities,” Russia could insist that if Syria returns to some normality it be reconstituted as a highly decentralized state. This is what Putin is also demanding in Georgia and Ukraine.
The Syrian coast will become another Crimea, if not completely annexed, at least occupied.
Unless stopped, the Putin treatment will not end in Syria. The two next candidates could be Moldova and Latvia, both of which have large Russian-speaking minorities.
On Friday, Russian fighter jets arrived in Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter responded by saying he had a “constructive conversation” with his Russian counterpart, who insisted the buildup was “defensive in nature.” Carter said discussions would continue. In other words, Russia will continue to carve a foothold on the Mediterranean.
While President Obama practices a postmodern diplomacy of perceptions — in other words window-dressing — Putin perfects his pre-modern power play.
Putin has arranged it so that no matter what happens in Syria, he wins — and we lose.