by Gordon M. Hahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin has intervened in Syria and in general for good reason from the perspective of Russian national interests. However, the intervention also poses grave risks for Russia, the region, and international security overall.
Regarding Moscow’s calculus, first, creating a stalemate on the ground or putting the small moderate faction within the Syrian opposition could force moderates to the bargaining table, and allow Moscow to save Assad or at least ensure that a post-Assad regime allows Moscow to keep its naval base at Tartus, continues to purchase weapons from Moscow, and protects the Orthodox Christian minority as Assad has. Second, Putin is in Syria to counter the jihadi threat that Al Qa`ida (AQ), the Islamic State (IS), and their allies in Russia’s North Caucasus, from which more than a thousand jihadists have left and are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq. A thousand more have been killed, and hundreds have returned to Russia to carry forth the jihad. Third, Putin is using whatever opportunities he can find to impress upon Washington that Russia is a force to be reckoned with, not ignored as has been largely the case since the end of the Cold War, as demonstrated by the enlargement of NATO to Russia’s borders and other policies detrimental to Russian national interests and security.
But Putin’s intervention and supporting coalition are fraught with grave risks and dangers. Regardless of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of any Sunni-Shiite aspect to the conflict in Syria and the Middle East, this not so subterranean aspect of the conflict in Syria is real. Russia’s support of Assad unwittingly could dangerously strengthen the Iran-Syria-Iraq-Hezbollah Shiite bloc, provoking Sunni counter-steps, escalating tensions in the region. Shiite Iran and Hezbollah perhaps pose no less a jihadist threat to regional and international security than Al Qa`ida (AQ) or the Islamic State (IS). At present, the Shiite bloc poses a more grave threat to Israel than do the Sunni jihadists in the mid- to long-term.
Regardless of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of any Sunni-Shiite aspect to the conflict in Syria and the Middle East, it is quite real. The Saudis, Qataris, and other Sunni Arabs were not supporting Syria’s opposition forces because they wanted to bring democracy to Syria. They wanted to destroy Shiite Iran’s only allied state in the region. One needs only to read the jihadi literature on Shiism to understand what the Arabs were up to in backing the Syrian opposition’s powerful jihadi element. Make no mistake about it; Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for dominance in the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions. This can be seen in proxy confrontations between the two in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and, of course, Syria.
If Putin is truly unaware or in denial about the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, then he risks empowering Shiite Iran and its proxy terrorist group, Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah potentially pose no less a jihadist threat to regional and international security than AQ or IS, and both have engaged terrorism. They simply represent just a different brand of jihadi terrorism – Shiite jihadism and, in the case of Iran, state-sponsored terrorism as well. Indeed, Russia’s intervention could spark greater Sunni intervention in Syria and, in an attempt at parallel escalation, also elsewhere aiming at Iranian interests.
Moreover, at present the Shiite bloc poses a more grave threat to Israel than do the Sunni jihadists. Iran already possesses the potential to deliver a dirty bomb attack, and if Iran cheats on the recently signed nuclear agreement, Moscow will bear some of the responsibility for the catastrophic consequences, having provided the diplomatic cover for Iran in beginning the talks and concluding the agreement. Russia’s support of Assad already is strengthening the Shiite bloc and has the potential to do so even more. Now there is the risk that Russian weapons flooding into Syria could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Russia seems to be trying to prevent rockets and other weapons from falling to Hezbollah, but it might fail. Should Russian weaponry find its way to Hezbollah, it likely would use it against Israel, which could create a bigger problem for both Tel Aviv and Washington and further complicate Russian-Western relations.
Although the Shiite bloc poses a greater threat to Israel at present, one cannot exclude that in an effort to outbid it for leadership in the Islamic world and outbid other Sunnis for leadership of the Sunni world, some state or non-state Sunni actor may try to throw over the game board and reset the increasingly heated game by attacking Israel in one way or another.
So Russia must be careful. One hope is Russia, as a cynically realist power, may be temporarily using the Shiites and limit its support for Iran and even begin to counter some of Tehran’s more aggressive actions after Moscow’s interests have been secured in Syria.
Putin claims Russia holds the moral high ground by promoting state sovereignty as opposed to the West’s destabilizing humanitarian interventions and color revolutions; a ‘democratic’, diverse multipolar world versus a centralized and uniform unipolar world under American hegemony; and a united global front against jihadism versus selective campaigns against some jihadists combined with covert support for others. But in addition to the above-mentioned risks Moscow’s support for the Shiites risk repeating the last of the Western mistakes just mentioned: a selective campaign against some jihadists combined with support for others alliance. Moreover, any moral high ground Moscow holds will quickly collapse should Hezbollah’s ability to wage violence against Israel be demonstratively enhanced as a result of the Russian intervention.
Putin has demonstrated real support for Russia’s Jewish community, has had a reasonably good relationship with Israel, and usually has tried to take Israeli interests into account. For example, Putin conceded to Israeli demands in canceling the sale of S-300 air defense systems a few years ago. In dealing openly with Palestinian leaders, he has refrained from criticism of Israel and its security measures in the West Bank and Gaza. One can only hope that Moscow is keeping in close diplomatic contact with the Benjamin Netanyahu government and Israeli military and intelligence forces in order to prevent and defuse any potential conflicts.
In sum, Putin has taken a grave risk in supporting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, whatever they may be. Iran supports a Shiite brand of jihadism that is perhaps no less, malign than Sunni jihadism. The only hope regarding Iran is that with its revolution, now 36 years in the rearview mirror, the elan and religious messianism and apocalypticism will wane enough to produce a real reformer or some other form of fundamental regime transformation.
In siding with Syria, Iran’s key regional ally, and joining with the Iraqis, Putin has upped his stake on the Shiites. If not played cautiously, this particular Putin gambit could put Israel at greater risk, further destabilize the region, prove to be the death knell for Russian-Western relations, usher in a real new cold war, seriously complicating Putin’s and everyone else’s foreign and domestic policy problems.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com. 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 wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. He has taught Russian politics and other courses at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, St. Petersburg State (Russia), and San Francisco State Universities as well as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, California. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.