Collateral damage. Syria relief poster, Brussels.

So Russia is now an active participant in the Syrian civil war. The pretext is standard: Islamic State must be defeated at any cost to the Syrian people. Yet the bombs are falling on other rebel targets – al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, no doubt – and civilian targets are not out of bounds. Russian bombs have already hit hospitals and medical centres. These incidents will only increase as the bombing continues, and the war continues to hurtle onward.

As I wrote before the Russian army began bombing Syria, Vladimir Putin has a more coherent strategy than the Western powers – which still cling to the hope that Islamic State and Assad can be defeated at once. Putin begins from a different premise: Assad’s regime is the most legitimate force in the war. This may be a key strength, but it doesn’t guarantee victory – nor does it justify itself. Four years of war have left 250,000 people dead, maybe more, and displaced millions.

No one power seems capable of destroying the other. But this could quickly change. Bashar al-Assad could be ousted by his generals. Islamic State could takeover a major city and declare a new capital, which would be a tremendous blow. That’s why Assad has been so desperate to cling onto Aleppo. If the Alawite-Sunni alliance, on which the Syrian regime depends collapses, then there will be a strong power vacuum.

The endless war

In this case, Syria will fall into the abyss. As if the conflict wasn’t already bad enough, imagine total chaos. It’s plausible external powers would back whichever factions they can to try and regain control over the situation. There are a han full of countries where this has happened: Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and now Syria possibly. It’s not pretty, to put it mildly.

Russia has been here before. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, first to topple Hafizullah Amin, who it found untrustworthy and unstable, then it set about trying to turn the Parcham wing of the People’s Democratic Party into the centre of power in the country. Babral Karmal was its Menshevik front man. The Mujahideen, backed by the US and Pakistan, was its adversary. In the end, the Soviet Union was humiliated.

Syrian relief posters. Schaerbeek, September 2015.
Syrian relief posters. Schaerbeek, September 2015.

Today, Russia cannot afford to reenact this catastrophe. Despite this historical lesson, the Putin government has not been deterred from invading Syria on the side of the Assad regime. Up to now, he was playing the distant game. In early 2013, Putin made his stance clear at the UN Security Council and stood in unanimity with China. When it looked like the US was getting ready for ‘punitive bombing’, in August 2013 Putin was sending arms to Assad.

Now the Russian leader has ‘little green men’ flying over Syria to dump explosives on the rebels. There has been a dramatic shift over the last two years, and it may come down to one country: Ukraine. The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea provoked outrage in the West, and led the US and the EU to impose sanctions on the Russian Federation. As wrong as it was for Russian troops to march into a sovereign nation-state, the most outraged squeals came from war criminals.

As the Russian economy faces bleak prospects – thanks to the collapse of oil prices, never mind the sanctions, the rouble has collapsed in value – the Ukrainian crisis is being felt in the homes of ordinary Russians. If Putin cannot stabilise the economy, he could face serious domestic opposition. The boost in popularity over Ukraine could easily disappear. The end of the Yeltsin years left Putin with a great deal of credibility. He appeared as a necessary force, providing order and stability.

High-risk strategy

According to financial journalist Andrew Critchlow, Putin is playing a high-risk strategy to drive oil prices up. To undermine the Russian economy, the US and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly slashed oil prices. This has hit Russia hard, but it also threatens to destabilise the Saudi dictatorship. Rather than back down, Putin has moved to confront his enemies via the Syrian civil war. And he has moved to strengthen the Syrian regime and the Iranian government, which pose serious obstacles to Saudi Arabia.

The big picture. Brussels, September 2015.
The big picture. Brussels, September 2015.

By invading Syria, Russia can throttle the jihadist rebels mobilised by Saudi and Qatari petro-dollars. It might be the means to exhaust the Saudi royal family. King Salman can’t afford to face chaos at home either. If the House of Saud feels its position threatened by the Syrian civil war, it may back down. In this case, King Salman may cut oil production to allow prices to rise. This would help ease the strain of the Russian economy.

Along these lines, as Critchlow’s theory goes, the Syrian civil war could threaten the ruling order in the Saudi Kingdom and the Russian Federation. If Putin’s gamble leads all sides to push harder, then it’s possible everyone would lose out. Even in that case, it’s likely oil prices will have to stabilise in the end. In the meantime, as the civil war reaches new suicidal heights, the Syrian people are the real losers.

If the Russian air strikes can weaken the rebels, the Syrian regime can hold onto its gains, and may be even expand its reach. This could force the Western powers to accept new terms of negotiation. In this scenario, Putin will have won and the US will have been humiliated.

If Putin can do this and force the Saudis to raise oil prices, this victory will be twofold: Western encroachment in eastern Europe will be put on hold, and a jihadist activities in the North Caucasus might very well be halted. Can Putin pull it off? Given his victories in his conflict with the Ukraine, over the last eighteen months, it’s not unlikely. Only a defeat, at the hands of ISIS, can stop him.

That in the end, is Russia’s biggest challenge. Not the Americans, or Western sanctions. To date, neither Bashar al-Assad, nor Hezbollah, has had much luck. Putin, you can be sure, is hoping that the presence of Russian forces in the region will make the crucial difference.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.