Putin’s Arab Gambit Just Got More Bold: The Syria/Levant Jihadi Crisis

photo Putin and Arabs

by Gordon M. Hahn

With Russian troops, heavy military equipment, and national technical means descending on the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin has just upped his gambit towards maintaining and strengthening Russia’s presence in the Arab world as it melts down in the face of ISIS, Al Qaida, and the Barack Obama Administration’s ineffective policies. By inserting troops into Latakia, Syria, Putin is interested in much more than protecting Russia’s small naval base at Tartus, Syria. Already in possession of the powerful Shiite Iranian ally in the region, the ineffective U.S. policy in the region has opened up a road from Moscow to the Sunni Arab powers. Thus, Putin seeks to parlay the deepening Syrian crisis into a grand deal to forge an anti-jihadi alliance spanning the Sunni-Shiite divide.  In the bargain he can position Russia to steal or co-opt a good part of America’s leadership thunder among the Sunnis and across the larger Middle East region. Although it is not certain whether Putin’s plan will succeed, the failure of US leadership and its implications for Russian interests and security at home and abroad have produced new opportunities for Moscow and Putin’s bold move.

Putin’s Emerging Arab Gambit

Since at least 2008, Putin has been trying to promote its influence among the the Sunni Arab states across the Middle East from Algeria in the west to Saudi Arabia in the east (see Gordon M. Hahn, “Russia’s Arab/Muslim Gambit,” Russia Other Points of View, 16 April 2008, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2008/04/russias-muslima.html). This policy seemed to lag in the wake of the Georgian war and the increasing challenges in relations with the West that resulted. The presidency of Dmitrii Medvedev showed no invigoration of Putin’s diplomatic offensive in the region.

With the Arab ‘Spring’, Moscow at first was caught off guard and tried to make the best of all worlds, consistent with its multivector foreign policy. Thus, Moscow demonstrated little enthusiasm for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi’s in Libya. Aside from Moscow’s distaste for American and Western ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, there was a calculus that secular and semi-secular regimes like those of Mubarak and Qaddafi, are better equipped to contain the growing Islamist/Jihadist threat and to maintain stability amid these varied forces. Moscow tried to compensate for its previous misplaced bet in Egypt. During a visit to Cairo in November 2012 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the election victories of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and President Mohammed Mursi and extended an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Mursi to visit Moscow. Faced with a fait accompli, Putin may have believed that dialogue with the MB in Egypt would have a positive influence on both Egypt’s MB regime and any post-Assad Syrian regime, likely to be dominated by the MB and/or jihadists as well.

The Intensification of Putin’s Arab Gambit

With the Syrian civil war, Putin’s return to the Kremlin, the Ukrainian crisis and the so-called ‘new cold war’, Putin gradually began to revived his 2008 Arab diplomatic offensive.

Putin began concluding a series of breakthrough energy, weapons and other trade deals with Arab states in the wake of tensions with the West over Ukraine as part of a Kremlin ‘Asia Pivot’ (see Gordon M. Hahn, REPORT: “Putin’s Asia-Eurasia Pivot: ‘Isolation’ from the West Spurs Eurasian Integration and Russian Globalization,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 31 July 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/31/putins-asia-eurasia-pivot-isolation-from-the-west-spurs-eurasian-integration-and-russian-globalization/).

This year, there has been a constant parade of delegations sent back and forth between Moscow and the Arab states, producing more such deals. In June and August the United Arab Emirate’s (UAE) Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed abu Niyah visited Moscow. This led to joint deals on developing oil, infrastructure and other projects in Russia and internationally. Also last month, King Hussein of Jordan and Egyptian President Sisi visited Putin in the Kremlin. In addition to trade, these visits included talks on what to do about the growing strength of ISIS in the Levant.

Towards a Grand Bargain?

In the wake of these meetings, Putin proposed the creation of a new anti-ISIS coalition for Syria and Iraq. Putin’s plan is to bring together the armies of Syria and Iraq and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia and inflict a more concerted ground war on the Islamic State (IS), Al-Qa`ida (AQ) and its allied groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). In addition, the countries funding other Syrian opposition groups should be persuaded to coordinate their actions with the Syrian-Iraqi-Kurdish coalition.

Now, reports are increasingly surfacing demonstrating that Putin has dispatched spetsnaz forces and large amounts of havy military hardware to Assad, as the Syrian Army suffers defeats in the region next to Damascus at the hands of JN. Most immediately, Putin’s apparent plan is to secure a limited presence for Russian troops in assistance to Syrian President Bashir Assad and his faltering Syrian Army.

On the ground, Putin’s move could solve not just Putin’s Assad problem. Russia’s interests also involve domestic security, given Russia’s own jihadi threat. This year some 80 percent of the amirs of the Al Qaida-allied jihadi group, Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate or IK), based in Russia’s North Caucasus defected to IS and created the Caucasus Vilaiyat of the Islamic State (Vilaiyat Kavkaz Islamskogo Gosudarstvo). The remainder continue to support AQ and Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Over the last few years, thousands of IK mujahedin and potential IK recruits have gone to fight for AQ, JN, and allied groups in Syria and IS in Iraq. Many are now returning to the Caucasus, threatening Russia with an upsurge in jihadi terrorism after a sharp decline since 2012 due to the exodus south.

