Why would Putin need Syria?

2016-02-02 17:02:09

Many experts have written and spoke about what Putin is looking for in Syria, brilliant minds compartmentalized geopolitical situation in the region and the interests of Russia.

Why would Putin need Syria?

But I will allow myself to look at the issue from a slightly different angle. Let's start with the fact that it would be erroneous to regard all Putin’s steps solely in the light of Russian state interests. In countries, where the heads of state have unlimited power, sometimes personal interests and ambitions of rulers take precedence over national interests.

Vladimir Putin is a de facto autocrat in Russia, and he rules on this basis, but it is fair to say that many Russians are not against it, and are satisfied with their leader and his unlimited power. But as always, the coin has two sides. On the one hand, when all the power is concentrated in the same hands, that person can easily make decisions, realize operational control, and implement all sorts of development programs for the country, conduct effective foreign policy and so on. But on the other hand, all the failures and problems will also be associated with the name of the ruler who concentrated all power in his hands.

When Vladimir Putin came to power, the Russian state was in a deep systemic crisis. Under Putin, there have been positive developments, the welfare of citizens has relatively improved, the Russian army was able to strengthen its military capability, and the problem of Chechnya has apparently been solved (though in reality Chechnya is de facto an independent state, where Russian laws do not work). For some Russians, Putin could restore a sense of pride in their country. All this was often made possible due to high prices for oil and gas.

Along with that, during the years of Putin's rule, the main problems of Russia did not disappear, that is pervasive corruption, negative demographic indicators, extreme inefficiency of the state apparatus, the gap between the super-rich and the rest of the population. Issues related to freedom of speech and human rights exacerbated. All of the major media fell under the control of the ruling elite. In such circumstances, the elite, given the imperial consciousness of the Russian people, decided, by propaganda in the Kremlin's media and by stifling alternative media sources, to drive into the consciousness of society the thesis about "the greatness of the new Russia" and the growing role of Russia in the world. It is worth saying that this technique is as old as the world, different countries from time to time resorted to such methods. 

Galloping victorious war with small Georgia in August 2008 was presented by the Kremlin's media almost as a war between good and evil. Sluggish reaction of the West, served as a signal to the Kremlin. Putin well used the conflict with Georgia in order to divert public attention from the growing problems in Russia itself. It should be emphasized, that Putin is neither the first nor the last head of state that has used an external factor for the domestic audience. However, at the same time it is worth noting that the use of external factors for the domestic audience, in order to distract public attention from more pressing problems has its own specifics. That is, the authorities resorting to this method once, the next time, in order to get the desired effect, have to increase the degree of confrontation and tension. On the one hand, in major Russian media with the help of various experts, political scientists, journalists and public figures an “anti-Western card” is played, on the other hand, governments of some former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact are declared as Western puppets who act at the behest of the West against Russia. Propaganda was able to drive in the minds of a considerable number of Russians the myth of the omnipresent and sinister West (US and EU).In this context, the victory over Georgia, the president of which was presented in Moscow almost as a personal servant of the US president, for a significant portion of Russian society is not just a repulse to poor little Georgia, but to Western imperialists eager to seize Russia.

Another round of the socio-economic crisis has coincided with the revolutionary events in Ukraine. Where, the reign of Yanukovich has faced protests of the public and political opponents. Almost all of the Russian information space was captured by state propaganda that replicated its own vision of the Ukrainian crisis. When the degree of propaganda has been brought to the correct level, Putin decided to act more decisively. Russian troops were introduced into Crimea, the peninsula was occupied in the shortest time. Weakened and demoralized Ukrainian army did not offer any resistance. Inspired by the dizzying success and weak reaction of the international community, the Russian side sent troops also to the eastern regions of Ukraine. But there they came across the resistance of the Ukrainian army and volunteer corps.

