Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 September 2013

Should Russia Invade Syria?

Introduction: don’t worry, it won’t
Russia’s interests toward its south
Russia’s interests in Assad
Iran’s interests and role
What a Russian invasion could do

Introduction: don’t worry, it won’t

Before you click out, notice the word “should.”

I don’t believe Russia will invade Syria. Russia is still a poor country, without the resources for such an adventure. It’s still trying to leverage its plentiful oil and gas into an economy suitable for the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. Unlike ours, its military forces are a shadow of their former selves, mostly due to lack of money.

But that’s not all. History matters. The utter devastation of Russia’s homeland in World War II is still a major part of its national memory.

Over six decades after the Great War’s end, Russians still celebrate their “Dyen’ Pobedy,” or “Victory Day,” with a fervor never felt on our Memorial Day. They do so because that single day, so long ago, insured their national survival. It came at a national and personal sacrifice never known here, except perhaps in our Civil War. Russia’s counterpart of our Memorial Day focuses solely on that single war (although Russia has fought many), while ours covers all the sacrifices of our troops throughout our history.

Finally, Syria today is a worthless no-man’s-land. It has no oil or gas. Its national productivity is minimal, unless you crave nerve gas, dates or lamb. And now it’s a national basket case, broken, tortured and bleeding, its people refugees (most internally), and its cities in rubble.

To say that Syria is not a commercial prize would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. And Russia also has the recent experience of having supported Cuba with endless subsidies for the five-plus decades since Castro’s revolution. What did Russia get for all that investment? The humiliation of having to withdraw its medium-range nuclear missiles in order to save the world from Cubans’ hot blood, plus some sugar and a few good cigars. No intelligent leader wants to repeat that kind of commercially disastrous loss, and Putin is very smart.

So, no, a Russian invasion of Syria is not likely. Just to get to that worthless conquest, Russia would have to go through Iran and Turkey or Iraq, or by sea, using a navy that is outmoded and in serious disrepair.

But could Russian invasion and occupation, unlikely as they are, actually do some good? Again, before you click out, read the analysis. In order to answer this question, we first have to ask why Russia cares about Syria and Assad at all.

Russia’s interests toward its south

Some Yanks think that Russia supports Assad just to poke its thumb in our eye. What nonsense! No rational leader sets goals by enmity to others, unless, perhaps, his people are under siege. With at least the second most fearsome nuclear arsenal in the world today, Russia is hardly under siege. Its strongest neighbor (China) could not even think of harming it, and anyway has no quarrel with Russia. We are half a world away, and the Cold War is over.

So Russia sets its foreign policy just like every other nation with a rational leader: according to its own interests. What might those interests be?

Struggling with Muslims is nothing new to Russia. It has been fighting Islamic nations and Islamist insurgents on its southern border for about two centuries.

Except for its frozen north, Russia itself has been the victim of invasion from all directions. Napoleonic France and Germany attacked it from the west, each twice. Ditto Japan from the east. Russia ultimately repelled each of those invasions in just a few years—in two cases with horrendous national pain and sacrifice. Yet the low-level war to its south just kept on ticking, like a low-grade fever, or a time bomb.

So what are Russia’s goals to its south? Isn’t it obvious? Russia wants to stabilize its southern border, ally with or create stable buffer states, and suppress terrorism. To the extent that its southern neighbors will ever have anything of value to Russia—which has plenty of its own oil and gas—it also wants peaceful trade. That means keeping the Black Sea and the Straits of Bosphorus open for commerce and free of adverse military claims and obstruction.

Those are Russia’s rational aims toward its south. So why support Assad?

Russia’s interests in Assad

In order to understand why Russia supports Assad’s Syria, you first have to understand why it supports Iran. Unbeknownst to and unappreciated by us, the Islamic Republic of Iran is actually a source of stability in Russia’s part of the Middle East.

There are several reasons for this role. First, Iran today is one of the three strongest powers in Middle East, the other two being Israel and Turkey. It’s powerful not so much in military hardware, but in population, industry and commerce, including oil and gas. Its people have a proud and ancient culture with a strong tradition of education and progress. During the Cold War, when Iran was on our side, its youth studied science, technology and business here with us; those youth are now Iran’s leaders, or becoming so.

Second, since the spasms of its Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been stable internally. There have been no more internal revolutions, except the abortive (and peaceful) so-called “green revolution” four years ago. Iran’s recent elections, which favored moderates, have made any sudden change in Iran’s direction, let alone violent change, extremely unlikely.

Third, if you look at Iran’s acts, as distinguished from its leaders’ often intemperate statements, you can see that it is not expansionist. In fact, it has not been expansionist since the Persian Empire fell apart centuries ago. The Islamic Republic has never invaded or sought to occupy a neighbor. On the contrary, it has been invaded, by Saddam’s forces, at our instigation and with our help.

