Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Russia sinks in Syrian quagmire

In going to war against a guerilla force in Syria, President Vladimir Putin is repeating the classic mistake of empires throughout history

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to journalists

Russia announced on Friday the death of one of its troops in Syria, Asker Bizhoyev, bringing the total to 19 since Moscow launched its war in September. Add the human toll to a downed Sukhoi, a shot-down chopper, a few helicopters bombed on the tarmac, and a growing bill of an air campaign, and the contours of a Syrian quagmire start to look better defined.


Empires rarely learn. Hubris and initial gains often make them feel invincible. A short time elapses and the ragtag militias start learning the tactics of their offenders and adapting accordingly. In guerrilla warfare, regular armies do not win, no matter how strong. America lost in Vietnam and Iraq, Russia lost in Afghanistan and will probably find itself sinking into the Syrian mud.


While some empires survive quagmires, others don’t. Because America is a democracy, anti-war sentiment forces government to reverse course and quit, whether in Vietnam or in Iraq. Russia, however, left Afghanistan only when the Soviet Empire was cracking and on the verge of collapse. In the case of Syria, and knowing the macho populist image that Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to project, it is unlikely that Moscow will quit Syria in the near future.


Like autocracies throughout history, the relationship between Russia’s prosperity and its militarism are inversely proportional. At $100 for a barrel of oil, the Kremlin could afford to buy off anyone and everyone, hence ensuring social and political stability. A majority of Russians liked Putin.


But with oil prices at $30 or $40, Putin opted for the classic move. He tightened his grip domestically and increased his military adventurism worldwide in a bid to boost nationalism and deflect growing dissent.


To make up for a shrinking economy and a falling currency, Putin thought it would be best to revive Russia as America’s military counterpart, except that America is not interested to play, and if it does, its military might dwarfs that of Russia.


With President Obama staying out of Putin’s wars, and even warning him of sinking in Syria’s quagmire, Putin found himself throwing punches in the air.


Over the past few years, Putin has presented the S400 air defense system as the jewel of the crown of the Russian military. When the Turks downed Putin’s fighter jet, he announced deploying S400 to Syria to presumably seal off its skies. Whenever Putin wants to spite America, he announces that Russia will ship S300, an earlier version of S400, to Iran.


Otherwise, Putin tries to flex his muscles over Syria by carpet-bombing anti-Assad territories, thus razing down whole towns including hospitals, schools and other non-military facilities.


With military air punches, coupled with his propaganda media like Russia Today, Sputnik and other outlets, Putin has built a sand castle.


But reality eventually caught up. The Russian economy still lingers near the bottom, thus creating political turmoil, including possible challenges from powerful security and oil people, such as Igor Sechin. Putin’s situation has become so tenuous that the Kremlin has suspended the traditional announcement of the president’s trips, for fears that his detractors might schedule possible coups around them.


In foreign affairs too, and despite his projected heroism, Putin has been facing a bad spell. Last week saw what could amount to a violent anti-Russian campaign in the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Kiev. Putin accused Ukraine of standing behind the attack. Kiev denied any involvement.


As a response to the Crimean attack, Putin reverted to his usual thuggish toolkit. He announced the deployment of his S400 system.


But no one, near or far, has challenged Russia’s control of Crimean airspace. An air defense system in response to a seemingly guerrilla attack is classic Putin: Whenever in doubt, take off your shirt and show everyone your muscles.


Russia is a paper tiger with a nuclear button and veto power at the UN Security Council. Otherwise, its prosperity has vanished and its military power is mediocre.


In Syria, the Aleppo battle has shown the limits of Russian airpower. If current trends persist and Russia’s military involvement in Syria continues to deepen, Putin will find himself presiding over a former empire, a former empire whose shadow is sinking too. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to journalists' questions during a press conference with his Turkish counterpart in Konstantinovsky Palace outside Saint Petersburg on August 9, 2016. (AFP/Alexander Nemenov)

If current trends persist and Russia’s military involvement in Syria continues to deepen, Putin will find himself presiding over a former empire, a former empire whose shadow is sinking too.

  • Petrossou

    I tend to agree that Russia has involved itself into Syria the wrong way, yet I do not think that she is a paper tiger. Her involvement was not to save Assad whom no one gives a shit about, but to add to its hand a card that would help her keep Crimea and the Eastern part of Ukraine rich in steel & minerals but also have a say on the gas & petrol found in the area. It was a tactical strategic intervention. This is also why Putin never got his troops involved on the ground, in Syria, and uses only his air force. As far as those who believe that Assad will stay, they are the ones having wishful thinking. The way the war is evolving we are going directly to a new partition of Iraq and Syria. When military operations will stop, who ever will be left under Assad's grip are those who will send him off same as Saddam and Kadhafi were. This is what happens to tyrants who destroy the country immediately after peace is back... Wait and see...

    August 16, 2016

  • WVD

    As always more of the usual wishful thinking. He still thinks his friends of al Qaeda and ISIS will win. And the US staying out of Syria? Did he ever see a newspaper?

    August 15, 2016