Once its allies guard the Turkish border, Russia will be the unchallenged mistress of the Fertile Crescent, while the United States will have become irrelevant there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is well on the way to securing what had been western Syria for whatever dependent Putin might choose. He has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s Alewite forces with fighter-bombers and the Iranian and various Shia militias he recruited and supplied. In the coming months, Putin is likely to consummate his position as arbiter of the Levant—defining the borders of its Kurdistan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-stan, as well as the roles of counties in the region, while excluding Americans.
He is doing this by adhering to elements of political-military success that his American rivals forgot or never learned, incidentally offering us something of a refresher course in these matters.
The simplicity of Russia’s strategy and coherence of the political and military measures Russia is using to pursue it contrast with the diffuse and outright self-contradictory nature of U.S. policy and political-military operations. That contrast will become increasingly clear during the next six months or so.
Putin’s success stems from his focus on Russia’s own interest in securing an expanded influence in the Mediterranean crossroad between Europe and the Middle East. Since the Muslim world’s war between Sunni and Shia now rages in the Levant, and since Russia’s Tartus naval base is located in the Alewite (a branch of Shia) part of former Syria, securing Russia’s interest had to begin with making sure that the Shia side will hold this area undisturbed. But securing it, from the Golan Heights up to the Turkish border between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, also requires accommodating Israel’s interests in the south and obtaining cooperation with the Kurds in the north.
Vladimir Putin Has Strategic Clarity
This was possible because Putin, realizing that people fight only for what they want for themselves, chose to enter the fray unequivocally and irrevocably on the side of the Shia. But the very indispensability of Russia’s carefully calibrated military support to the Shia side limits what it could do.
Moreover, in 2015 Putin actually gave the Shia Alewis what they needed to accomplish what they passionately wanted to do—in the area of Russian interest. In 2016, he is setting about doing the same for the Kurds in their sector of that area. By the same token, he was able to reassure Israel that Iran would not be allowed to use Russia’s intervention to encroach upon the Golan front or outflank it.
This strategic clarity and consistency however, presupposes an equal and opposite enmity to Sunni states—to Turkey most directly, but also to Saudi Arabia and Qatar—as well as to Sunni causes and groups in general, notably ISIS. How far Putin intends to take this enmity depends mostly on the extent to which these oppose his strategic design. Sunni jihadists, after all, do pose a threat to Russian domination in central Asia.
In the case of Turkey, the enmity is structural. Quite simply, Turkey is the immediate, overwhelming source of logistical support for Sunni causes in the Levant—for ISIS, as well as for every other group of “Sunni rebels.” So, from the beginning, Russian-backed military operations have destroyed Sunni threats to the Alewi heartland by cutting supply lines that run northward into Turkey. That job is almost done.
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