Wednesday, 16 September 2015


Boots on the ground.

Back in December 2014, Alternative Right published The Failure of Putin, an article that criticized the polices of Putin's Russia from a strategic point of view. The main criticism was that Putin, by concentrating on slivers of the Ukrainian border and neglecting the opportunities offered by America's essentially fragile Middle Eastern position was playing a poor game of judo, effectively pushing the twin pillars of a naturally divergent post-Cold-War West together, and thus ensuring Russia's continued inferiority. As I wrote at the time:
"As a judo aficionado, Putin should realize that if you push directly at a larger opponent, you are more likely to help him keep his balance than throw him off it. In effect, this is what Putin has been doing with the West."
In concrete terms, the article suggested that rather than dabbling in Donetsk, Russia, if it wanted to weaken the hegemony of the US-led West, should meddle in the Middle East, using the moral excuse offered by ISIS:
"ISIS could easily be crushed by sending a few thousand crack Russian troops to spearhead the Syrians, Iraqi Shiites, Kurds, and Iranians who are already fighting them. The Russian lives that are being wasted in the Donbas could achieve a massive geopolitical victory if deployed further south, against the feeble and unwarlike Middle Easterners."
Now, it appears that Putin, perhaps piqued by the picture we used of him as a slap-headed evil genius, has taken a page out of the Alt-Right geopolitical playbook. He has allowed things to die down in the Ukraine whilst making a considerable military investment in Syria with what looks like the construction of a major air base, according to news reports:
Russia's recent movements near Syria's city of Latakia suggest that Moscow plans to establish a "forward air operating base" there, the US has said. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said there had been a steady flow of people and equipment in the coastal area. Russia says military equipment is being sent to Syria to help the government combat the so-called Islamic State. Moscow has been a key ally of President Assad during Syria's bloody civil war, which began in 2011.

"We have seen indications in recent days that Russia has moved people and things into the area around Latakia and the air base there that suggests that it intends to establish some sort of a forward air operating base," Mr Davis said on Monday.
This kind of air base would be essential to offensive operations, and there have also been reports of Russia sending in troops and armoured units.

If this really is a build-up for a big move, the timing is textbook Kremlin, taking advantage of the American election cycle and the end of a two-term presidency (a double lame duck) to ensure the paralysis of any Western response.

In strict military terms, significant Russian forces in combination with the battle-weary army of President Assad and the Shiite forces in Iraq, including elements from Iran, would be powerful enough to overwhelm ISIS militarily in the same way that the US and its allies were powerful enough to overwhelm Saddam Hussein back in 2003.

But Putin should be warned: this will not be enough to ensure Russian victory and the embarrassment of the West. In the Middle East winning is easy, but staying is hard. One of the reasons for this is that the area is routinely misunderstood. For example, most analysts, including those in the Kremlin, see ISIS as mainly a religiously-driven Salafist phenomenon, rather than a tortured up-swelling of genuine Sunni Arab nationalism.

But what if the pawns come back to life?
If Putin is seeking to eradicate ISIS rather than just ensure the survival of a sympathetic Syrian pocket in the Alawite-dominated area of the country, then his over-reliance on Shiite allies (Hezbollah, Assad's Alawites, and Iraqi Shiites) threatens to backfire by stoking up Sunni Arab opposition, as well as angering the Turks.

If he really wants to undermine the West in the Middle East, he has to offset the Shiite bias of his alliance system and present himself much more as an honest broker between Sunnis and Shiites, and as a friend of the Muslim world in general. This includes being sympathetic to the legitimate interests of Sunni Arabs whose only realistic option in both Iraq and Syria at the moment is ISIS.

If he can do this, he can start to undermine Western power in the Middle East, which is built on a fragile foundation of corrupt oil sheikdoms, the state of Israel, and reluctant European and Sunni Arab support for this ugly status quo.

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