Juan Cole: Russia Strikes Back in Syria

Juan Cole: Russia Strikes Back in Syria


Putin upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his country’s air attacks on Damascus. Moscow is sending sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries, anti-submarine missiles and other munitions to beleaguered Assad, and has just announced that 12 Russian warships will patrol the Mediterranean.


by Juan Cole



Russia will dispatch a permanent group of five to six combat ships to the Mediterranean Sea, Russian Navy chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov said. Frigates and cruisers will make up the core of the fleet.

President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation has drawn a line in the sand over Syria, the government of which he is determined to protect from overthrow. Not since the end of the Cold War in 1991 has the Russian Bear asserted itself so forcefully beyond its borders in support of claims on great power status. In essence, Russia is attempting to play the role in Syria that France did in Algeria in the 1990s, of supporting the military government against rebels, many of them linked to political Islam. France and its allies prevailed, at the cost of some 150,000 dead. Can Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pull off the same sort of victory?

Even as Damascus pushes back against the rebels militarily, Putin has swung into action on the international and regional stages. The Russian government persuaded U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to support an international conference aimed at a negotiated settlement. Putin upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his country’s air attacks on Damascus. Moscow is sending sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries, anti-submarine missiles and other munitions to beleaguered Assad, and has just announced that 12 Russian warships will patrol the Mediterranean. The Russian actions have raised alarums in Tel Aviv and Washington, even as they have been praised in Damascus and Tehran.

The Syrian regime has been on a military roll in the past few weeks. It has made a bloody push into the hinterlands of Damascus, fortifying the capital. With Hezbollah support, it has assaulted the rebel-held Qusair region near northern Lebanon, an important smuggling route for the rebels and the key to the central city of Homs. The Baath government needs to keep Homs in order for Russia to resupply the capital via the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean. The Syrian government’s victories would not have been possible without Russian and Iranian help.

Regionally, a Moscow-Tehran axis has formed around Syria that is resisting Qatari and Saudi backing for the rebels. The increasing dominance of rebel fighting forces in the north by radical groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which has openly affiliated itself with al-Qaida, has resulted in a falloff of support for the revolution even in Saudi Arabia. Most Syrians who oppose the government are not radicals or even fundamentalists, but the latter have had the best record of military victories. Russian characterizations of the rebels as radical terrorists are a form of war propaganda; however, they have been effective. The Saudi and Jordanian plan to create a less radical southern opposition front at Deraa has met with a setback, since the regime recaptured that city last week. Doha and Riyadh are reeling from the Russia-backed counteroffensive.

CAN PUTIN SOLVE SYRIA ? President Vladimir Putin of Russia, right, speaks to Secretary of State John Kerry, center, as Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, looks on, in Moscow on May 7.

At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pulled off a coup two weeks ago by persuading Kerry to support the international conference on Syria, to which both the Baath government and the rebels would be invited, as a way station toward a negotiated settlement of the conflict (Russia’s holy grail).

The agreement represented a climb-down for the Obama administration, which had earlier insisted that Assad leave office as a prerequisite to a resolution, language that the joint Russian-American communique issuing from the Kerry-Lavrov meeting in Moscow conspicuously avoided. Lavrov, a South Asia expert and guitar-playing poet, speaks as though what happened in Yemen, with a negotiated solution and a government of national unity, is a plausible scenario for Syria. But so much blood has been spilled in the latter that a military victory by one side or the other now seems far more likely.

When sources in the Pentagon leaked the information that explosions in Damascus on May 5 were an Israeli airstrike, Putin appears to have been livid. He tracked down Netanyahu on the prime minister’s visit to Shanghai and harangued him on the phone. The two met last week in Moscow, where Putin is alleged to have read Netanyahu the riot act. Subsequently, the Likud government leaked to The New York Times that its aim in the airstrike had been only to prevent Syrian munitions from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon, not to help in overthrowing the Baath government. The Israelis were clearly attempting to avoid further provoking Moscow’s ire, and wanted to send a signal to Damascus that they would remain neutral on Syria but not on further arming of Hezbollah.

Putin, not visibly mollified by Netanyahu’s clarification, responded by announcing forcefully that he had sent to Syria Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles and was planning to dispatch sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft batteries. Both U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Israeli military analysts protested the Russian shipments. Although Netanyahu went on insisting that Israel would bomb Syria at will when it suspected supplies were being sent to Hezbollah, Putin had clearly just raised the risks of such intervention.