With Russian troops on the ground in, and perhaps more on the way to Syria, Putin is in a position to parlay the crisis into a diplomatic victory. Therefore, he is likely raise his recently proposed idea of forging a grand alliance to defeat ISIS and AQ jihadists in Syria and then perhaps Iraq at the United Nations in an address to the General Assembly on September 20th. The proposal could be open-ended to allow for other countries, including the West and the U.S. to join the coalition or at least coordinate with Russia’s coalition as Moscow has proposed.

This is the kind of move I suggested Putin should have made to protect Crimea and Donbass when the West supported the Ukrainian neo-fascists’ violation of the 20 February 2014 agreement between then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the three leading Ukrainian parliamentary opposition parties, including the neo-fascist Svoboda party that just attacked the Maidan Ukrainian parliament last week throwing grenades, firing pistols, and killing four policeman and wounding some 100 police and civilians. It is also similar to the hypothesis of the late sovietologist Adam Ulam regarding Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s plans surrounding his own Cuban gambit in October 1962. According to Ulam the plan was after secretly inserting nuclear missiles in Cuba to announce this in an address at the UN and then begin talks to cut a deal whereby Moscow would withdraw its missiles from Cuba in return for a grand deal on Berlin and withdrawal of US nuclear missiles in Turkey.

Putin’s gambit could bring a vote in the Security Council on a resolution to forge an anti-jihadi alliance in the Levant that Washington must either veto – exposing the bankruptcy and fecklessness of the Obama Administration’s policy – or abstain or approve, handing over leadership in the Syrian and larger Levant jihadi crisis to Moscow.

An American veto of Putin’s plan – especially if it is actually backed by key Arab states and/or traditional U.S. allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – could also intensify the trend whereby the Sunni Arab countries may be forced to end whatever support some of them have lent to the jihadists in their own gambit to challenge Shiite Iran’s key ally – Syria and increasingly are uncertain about American leadership in the region and interested in Moscow’s potential as a protector.

If there is any doubt about the perverse logic and cowardice of the Obama Administration’s position on the Levant’s jihadi crisis, read the administration’s words, in which support for Assad against the twin threats of AQ and IS – discounting the weak Western-backed Free Syrian Army – is characterized as aiding and abetting AQ and IS: “Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday, using an acronym for the Islamic State (aka ISIS and Daesh). “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.”

In this light then, Putin could very well be seeking to force the U.S. into joint action structured by way of talks over a UN resolution on Putin’s plan. Should the US refuse, Putin is in position to further develop relations with both Shiite and Sunni states, with the latter recalculating its options for allies in light of the IS threat, which cuts both ways against both the Sunnis and the Shiites of the Islamic world.

Finally, it cannot be excluded that in the back of Putin’s mind, held in reserve depending on how talks on the Levant crisis develop, talks on Ukraine could ensue around the Levant talks. In this way, the Ukraine crisis could be addressed in any grand deal. The ensuing talks could even lead to a grand deal on Ukraine.

Depressing Conclusion

However, just as likely an outcome as some grand deal is a more polarized East-West divide, a world split apart over the fate of Assad, the war against jihadism, and Ukraine. This has all the makings of a world war. The jihadis are succeeding in driving a wedge between the great secular powers, and without statesmanship in the West, it is the non-democracies, unfortunately, that appear poised to seize the initiative in the war with jihadism. Western failure to forge an alliance informed if not dominated by Putin’s proposal will leave Russia in the driver’s seat in the region. At the same time, any Western resistance to Putin’s move based on the assumption or slogan that Russia seeks to conquer the Middle East – ‘Novosyria’ – or is solely bent on driving the West out of the region is fraught with the most dangerous of outcomes.

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Gordon M. Hahn’s Other Articles on Russia and the Middle East:
New Cold War makes US, Russian cooperation against ISIS unlikely,” Russia-Direct, 28 August 2014, www.russia-direct.org/content/new-cold-war-makes-us-russian-cooperation-against-isis-unlikely.

The Caucasus and Russia’s Syria Policy,” The National Interest, 26 September 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/the-caucasus-russias-syria-policy-9132.

Chechen Extremists Force Putin’s Syria Stance,” The Moscow Times, 13 September 2013, www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/chechen-extremists-force-putins-syria-stance/486706.html.

Russia and the Arab Winter: Foreign and Domestic Dilemmas,” Russia – Other Points of View, 13 December 2012, www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2012/12/russia-and-the-arab-winter-foreign-and-domestic-dilemmas.html.

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Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. He is also Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program. Dr. Hahn has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (1995 and 2005), and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and St. Petersburg State (Russia) Universities.

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About Gordon M. Hahn