President Putin is a pirate, no less. In his declaration at the UN, he stole President Bush Jr’s copyrighted 2001 call to fight Terror. That’s why the Americans were taken aback: the Russian President played back at them the best tropes of their own presidents. This was a clever subterfuge: instead of pointing out the disagreement between the Russians and the US, Putin took the whole American discourse and appropriated it. People conditioned to this talk swallowed it, hook, line, and and sinker, and even liked it: readers of the popular NY Daily News preferred Putin’s speech to that of their own president 95% to 5 %. So did Donald Trump. Putin probably would take the Republican nomination if he were to run for it, so Trump wants to take these Putin votes.
And now, the Russians began their war on Terror. George W Bush’s War on Terror was a sham; would the Russian one be any better? The Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, by Arabic acronym), the declared object of the campaign, is an elusive entity, like al Qaeda, – or like the Snark of Lewis Carroll’s poem. It is a franchise, a network, rather than a state. It can’t be undone by airstrikes anymore than al Qaeda was.
Putin said that the US unleashed thousands of airstrikes at Daesh, and nobody knows where those bombs landed and whether they had any impact. The West says the same about the Russian strikes. The British Minister of Defence promptly estimated that 5% of the Russian bombs hit Daesh, while the rest landed on other fighting units a.k.a. “the moderate opposition”. Though this number of 5% could only be achieved by divination or by reading tea leaves, it is plausible that the Russians will use the war on Daesh for their own purpose. What is the Russian plan?
They do not want to present Assad with an unlimited victory. The Russians want to sort out the Syrian mess created by the Assad-must-go mantra, and force the sane opposition to negotiate with the Syrian government, eventually restoring the Syrian state. Forcing someone to negotiate is Russian know-how; they applied it recently in the Ukraine. The Kiev regime was unwilling to negotiate and settle with the Donbass, hoping to win the war. Then crack Russian troops entered Eastern Ukraine to the south of Donbass and moved for the sea port of Mariupol. Their speed, mettle and success were so overwhelming that they could have taken Mariupol and proceeded unhindered to Kherson and Odessa. The Kiev regime sued for peace, the Russians accepted the plea, their troops went home to the barracks, Mariupol remained under Kiev rule, and the Minsk agreements were signed.
Probably the Russians will use the same routine, first in Western Syria, the most populated part of the country. The opposition will have a choice of (a) negotiating and entering a coalition with the government, (b) being bombed to smithereens as Daesh, or (c) escaping to the deserts of Eastern Syria, Turkey or Iraq. The US, French, British and the Turks say that Russians are bombing the moderate opposition rather than Daesh. From Russian point of view, those who refuse to negotiate are Daesh by definition, and so they deserve to be bombed. In short, if they are bombed they are Daesh.
Daesh has strong propaganda value: they make videos of chopped heads and blown up antiques and drive around in dashing new jeeps. They are called the Ultimate Evil by President Obama, President Putin and the Pope. Such an Ultimate Evil has its useful application as it justifies military action. For Obama, Daesh provides a licence to bomb Syria forever. For Putin, Daesh provides a chance to pressure the opposition for compromise.
Does Daesh exist in a normal way, or is an apparition of smoke and mirrors? We do remember that the dreadful al-Qaeda of 9/11 fame turned out to be an almost virtual entity, and eventually became an ally of the US under its new name of Jabhat al Nusra. This is a moot point.
Just consider that the neighbours—Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates—do not fight Daesh.
Daesh says it wants to free Palestine, but they have never, ever harmed an Israeli. The Israelis would fight them if they considered them being dangerous to Israel. Israeli officials have said privately to the Russians: “Daesh are bad guys, but of little importance. Why are you obsessed with them?”
Daesh says they will liberate Mecca and send the the Saudis back to desert, but they never did anything against the Saudis. As the Russian bombs fell, the Saudis were the first to cry “Stop it!”
The Turks said they will fight Daesh, but instead, they bombed the Kurds. Thierry Meyssan, the French journalist based in Damascus, considers Daesh a Turkish creature and says Daesh sells oil to the Turks. The Turks denied that. Turkish officials told me that Daesh sells its illegal oil to Bashar al-Assad and that Bashar does not fight Daesh. Bashar’s people say they do not fight Daesh because they were told to keep away by the US. Back to square one.
This line was confirmed by Russian officials. They said that in September 2014 they were approached by the Americans who warned them that they would begin bombing Daesh-held areas. They asked the Russians to pass a message to the Syrian government saying that the bombing campaign was not aimed against Damascus, and they should sit tight and would not be hurt. The US did not want to speak directly to Bashar al-Assad.
The Russians refused to pass the message. If you have a message for the Syrian government, try Western Union, they said, or do it yourself. And the Americans did it. They told Bashar directly that they will bomb Daesh positions and he should stay out and keep his cool.
It appears that at the face-to-face Putin-Obama meeting at the UN HQ, this argument was aired again. President Obama said that Assad does not fight against Daesh and President Putin retorted that this was the US demand: stay out and do not meddle. Assad waited for a whole year, and so did we, said Putin, and meanwhile the territory under Assad’s control shrunk down to 30% or even less.