Repelling that invasion cost Iran an estimated million souls, the equivalent of three million of us on a per-capita basis. Today, the mutual border of Iran and Iraq stands almost exactly where it did when the slaughter began. Iran has ample evidence of the futility and horror of war, which the vast majority of Iranian families still feel personally. (Iran’s recent Great War ended only 25 years ago.)

“So what about terrorism?” you ask. “Doesn’t Iran sponsor it?”

Yes, it does. But Iran’s terrorism is directed toward the West, not Russia.

Iran supports terror in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and (of course) Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In order to understand why, we now have to change the subject yet again, to what motivates Iran.

Iran’s interests and role

I have written a whole essay on that subject, which I won’t reprise here. But the chief drivers of Iran’s foreign and military policy are readily apparent. And enmity toward Israel and the United States is not prominent among them.

Iran today is focused obsessively on two things. The first is the great schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam, which has been going on now for close to a millennium and a half. The second is the racial and cultural divide between Persians and Arabs, which also has ancient consequences, including open warfare. Next to these things, Israel is minor and a flash in the pan.

Iran is a Shiite nation. Today the entire Middle East, if not the world, recognizes Iran as the great Shiite power. More than that. Shiites throughout the Middle East look to Iran as a protector and guarantor against oppression by the more numerous and generally more powerful Sunnis.

Iran sheltered and nurtured a Shiite underground in Iraq for decades, long before we got fed up with Saddam and invaded Iraq. Without grievous error, you could say that Iran and we were actually allies for a time, at least in spirit. Both our nations sought to bring majority rule to Iraq, which meant (and still means) rule by Shiites. Both our nations wanted to stop the slaughter and oppression of Shiites by Sunnis, and to stabilize the country. The only salient differences were that Iran was not so interested in stopping the slaughter of Sunnis by Shiites, and it wanted to preserve its internal influence in Iraq for the long haul.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself. Just earlier this year he described Israel as “not big enough to stand out among the Iranian nation’s enemies.”

What did he mean by that? He used the plural, “enemies,” so he couldn’t have been referring just to us. More likely, he was referring to the many Sunni-dominated nations that surround Iran and threaten it by supporting global Sunni terrorism.

What else might be on the mind of a cleric who spent most of his life in the ivory tower of mosques, or in exile, thinking over the tortured history of Islam for the last millennium and a half? And what else might a man like that fear most, after seeing Sunni terrorists destroy the Twin Towers in the strongest nation on Earth?

We Yanks fail to make the distinctions that really matter in the Middle East. The biggest one is the schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam. The next biggest is the tribalism of nationality (Persian versus Arab) and creed. There are not just schisms between Shiites and Sunnis, but those involving Wahhabis, Sufis, Salafis and Alawites, too. Next to these divisions, which have occupied Middle-Eastern Muslims for centuries, the enmity toward the US and even Israel (which is far closer) is a passing fancy, a momentary peeve.

Now, finally, we are in a position to understand why Russia supports Iran and Assad. Iran and Syria are minor players in terrorism. The terror they sponsor is directed at Israel and Sunni oppressors of Shiites.

Iran’s and Syria’s terror is local, not global. To my knowledge, Shiite Muslims have not perpetrated a single act of terror outside the Middle East. It was bin Laden, a Saudi Sunni, who declared war on us Yanks and brought Islamic terrorism to the West. Before that, it was Sunni Palestinian terrorists who invented the “custom” of airplane hijacking and made air travel—a signal achievement of our species—the nightmare it is today. And it was the Saudi princes who, by building and funding madrassas all over the Middle East and South Asia, to teach Islam and hate and no useful skills, who provided the cultural milieu and “justification” for the mayhem. It was no accident that a majority of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis.

Viewed in this light, and from Russia’s geographical and geopolitical perspective, Iran is a valuable ally. It’s a strong, stable nation in an inherently unstable part of the world. In fact, since its 1979 Islamic Revolution it has been stable longer than Russia, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

The terrorism that Iran sponsors aims away from Russia, at Israel and the West. And Iran seems to think it’s in a death struggle with Sunni Islam, whose extreme adherents are responsible for the vast majority, if not the totality, of global terrorism directed at Russia. So not only is Iran a stabilizing influence in Russia’s “near abroad.” It’s the enemy of Russia’s terrorist enemies and therefore a friend.

What a Russian invasion could do

So should Russia invade Syria, to helps its friend Iran?

There are several reasons why that might not be a bad idea. First, look at Chechnya. Russia has stabilized that once-breakaway province. It has done so with an iron fist, but not with unnecessary slaughter. Chechnya’s government is self-evidently a puppet state run by the Kremlin and the former KGB, Putin’s domains. But Chechnya has not a become charnel-house anything like Syria.

