20151008 Assad and Putin: a coalition of despots

20151008 Assad and Putin: a coalition of despots

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

There is no doubt that strong action is needed against Da'esh / ISIS / ISIL. But have we lost sight of the fact that the brutality of Syrian President Assad against Syrians was the catalyst for the current conflict and foreign intervention?

The current actions by Russia, driven by President Vladimir Putin, can, simplistically, be viewed as one warmongering dictator supporting another.

The alliance makes some form of oddball sense. Russia and Iran have long been allies. In the way that the USA provides unthinking support for Israel, Russia has long provided support for Iran no matter what it does both externally and internally. In a region where religious factions dominate politics, the fact that Iran is predominantly Shi'a means that support for Iran translates into support for Shi'a regimes. That, inevitably, means that Russia supports Assad.

Da'esh is, nominally, Sunni. So are many of the political and armed opponents of Assad.

Putin is leading military actions on several fronts. He supports rebels in Ukraine and he is taunting European countries and the USA by fly-bys and shipping movements on the fringes of their territorial boundaries. Turkey says that Russia has flown into its airspace and NATO has reminded Russia that Turkish airspace is NATO airspace. Putin is flexing his muscles, and showing other countries, that he has massive airpower and seapower, including the ability to launch mid-range missiles, at his command - and that he has the capability and will to use them. Putin's latest cruise missiles have been test fired but never before used in a hostile environment. Iran and Iraq, both predominantly Shi'a, have granted Russia permission for its sea-launched missiles to overfly their territory. The missiles fly high at sub-sonic speeds until they are close to their target, then flying at supersonic speed for the last few kilometres, they fly at only five metres above ground level. As a demonstration for military sales, it's far more effective than test firing and parades.

The missile strikes launched yesterday hit their targets with accuracy and considerable destruction. Russia says that its intelligence shows that no "civilians" were affected.

But Russia's definition of "civilians" is open to question. Putin has described opposition politicians in Syria's parliament as terrorists. It follows, then, that he regards all opposition, even non-violent opposition, as terrorists. Therefore, they are not, in his definition, civilians. That is plainly nonsense. Unfortunately, many of those opposition groups are, or are assisted by, Sunni interests. Therefore, by extension, Putin is, in effect, saying that Sunnis in Syria are terrorists and therefore legitimate targets.

However, he also says that violent opposition groups are terrorists, a charge that is difficult to deny under the usual definitions of terrorism. Many of these are, also, or are supported by, Sunni interests.

Like it or not, Putin's policies are clear: he supports Shi'a against Sunni. His attacks are on Sunni positions, not limited to Da'esh.

But even if he did, in fact, attack Da'esh, is this going to work? As I point out in "The Ten Real Life Exploits That Da'esh / ISIS use to Hack The World," Da'esh is a distributed organisation. Attacking what appears to be the centre weakens it but, like a dandelion clock, it blows the spores widely.

Russia has a substantial military air presence in Syria, at the request of Assad. The use of sea-launched missiles is interesting because there were Da'esh targets nearer to the Caspian Sea, which might be regarded as a more proximate threat to Russia.

Also, it is quite clear that Putin's actions are in support of Assad. As Russia launched airstrikes this week, against rebel positions, Assad deployed ground forces to sweep up. All reliable intelligence from the area is that the positions were not those of Da'esh.

However, the support of Assad is diametrically opposed to the wider global view that, while Da'esh must be defeated, Assad must be removed.

Putin has a personal agenda. He is moving Russia back towards its totalitarian past. His treatment of opposition, regarding them as dissidents who may be killed without compunction, is evidence of that. The regimes he supports adopt similar views, and "disappearing" people and harassing those who express contrary views is commonplace amongst Russia's "friends."

Putin is also moving Russia towards his particular view of being a superpower, one which gains power by force and fear: the same tactics as Da'esh uses. He is using action in Syria to demonstrate that he can, if he thinks fit, launch attacks almost anywhere in the world. Having convinced much of Russia that its internal problems are due to external influences, again the same argument that Da'esh uses in relation to the supposed undermining of Islam, Putin has considerable support at home, especially amongst those whose access to free media is rare, either due to restrictions or of their own will.

It is interesting that Putin's model for power is so similar to that of extremist groups. Controlling the information flows is essential - as the Communists of the 20th Century did so successfully.

Propaganda is the most effective weapon that Da'esh has. Putin's glorification at home, boosted by his latest incarnation as an international statesman and world leader, uses exactly the same tactic . Putin paints Russia as a victim that is now fighting back; Da'esh paints Islam in the same light, so that the intellectually vulnerable and the broadly ignorant accept this as a justification for action and a rallying call.

Putin is pursuing self-interest. In doing so, he is also supporting and increasing divisions within Islam. That will backfire and will increase support for radical Sunni groups. It will encourage Sunni fundamentalism across the world. However, it is ironic that some of the regimes Russia supports are Sunni-led. Russia supplies, backed by sweet deals and soft-loans, much of the military air-power for several Sunni-led governments who have traditionally been friendly with Russian-backed regimes such as Cuba. But those Sunni regimes are customers, not allies.

Assad undoubtedly sees Putin as a saviour. For everyone else, he is both a direct and an indirect threat.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill is author, The Ten Real Life Exploits That Da'esh / ISIS use to Hack The World. See details on the "Books" page of this website