Putin in Syria

Palestinian Assad supporter. Berlin Al-Quds Day, August 20013.

Apparently, the Russians are leaving. Seemingly out of nowhere, Vladimir Putin declared that the operation had “largely achieved” its aims, and Russian forces would be winding down operations in Syria. Not that this means the Russian military base will be dismantled. Far from it. The Russian invasion (yes, we shouldn’t mince words here) has entrenched the influence over the Assad regime, which it has strengthened. Out of 60 aircraft, the Russians have withdrawn 30. The picture is more mixed than the announcement of the mission’s ‘success’.

Of course, it’s not true that Islamic State has been decimated by Russian actions. The real aim was to defend the Assad regime and crush rebel groups. This may have meant bombing Islamic State’s positions, but it mainly meant striking at groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Army of Conquest and the Free Syrian Army. These efforts gave the Syrian regime an advantage over the rebels, while it left Islamic State as a more distant foe. Keep in mind that Bashar al-Assad can use ISIS to justify his own position.

If it is a choice between Islamism and Ba’athism, many would turn to Assad for order and security over chaos and terror. This falls apart when you look at the record. Assad has far more blood on his hands than anyone else in Syria. Many liberal and even leftist commentators have turned to argue for tactical and critical support for the Ba’athists. But this means that as long as the regime remains intact, the Arab Awakening will not have reached its conclusion.

Meanwhile the problem for liberal interventionists is precisely the lack of any credible force in Syria. Who do we need to defeat more? If we bomb ISIS, we help Assad and vice versa. Can we defeat both simultaneously and birth a secular democracy? Unlikely, as it may be, the only just outcome would be a democratic opening. Western intervention has prolonged the conflict, whereas Russian involvement has consolidated the gains of the Assad regime.

At the same time, the Russian withdrawal sends a clear message to Assad. There are no blank cheques, or free passes, for the Syrian regime, and Russian support may not be unconditional. Putin cannot do everything for Assad. The Russian army obviously cannot sustain a long-term occupation in Syria. Even the Soviet Union could not occupy Afghanistan for as long as the US has done. In fact, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is particularly relevant to the Syrian intervention.

Defeated in slow-motion

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan came in 1979 after Hafizullah Amin organised the death of Muhammad Taraki and seized the reins in Kabul. Officially, the Soviet army intervened to aid the leftists in their struggle with the Mujahideen. Yet the true purpose of the intervention was take control of the country and restore order.

The People’s Democratic Party came to power in 1978 with the violent overthrow of President Daoud. Once at the helm, Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin declared a revolution and proceeded to try and transform the country by breaking apart the remaining feudal structures. They declared women equal, abolished shariah, criminalised arranged marriages and began redistributing land. The new regime began converting opium production towards agricultural development. But these reforms would bring unforeseen consequences.

Prior to this upheaval, the Soviet Union was more than comfortable with the Afghan monarchy, which guaranteed stability, even as it pursued modernisation programmes. Afghanistan itself is valuable as a source of natural gas, but also as a route for pipelines. The revolution threw them off, and provoked rebellion in the countryside, where the leftists were carving up the land. This would be the beginning of the Islamist revolt. What the Soviet leaders feared most was that this instability would engulf Central Asia.

After all, the region was predominantly Muslim and a valuable cluster of buffer-states between Russia and China, Iran and Pakistan. Much like the Warsaw Pact, the hold on energy-rich Central Asia helped the USSR stand tall as a superpower. This is exactly why the US moved to back the insurgents. The day Soviet forces crossed the border, officially, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote to President Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War”.

It’s not that the Soviet leadership was ignorant of this factor. Alexei Kosygin was opposed to sending troops to Afghanistan precisely because of the example of Vietnam. In Kosygin’s view, the new regime should be able to hold its own against the rebellion, as North Vietnam had triumphed over the South and even against American aggression. Yet the balance of forces in the Soviet leadership still favoured intervention. In the end, Leonid Brezhnev was persuaded to back the intervention after Hafizullah Amin had Taraki smothered with a pillow.

Of course, financial support for the Mujahideen was already under way even before the invasion was launched. The CIA, with the help of Pakistan and Saudi, had set out to built a vast network of Islamist militants. This gave Arab regimes the opportunity to rid themselves of these troublesome elements. Far from harbouring any regrets, Zbigniew Brzezinski says he would do it again if he could go back. As Brzezinski personally told Islamists in the mountains: “Your fight will prevail… because your cause is right and God is on your side.”

Without any institutional framework for government, the country descended into civil war as the informal networks of power, both communal and tribal, were easily fractured and broke apart. This process would destroy the fabric of Afghan society. The US considered the reversal of social progress in Afghanistan as a necessary part of the efforts to defeat the Soviet-backed regime. Later,  the journalist Alexander Cockburn would read out a portion of a document seized during the Iran Hostage Crisis on the eve of the NATO-ISAF war in 2001:

The United States’ larger interest would be served by the demise of the Taraki-Amin   regime despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future social and economic   reform in Afghanistan. The overthrow of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan would  show the rest of the world, particularly the Third World, that the Soviet’s view of the        socialist course of history being inevitable is not accurate.

Although the Soviet intervention came with few humanitarian illusions, the occupation would soon take the shape of the civilising missions launched by European empires. Babrak Karmal, the leader of the Parcham faction, was installed as leader, while the USSR set about shaping the country in its image as it waged a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. The new narrative would be that the occupation was necessary to defend the rights of women from the reactionary forces mobilising against the regime.

Realpolitik was not enough in the end. The brutality of the Soviet occupation had to be dressed up as an expression of solidarity justified by socialist internationalism. As the years passed, it became more and more evident that the occupation could not be sustained. Gorbachev would initiate an exit strategy concluding in total withdrawal in 1989. Just as the US would invade Afghanistan in 2001 in an act of vengeance – against the same network it helped to establish years earlier – only to discover the cause of women’s rights. In both cases, the invaders were defeated in slow-motion.

Life after defeat

Members of the CIA would later claim the Soviet collapse was a result of endogenous factors. It fell apart like a house of cards because it was a house of cards. The political system was bankrupt and no longer functioned. So this had little to do with US policy. If anything, observers like Archie Brown have argued the Cold War helped preserve the USSR, not bring it down. But this was not the view taken by the Mujahideen. Many of the Islamists believed that they helped to bring down the USSR. They are not alone either.

Robert Fisk takes this view. It can be argued that the defeat of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan became so costly, it opened up a space for dissidents to win major battles in Eastern Europe. This was clear by 1981, when KGB chief Yuri Andropov (Putin’s hero, incidentally) persuaded Brezhnev not to intervene in Poland. It was evident that the system could not sustain such adventurism. In other words, the USSR could not repeat the actions it took in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Hungary in 1956.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy has been primarily concerned with national sovereignty. This was the basis of Boris Yeltsin’s postures over Serbia and Chechnya. The brief war with Georgia, and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, also fits this pattern. Although Syria shares no borders with Russia, the civil war could well have implications for Chechen jihadists. It’s easy to sell the intervention as ‘defensive’ within Russia. Despite the economic problems, Putin can still bolster support through jingoism.

The key question for Putin is how long this will last. Oil prices remain lowm and the sanctions are hitting the government and its oligarchs. Putin’s credibility is at stake. He is widely credited with ending the economic chaos of the 1990s. The military adventures are incidental, whether it’s Chechnya or Syria. If the economic problems facing the country cannot be resolved, there may be more trouble on the horizon.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit