Is Putin’s power a mirage in the Syrian desert?

What might the consequences be for Putin if the Sinai flight disaster proves to have been the work of terrorists?

Forbes magazine has named Vladimir Putin the world’s most powerful man for 2015. On the surface this seems logical considering the perception that Russia under his leadership has not only restored some of its past glories in world affairs but indeed has overshadowed if not eclipsed the United States on many issues. U.S. President Barack Obama dropped down to third place in Forbes’s rankings, the first time the leader of the Western world has dropped out of the top two.

While the Forbes assessment cannot be taken too seriously, the rankings do reflect a widespread view of Putin as a formidable, decisive, brave and steely leader who has come out on top of all the challenges he has faced. Moscow, under his reign, has also taken the initiative and taken advantage of American impotence to embark on military adventures beyond its borders. The annexation of the Crimea, the incursions into eastern Ukraine, and most recently the operation to save the Syrian regime have revealed a new boldness and sense of impunity on the world stage. The message is clear: in world affairs Russia is here to stay.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has appeared to most observers to strengthen the Assad regime and to weaken and demoralise the armed opposition by leaving them isolated and dispersed. Indeed, the new blood given to the Syrian regime arguably not only saved it from imminent collapse but also restored Assad as a viable leader for Syria – in the medium term if not the long term – in the absence of clear alternatives.

Russian Sukhoi Su-25 at Latakia, Syria (CC BY 4.0)

Yet despite the short term boost for Putin’s prestige there are already signs of major cracks appearing in the rosy scenario for Moscow. The Russian airline disaster over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula has highlighted the nature of the hornet’s nest that Moscow tampered with by intervening so forcefully to defend the Syrian regime and thereby antagonizing the majority of the Arab and Muslim world. Although there is as yet no final conclusion on whether terrorists are responsible for the deaths of the 224 people on board flight 9268, evidence that a bomb brought down the plane is mounting. Russia initially downplayed any possibility of an attack, and the Kremlin harnessed its huge media outlets to suggest that Western governments were deliberately exaggerating the terrorist-attack theory in order to undermine Putin and Russia’s military operation in Syria. Yet within days Moscow announced that it would follow the UK in suspending flights to Sinai, and Russia has been forced to reluctantly consider the very real prospect that its citizens were the victims of a terrorist attack.

Ironically, while Islamic State (ISIS) is the group most suspected of carrying out an attack on Russia, a major criticism leveled at Putin has been that Russian military might has been directed not against ISIS but against other Syrian opposition groups. If anything, ISIS has been fortified by Russian action, not only militarily but also in terms of the media attention it receives. In fact, Syrian opposition figures have claimed that Russia has merely extended the Syrian government’s own tactic of presenting to the world a reality of only two choices in Syria: the existing regime or ISIS.

Russia’s decision to enter the Syrian fray has directly and indirectly encouraged extremism and further complicated the devastating conflict. Russian jets have also, perhaps unintentionally but not surprisingly, caused many civilian casualties among Syrians, further stoking anger and hatred both in Syria and among fellow Arabs and Muslims. Russia’s engagement in Syria suggests a degree of short-term memory in light of the U.S. experience in Iraq and the Soviet Union’s own bitter downfall in Afghanistan.

Putin has used the same argument as former U.S. President George Bush and the neo-cons that pre-emptive strikes can be justified for national security to prevent possible further attacks in the future. Anti-Bush campaigners in academia and the media raged and fumed at this approach a decade ago but have remained rather docile with regards to Russia, which perhaps has allowed Putin and his political circle to believe that his actions in Syria enjoy a degree of popular support in Europe in particular.

Yet Putin will surely have to take into account Russia’s relationship with the Muslim world, which spans its southern borders for thousands of miles. There are also over 20 million Muslims in Russia, more than the number of Syrian Muslims, with some 1.5 million living in Moscow. The longer the Syrian quagmire drags on, the more difficult it will become to sustain favourable relations with Muslim states, including important players such as Turkey. Relations with Saudi Arabia have already been tense and are deteriorating rapidly. And, crucially, Putin will also have to contend with non-Muslim Russians who will begin to wonder, as the Russian economy flounders, whether rescuing Bashar Assad is worth it all.

Putin’s rationale to intervene in Syria involves short term and longer term aims. In the immediate scheme of things, it saved the Assad regime which had been collapsing rapidly despite support from Iran and Hezbollah. In the longer term, Putin hopes to create a Russian foothold in the Middle East, an opportunity that has proved too tempting to ignore. We might also view Putin as a spoiler, with the continuation of the Syrian crisis undermining the U.S. and causing divisions in the EU by creating a growing refugee crisis. Last but not least, Russia’s direct intervention in Syria sends a message that Putin defends his dictator-friends assertively and, within Russia, will not tolerate dissent from pro-democracy movements. It sends the message that Putin does not hesitate to act, while exposing the U.S. as a reactive force in the face of Moscow’s assertive actions.

It seems that Putin has become convinced that his greatest asset is his ability to demonstrate that he is not afraid to use his power to be assertive. But Putin’s sense of his own power could well be a lonely mirage fading in the Middle East’s deserts, to Russia’s and his own detriment.


Talal Nizameddin is the author of Putin’s New Order in the Middle East, and has been studying and researching Russia and the Middle East for over twenty years. He was formerly Lecturer in International Relations at Haigazian University, Beirut.

On Twitter: @TalalNizameddin

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