06 October 2015

The Syrian Experiment

You'd think that people who hate and fear Vladimir Putin so much would welcome his entry into the quagmire of Syria. You'd think more people would see it as Thomas L. Friedman does, with Putin's intervention in defense of the Assad regime making Russia more of a target for the self-styled Islamic State and its various sympathizers and increasing hostility toward Russia's geopolitical ambitions among the region's Sunni majority. The U.S. and the west should be eager to tell Putin, "You can have it," especially since Russia has a bigger stake in the outcome, because of its naval base in Syria, than the west does. Yet the vibe I get from what I see and hear is that the usual suspects here see this as all win for Putin and further humiliation for the U.S. and President Obama. I can understand this from the neocons for whom Syria (rather than the IS) actually matters, and who're whining about the Russians attacking our good insurgents, but others who probably couldn't care less about the Syrian people or their form of government are angry about the Russian intervention because they see it as fresh proof of Obama's weakness or indifference to American power. Despite what some snarky liberals want to insinuate, these people probably aren't closet-authoritarian fans of Putin, but they're worked up over Syria right now because, unlike many liberals, they think that Putin can win there, and that by extension the U.S. could have won.

While liberals like Friedman -- call him a neo-liberal if you like -- assume that Putin will provoke a terrorist backlash against Russia, remember that many Americans have never accepted the argument that the terrorists attacked us because we'd messed with their countries and governments or threatened their faith. The alternate view of terrorism is that terrorists are sufficiently motivated by their own evil but, being evil, they are also cowards. This view rejects the premise that an aggressive response to terrorism will only provoke more terrorism. Instead, it is assumed that a sufficient show of force and resolve, as Russia might be expected to show, will cow terrorists into quiescence if not submission. In short, there's a popular if poorly articulated belief that the proper answer to terrorism is ruthlessness, "shock and awe" on a more massive, visceral level than even George W. Bush carried out, that even Bush lacked the will to carry out. Proponents of this view can actually look to Putin's past for an example of this policy if they actually know recent history. Some observers are comparing Putin's intervention in Syria, hopefully, with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which proved a demoralizing disaster for the communist regime. But more recently Putin inherited a quagmire-like conflict in Chechnya from Boris Yeltsin and withstood a terror campaign against Russia (and the inevitable accusations of "false flag" dirty tricks on his own part) while effectively pacifying the region. It wasn't pretty, and reports of air raids on the already-damaged archaeological treasure-city of Palmyra, where the IS iconoclastically maintains a base, suggest that it won't be pretty in Syria, either. But the Americans who look upon Putin with envy rather than admiration probably care little about the further ruination of ruins, or any collateral damage Russia may inflict, much less the collateral damage we continue to inflict in Muslim countries. They're angry at Obama now because they think that Putin can win for Russia (and Iran, and of course Assad) by playing the way they've always felt we should play. So let's see, once and for all, how such a game plays out. Humanitarian hearts will bleed, as I suppose they should, but the political consequences shouldn't matter to us one way or the other. Here's a chance for a risk-free education, with history deciding whether Putin gets a diploma or a dunce cap. It'll be interesting to watch.

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