Life in Chechnya goes on, just maybe not precisely as the Islamists and terrorists might like. But Chechnya is stable and at peace. Could a Russian invasion and occupation do the same for Syria?

Second, Russia is a Christian nation. It has no dog in the fight between Shiite and Sunni Islam. What better stabilizing force in Syria than a nation that does not share the millennial Shiite/Sunni schismatic conflict, or the tribal animosity between Assad’s Alawites and the majority Sunnis, let alone the Persian/Arab divide?

Third, Russia is still an authoritarian nation groping its way toward a semblance of democracy. It doesn’t share our national delusion of being able to instill democracy in cultures that have never known it, as we have tried to do with such self-evident difficulty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia and its conquests could develop democracy together—and Russia could grant them their autonomy and independence—gradually, as Russia itself developed and mellowed.

Fourth, Russia today is not a brutal power, if it ever was. It knows the cost of brutality, having been brutalized repeatedly by others over the last several hundred years. Every family in Russia bears the scars of that awful history, including Russia’s own self-focused brutality—the Stalinist Terror and gulags.

That’s why the transition from Soviet Union to Federation, and even Russia’s brief invasion and chastisement of former Soviet Georgia, had minimal casualties. Deaths in each case numbered in the hundreds, as compared to Assad’s 100,000 dead and seven million displaced over two years.

What is happening in Syria today is more like Russia’s bloody Bolshevik Revolution a century ago. But Russia has grown wiser and more civilized since then. It could stop the tribal slaughter now going on in Syria, which already resembles the race war in South Africa that everyone feared before Mandela’s presidency.

Finally, Syria is the epicenter of a Middle-Eastern time bomb. It’s where the Sunni-Shiite schism, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Persian/Arab divide, and Arab Spring’s struggle of freedom with tyranny all converge. That’s why Syria lies in rubble. It’s the focal point of vast historical forces that not even a strong and wise government, let alone Assad’s, might resist.

So if Russia wants to invade and stabilize Syria, stop the slaughter, and let seven million refugees return home and renew their lives, we should not object. Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule is wise and just: if you break it you own it. If Russia wants to put its own troops on the ground to restore the nation it (and Iran) broke, we should applaud, maybe even help. And we should do so whether Russia does it alone or jointly with Iran.


Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Like every nation (including us), Russia and Iran want to do things on the cheap. They supported Assad because they thought that he was a good “strongman” who could make short work of the opposition and restore stability quickly.

But they miscalculated. They forgot that Assad’s ethnic group, the Alawites, is only about 12% of Syria’s population. They forgot how easy it was for us to topple Saddam, although his minority was closer to 20% of Iraq’s population. They misjudged the power and momentum of the Arab Spring—the yearning of all people in the Middle East for freedom, modern lives, and some minimal say in their governance. And, like us, they underestimated the main driving force of conflict in the Middle East, more powerful even than the lonstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the millennial war between Shiites and Sunnis that may yet destroy the region.

Now they don’t want to pick up the pieces. Neither Russia nor Iran would ever tolerate what is happening in Syria inside their own borders. Since their respective metamorphoses—from Soviet Union to Russian Federation and from the Shah’s tyranny to the Islamic Republic (which just had really free elections!)—neither has.

Yet both nations have allowed all the vile conflicts in their region to converge on Syria and reduce it to rubble. And they have done so in desultory and half-hearted pursuit of their own interests, without, apparently, a thought to long-term human and geopolitical consequences. In short, they have made an unholy mess that stinks to anyone’s high heaven, whether the Orthodox Christian God’s or Allah’s.

We Yanks have no territorial or other pretensions in Syria whatsoever. Having exhausted ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have zero desire to bring troops to that region again. As a commercial nation, we know how little value Syria today has to anyone but its own broken and bedraggled people. Our only interests are to stop the slaughter and destabilization, for the sake of human morality, our ally Israel and the Middle East’s ordinary people. And we fear that the world once again will look to us if it makes a mess it can’t clean up, as it has for the last century. (Russians should recall that it was our materiel support that helped them beat Hitler.)

What we want, most of all, is for Russia and Iran to step up to their human, moral, and geopolitical responsibilities. We want them to recognize the catastrophic blunders they have made in Syria and to understand that Assad can never put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Common-sense diplomacy of course would be best. But if it takes a few bombing campaigns in Syria, in which Assad might be “collateral damage,” to get the Russians and Iranians to stop being lazy, short-sighted and irresponsible, so be it.

Footnote: Once again, the “revisionist” or vanishing history to which the Internet is prey deleted my source for this quote, on Yahoo News. But I assure you, dear reader, I did not make it up.



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