Russian tanks move along Red Square during a Victory Day parade in May. Moscow recently decided to send more sophisticated arms to Syria. Credit Image -- AP/Ivan Sekretarev
Russia’s motives have sometimes been attributed to the profits it realizes from its arms trade with Syria, going back to the Soviet era, but that business is actually quite small. Others have suggested that Syria’s leasing to Russia of a naval base at Tartous, Russia’s only toehold on the Mediterranean, is a consideration. Rather, Russia’s support of Assad is part of its reassertion on the world stage as a great power with areas under its control. Putin wants to raise Russia from the world’s ninth- to fifth-largest capitalist economy. Smarting from the aggressive American expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and the planting of U.S. bases in Central Asia, Moscow is determined to recover its former spheres of influence. In addition, some senior Russian military analysts see “color revolutions” as a ploy by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow unfriendly governments and then to plunder the resulting weak states of their resources, a tactic they fear menaces Russia itself. Drawing a line at Syria, in this view, is a way of underscoring that Putin’s own neo-authoritarian regime will not go quietly.

Russia is only a 24-hour drive from Aleppo, Syria’s northernmost metropolis. Having crushed a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in Chechnya and Dagestan at the turn of the century, and having stood up a friendly Chechen state government in the aftermath, Moscow is wary of the spread of radical Muslim movements in the nearby Levant. Moreover, some 10 to 14 percent of Syrians are Christians, many of them belonging to the Eastern Orthodox branch that predominates in Russia itself. The Russian Orthodox Church, a key constituency for Putin, has opposed the overthrow of the secular Baath government, seeing it as a protector of those coreligionists.

The thinking of the Russian foreign ministry is clear from its Saturday press release on the revival of the radical Sunni insurgency in Iraq in recent weeks. Complaining about what it termed terrorist attacks in Mosul and Baghdad, the ministry’s website said, according to a translation done for the U.S. government’s Open Source Center, that “We are particularly concerned about growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, which are turning into a direct armed confrontation between radical elements in the Shi’a and Sunni communities. This is largely due to the crisis situation in neighboring Syria and the spread of terrorist activities of militants operating there.” In other words, Russia sees the Syrian revolution as dominated by al-Qaida-linked groups such as the al-Nusra Front. Moscow views the civil war as a destabilizing event with the potential for radicalizing the Middle East, which it views as its soft underbelly.

The momentum of the Syrian rebels has palpably slowed in the last month, as Putin’s riposte has stiffened the resolve in Damascus and given its military the wherewithal to regain territory. The Russian president is weaving a protective web around his client, fending off the Wahhabi winds of Muslim fundamentalism blowing from the Arabian Peninsula. He has also pushed back against opportunistic Israeli intervention, worried that it might further destabilize Damascus. At the same time, he has impressed on Washington the need for a negotiated settlement, an idea that President Obama, long skittish about sending troops into further possible Middle East quagmires, has begun to tolerate. Putin’s supply of powerful new weapons systems to Assad’s military, and his dispatch of warships from the Russian Pacific fleet through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, make clear that the full force of Russian military might is, if need be, at the service of its Baath client. Putin’s gambit may or may not prove successful, but he is indisputably demonstrating that the age of the sole superpower and of American unilateralism is passing in favor of a multipolar world.

Juan R. I. Cole, Middle East scholar,  is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. His website: www.juancole.com and Informed Comment

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  1. So important do I consider this move by Russia to assist Syria, but mainly as a 'presence' in the area that I wrote last week and passed on my thanks to the Russian Ambassador in Australia with the hope that he will pass on the mail to his government.


    This move by Russia and the presence of BRICS in the world are the best opportunities for peace in a decade, the US having lost its integrity, well and truly.   Here it is….


    His Excellency  Mr. Vladimir Morozov Ambassador to the Commonwealth of Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu and Nauru Russian Federation Canberra  ACT  Australia


    Be assured, Your  Excellency, that the great majority of people in the world are supporting the Russian Federation and its actions in both BRICS and the positioning of your fleet in the Mediterranean. Both actions are seen as stabilizing and as potentially major contributing factors for the best opportunity for peace in a lifetime.