Obama demanded more transparency regarding Russian plans and intentions. Putin retorted he also could use more transparency regarding American plans. What do you want to achieve in Syria, asked Obama. Putin asked the same question, and got no answer. Obama said Russian involvement in the war with Daesh would fortify Assad. Putin asked: whom will your involvement fortify? We do not want to liberate territories for Assad, said Obama. For whom, pray tell me, do you do to liberate the territories?, asked Putin, and received no answer. Who will rule the territories after your victory? Again there was no clear answer.
This is the difference between the Russian and American approach: the Russians want to save the Syrian state, while the Americans want to rejoice in the fall of the tyrant. Russians stress that they are not committed to Assad’s rule. They “aren’t married to Assad”, as they say. To Obama’s Assad must go, Putin did not reply with Assad must stay. This is not your business, he said, and it is not Saudis’ business neither. This is an internal Syrian affair. We do not want to remove or appoint presidents in other countries, said Putin.
Indeed, Putin could have removed the Georgian president in August 2008, he could have saved the Ukrainian president Yanukovych in February 2014; he could have changed or replaced presidents in other neighbouring states like the US removed Noriega of Panama, but, for good or for ill, he did not do it. Regime change is as American as apple pie; Putin does not go for it. Many Russians think this adherence to international law is Putin’s fault; perhaps, nobody is perfect.
Putin reminded Obama that at G8 summit in Northern Ireland it was decided to arrange a meeting of all the Syrian parties against terrorism. However, the US proposed to form a united Syrian coalition government and only afterwards to proceed to fight terrorism. The Russians proposed to do this by parallel tracks, forming a coalition and fighting terrorism, but they could not prevail. Russians are committed to the Geneva-1 agreement calling for the negotiations of all Syrian parties of the conflict. The US are co-signatories of Geneva-1, but they refused to act.
Russians made a huge effort to get the opposition together for negotiations, but in vain. The opposition is fragmented into thirty or more groups, and they can’t even sit together, let alone sit with the Syrian government. When the Russians proposed a conference, the opposition refused. They said: the government has a position, but we have thirty differing positions, how can we negotiate? The Russians asked the powers to produce at least a short list of moderate opposition groups. Only Turkey came up with a list, but this list was totally unacceptable to Egypt, as it contained mainly Muslim Brotherhood splinters. Other powers did not even propose a short list.
A month or so ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the last attempt to convince the opposition saying “if you do not work together, Syria will cease to exist. There will be no Assad, and no Syria. Damascus will fall to Daesh”. It did not have an impact either.
Russia made a great effort to build consensus around its actions in Syria. It appears that the recent British killing-by-drone of two British subjects in Syria has influenced the Russian mind. The Brits justified this killing in a foreign land, in breach of international law, by Article 51 of the UN Charter (self-defence). Sergey Lavrov was overheard fuming: if having two Brits among Daesh volunteers justifies a British airstrike on the grounds of self-defence, aren’t the Russians entitled to similar recourse as there are three thousand Russian volunteers with Daesh? It seems that this comparison has been made by President Putin. He was also sick and tired of being lectured and restrained while everybody else enjoyed a marvelous freedom of action.
A Daesh victory was unacceptable for the Russians as the traditional custodians of Syrian Christians, for Daesh is very bad for Christians. Some were slaughtered and some had to flee. From this point of view, al Qaeda, al Nusra and similar extreme groups are not better. Russia is committed to preservation of a Syrian state tolerant to religious and ethnic minorities (not necessarily a laic state), but certainly Russia would never allow the majority Sunnis to be discriminated against, either.
Russia is home to some twenty million Sunni Muslims (and very few Shia) who are fully integrated and occupy all walks of life and important positions in the Russian state. One of the more fervent and outspoken Russian Muslims is Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of warlike Chechnya. He expressed his support for the Russian airstrikes and offered to lead his fighters into battle in the Syrian hills in order to save the Syrians from the wrath of Takfiris (=those who call other Muslims “Kaffir”, “infidel” – a name for Daesh and other Muslim extremists). So for the Russians, this is not a Crusade of Christians against Muslims, but a war of Christians and Muslims against Takfiri sects.
Russians are also worried by possible influx of takfiris and jihadis into Russia proper. The US would not mind such a development, as it would keep Russia occupied at home.
The Russians would like to build a grand coalition for saving Syria, a coalition that includes the Western states as well as Muslim states. That’s why President Putin reminded everyone of the grand coalition against Hitler’s Germany. However, there is no chance for such a consensus. The US wants Syria to be utterly destroyed, and certainly it wants the Russians to fail in their endeavour.
That’s why the Russian planes were still on the ground warming their engines while the social networks already went abuzz showing photos of Syrian children killed by Russian bombs. We may expect more of the same in the next few days. If Russians will be successful, their adversaries are likely to set up an atrocity: the downing of a civilian airliner, the bombing of a school,and suchlike. We should be ready for such a development.
Israel Shamir reports from Moscow. He can be reached at [email protected]
This article was published first at the Unz Review.