What Putin Wants Moscow's Fear of Jihad Drives Policy on Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly enjoying his role as a key player in the Syrian conflict. But Moscow also has a very real concern: If Islamist extremism prevails in Syria, there could be serious consequences for Russia.
Whenever Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a proposal, skepticism is the first reaction from the West. This week has provided the most recent example: He had hardly finished making his suggestion that Syrian chemical weapons be put under international control before German weekly Die Zeit wrote of "Russia's cynical game in the Middle East" and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wondered "if it was a feint from Moscow." In a piece for the New York Times on Thursday, Putin sought to explain his position to the global public.
Russia, Putin has made clear, is interested in the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles for three reasons. First, the existence of such weapons could trigger a foreign intervention in Syria, to which Moscow is opposed. Second, there is a danger that the poison gas could fall into the hands of fundamentalist extremists. And third, armed Syrian rebels could use these weapons against Israel.
In his piece for the New York Times, he reminds readers of the US military interventions undertaken in the last 12 years -- including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya -- and noted that neither peace nor stability have been the result. He also welcomed the readiness shown by US President Barack Obama to continue the dialogue with Russia over Syria.
Putin's piece is the result of a cool calculation: The vast majority of Americans are opposed to an intervention. Despite a strong push from the hardliners at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), among others, to convince Congress to back a military strike, such an intervention has been shelved for now.
Possible and Necessary
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear relieved that the proposal from Moscow provides an opportunity to avoid a war -- of which neither of them was particularly convinced. Despite all of Washington's recent frustrations with the Russian offer of asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the US government knows that a partnership with Putin is both possible and necessary.
One reason for this is the fact that armed Islamist extremism, which is growing in strength from Kabul to Damascus, is more of a threat to Russia that it is to the US. It was no accident that the Sept. 9 meeting of the Russian Security Council, chaired by Putin, was focused on the situation in the Muslim region of the North Caucasus.
During the meeting, Putin spoke of the dramatic situation in Russia's south. "A high level of corruption," widespread unemployment and a high birth rate, he noted, provide a "breeding ground for extremists." Moscow security officials are aware that centers of Islamism such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of which support Syrian rebels, also subsidize the militant underground in the Russian Caucasus.
Jihadist fighters in Central Asian countries allied with Russia -- Moscow has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- are also a threat. And Moscow's fear of the armed jihad is a key factor in its foreign policy. A victory by the Islamists in Syria, which would provide wind in the sails of jihadists around the world, is in the interests of neither Russia nor America, not to mention Israel.
That's why there's a need for world powers, above all the members of the United Nations Security Council, to take action. For one thing, it will give the Russians the gratifying feeling of negotiating at eye level with the US. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moscow has been little more than a regional power.
Putin Says What Many Think
Indeed, Russia has often felt its own interests are of no concern to the United States -- like when the administration of George W. Bush administration sought to quickly lure Russia's neighbors Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Such plans have not been pursued further under Obama.
Yet disagreement remains between Moscow and Washington, one cited by Putin in his New York Times editorial. While Putin cites "growing trust" between him and Obama, he outright rebukes the case Obama made for American exceptionalism in his speech to the nation on Sept. 10.
Obama said the United States' willingness to act when its ideas and principles are challenged abroad is "what makes us exceptional." Putin, an Orthodox Christian, calls this idea "extremely dangerous," and cautions Americans that "when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
What at first glance appears to be a small quip actually touches on an important point. The American elite holds stubbornly fast to the belief that their country can use its military to act as the arbiter of global democracy, even without a mandate from the UN. That leads God's own country to look down with sovereign contempt upon "Old Europe," and other states.
But this view is coming up against increasing opposition in the world. Putin simply says openly what many in Berlin and elsewhere are saying in a shamed whisper.