The official Kremlin propaganda presented the occupation of Crimea as the reunification of the peninsula with Russia in view of its historical identity. Although, if you proceed from the historical identity then the peninsula should be conveyed to Turkey, as it belonged to the Ottoman Empire longer than to the Russian. And the indigenous population of the island is Turkish Muslim, not Russian, which was moved here first by Tsarist and then by Soviet regime. But very few people in modern Russia are worried by these historical nuances. The occupation of Crimea inflated Putin's rating to the skies, he is now supported even by those who were opposing or were neutral. Putin and his team brilliantly played on the imperial consciousness and chauvinistic attitudes of certain sections of society. These people are ready to forgive the government for poverty, isolation and corruption, until Putin regularly plays the role of "collector of Russian lands." But as I have said, such a policy has another side. Ukrainian crisis, the sanctions imposed against Russia and a dramatic drop in oil prices had very negative impact on the already stalled Russian economy and the living standards of its citizens. But we do not see the protests of the population. This means that the Kremlin propaganda copes well with its task. Russian propaganda is extremely inefficient outside of Russia, but it works very effectively inside the country. Propaganda was able to create the image of Putin as the "savior", "collector of Russian lands" and "charismatic world leader" and the image of a "besieged Russia”. 

To understand for what Putin needs Syria, one need to know for what he wants Ukraine, rebel Georgian provinces and so on. All this is part of a larger strategy. 

Following the principle of continuous increase of the degree of tension, in order to constantly distract domestic audience and possibly annoy the major Western players and their allies, the Kremlin decided to intervene in the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar Assad, thereby ousting here Iran. Purely from an economic point of view, Syria is not of great interest for Russia. Of course, Moscow would be happy to have an ally in the Middle East, such as Turkey or Egypt, but as the saying goes, it is what it is. 

News from Syria, and Russia's operations in this country replaced the news from Ukraine. If in the case of Ukraine, Putin was presented to the public as a "collector of Russian lands" in the case of Syria, Putin appears as a world leader, who returned Russia its status of a world superpower with all necessary attributes. Russia's actions in Syria, allow the authorities to focus the attention of the society on external factors. State propaganda uses Syrian subject to full capacity, by squeezing out of this topic everything possible to the last drop. 

Russian propaganda got a great opportunity on November 24, 2015, when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 violating Turkish airspace. Almost immediately the propaganda machine was launched, and in a short time its actions led to anti-Turkish hysteria in the country. It is not so important for Putin whether Bashar Assad will remain in power or not, Putin's task is to ensure the Russian presence in the region. So far this presence is related to the power of Assad, tomorrow the situation may change. Since Russia`s involvement in military actions, Assad's army was unable to radically change the situation, Moscow understands that Assad`s army is unable to turn the tide of the war. In this situation, there are three ways, either to fully tap the Russian ground forces, or to settle on the territories, which are now controlled by the regime, or prepare for post-Assad Syria. That is, if Assad will not win or will not hand over the power to his man, Russia will have to leave Syria. The first and third options are associated with serious political and image risks. It is impossible to create the image of a superpower during the years and then engage in a war with an unknown outcome, or just pick up and leave. Especially in Moscow they remember the precedent of Afghanistan. The US can allow itself to invade Iraq and then leave it. The United States does not cease to be a superpower after it, but Russia under the current scenario cannot allow itself to act like that.  

Putin has created himself such an image and played the game in a way so, I think, the situation can be characterized by the known expression - "Russia is a vast land, yet there is nowhere to retreat" – Moscow is behind us!

So far, the Kremlin may derive short-term benefits from the Ukrainian and Syrian crisis. But overall this is a very dangerous game that could lead to very serious consequences. Of course, Vladimir Putin understands this. But the Kremlin faces a difficult dilemma, either to continue brainwashing the society by increasing the tension around the country and abroad, as well as taking active (even if risky) steps in the international arena, and maintain its illusion of superpower and enemies around it, or to begin to solve the real problems of the country. 

Ali Hajizade, political analyst, head of the project “The Great Middle East”

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