    The recent Israeli attacks on Syria, particularly the use of a nuclear bunker buster, has given your country the  opportunity to provide the kind of support to protect your long established ally, Syria, currently being portrayed as an evil oppressor. We will now see your government provide the assistance that has long been required in that part of the world.


    A large part of Syria has formed part of the Israeli expansion plan as far back as 1948, always having been seen by Israel as part of their ‘Eretz Israel’, or Greater Israel. So also is a part of The Lebanon as your country would also know, only too well. These two ambitious examples of ‘land expansion by stealth’ carried out by Israeli governments for decades, can be seen as the root of all the problems existing in the Middle East, today.


    The speech by President Putin at the Summit for BRICS recently showed clearly a Russian nation that is anxious to play a greater part in world affairs, both diplomatically and commercially. It is my understanding that most of the attendees at the BRICS Summit were very impressed with the new direction for the Russian Federation and support your country’s initiatives and objectives with enthusiasm. Rightly so.


    As an Australian citizen I have long viewed the BRICS initiative as a vehicle for peace and the current membership of that organization (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) now offers a strategic geographic base that can only add a source of stability to all the nations of the world.


    It would be pleasing for the majority of peaceful citizens in  my country if you would convey the message to your government to try and expand the BRICS membership to include Iran, which through such an alliance could receive the level of stability needed in that region as well.


    It is imperative that Iran be supported also by the Russian Federation in their request to be part of the imminent talks scheduled for Geneva. Such an attendance would allow all countries to put to rest the misrepresented aggressive intentions of Iran as tabled daily in the western media with their patently vested  interests.


    As you are aware, Iran is a country that has never initiated a war against any other country and deserves to be able to develop its economy and international relations without having to be dictated to by nations whose only interest is military hegemony, either through war or inhumane sanctions, currently in place at this moment in time


    The world has seen enough of both.


    I think it is well understood that President Obama had good intentions to initiate efforts that could lessen the confrontations seen daily in the Middle East. However, it is now clearly known by the people of the world that they cannot rely on honest peace-keeping initiatives from the United States of America as its government is now completely under the control of Israel, politically and financially. This augers badly for those countries who in past years have relied on the  integrity of this nation, no longer in evidence.


    Therefore the value of the US as a source for honesty, justice and peace has now passed.


    The seventy US vetoes in the United Nations supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its sixty six years of occupation with US support, would be enough evidence, just by itself.


    Why does the international community continue to allow Israel to flout international law and UN Resolutions?


    We therefore thank you, Your Excellency and the Russian Federation for the leadership and determination you are displaying in supporting Syria at this time, these actions hopefully becoming a force for good. We also wish you well with the expansion and growing influence of BRICS.



    Rex Williams — Canberra  ACT  Australia

    Activist forJustice & Peace

  2. " Lavrov, a South Asia expert and guitar-playing poet…" Mr. Lavrov plays guitar and writes poetry so, that's relevant how Cole? 


    Say Professor, how'd that Libyan intervention work out for your? Seems that Libyan debacle left Libya a bloody mess.  That Vlad Putin grabbed a hold of Netanyahu seems to me a very good thing.  


    Our world will NEVER get courage like that from Obama. That manner in which you disgraced yourself vis-a-vie Libya, I'm surprised to see you haunting the lines of MyCatbirdSeat. Quisling! I agree with Rex Williams and the article space wasted on Juan Cole SHOULD have gone to Mr. Williams who makes a reasoned argument without the baggage of ties to the CIA and cowardice.

  3. Debbie, I agree with this part of a comment above:  Rex W's letter to Russia's ambassador to Australia deserves top of the page posting.
    I had a conversation with friends yesterday who viewed Russia's role in Syria as "alarming," and "Putin just trying to boost his poll numbers." 
    I mentioned what I think was the highly principled position of Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov,  that I heard on internet several years ago. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, that interview was by Australia Broadcasting's Emma Albarici http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3420041.htm )  Lavrov said that it is not the role of any outside government to tell the people of Syria who should govern them; Russia would not choose sides. 
    My friends were not impressed with Lavrov's argument.
    These are good people, and highly educated.  But they are ignorant of the most basic facts of what the USA is doing, and blissfully unaware of the degree to which they are deliberately misinformed. 
    Thanks to MCS and similar blogs and sources of information for getting out the real scoop, and thank you, Rexw, for your example of putting knowledge into action.