Rome–Besides Russia’s dispatch of troops to Syria to help keep Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in power, the interesting thing about Vladimir Putin’s move is his new alliance with Iran. Both firmly support Assad, Iran doing so with weapons and shock troops from Hezbollah, its Lebanese client militia.
And both have their local geopolitical reasons: Russia to maintain a naval base on the Mediterranean and keep a foothold in the Middle East; Iran to keep its own footprint in the region and also to keep its arms channel through Syria to Hezbollah.
But just what is it that these two countries have in common, strategically?
For one thing, both have long decried what they consider United States global dominance. That appears enough for Putin to join Iran in what Tehran calls a “system led by the US, Zionist regime (of Israel), and American hirelings.” Putin’s language is similar, though he leaves out Israel: he calls American hegemony a misguided effort to create a “unipolar world.”
In linking up with Iran, Putin follows a pattern of allying with other countries that hold the same opinion of American power and meddling. Chief among them is China, which has long trumpeted creation of a multi-polar world.
Putin’s anger over the choice of Ukraine to associate with the European Union rather than Russia’s own economic consortium, the Euroasian Economic Union, that includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan had to do with the need for Ukraine’s to help bolster the EEU as a rival to the EU, which he considers a US tool. He has tried, without success, to woo EU members, notably Italy, to break with the US on Ukraine sanctions.
Putin has also overseen military sales to Venezuela, another anti-hegemony enthusiast.
Curiously, Putin’s search for like-minded allies parallels President Obama’s expressed efforts to work with regional friends to promote his foreign policy, under the rubric “multilateralism.” In effect, he too regards a sole-superpower world as passé.
The most prominent example was the P5+1 talks with Iran that climaxed with the nuclear program agreement. Rather than go it alone, Obama joined with nuclear powers Britain, France, China and Russia (!), along with Germany, to get the deal done. The intervention in Libya was another example, as Obama boasted that the United States was “leading from behind” in the multilateral bombing campaign against Moammar Gaddafi’s forces.
For Putin, helping Assad put down the largely Sunni Muslim rebellion has its risks, no matter what the anti-hegemon benefits. It offends Sunni backers of the rebels, including Saudi Arabia, as well as Sunni public opinion. It also might bother Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, which has railed at the United States for dealing with Iran while ignoring its hostility toward the Jewish State and now has to contend with Russia directly aiding Iran in keeping its geographical channel to arch-Lebanese enemy, Hezbollah, open through Syria .
Also, just getting involved in the mess of Syria is a gamble. It’s not clear Russian arms and air power can keep Assad’s army afloat. Desertions and fatigue have reduced its effectiveness (has no one noticed the number of army-eligible young men heading toward Europe?) The entrance of Hezbollah into the fighting has staunched battlefield reversals, but not tipped the scales toward victory. It would harm Putin’s cultivated image as a tough guy if he backed the wrong side.
Russia’s intervention could strengthen Damascus’ position in case of negotiations or simply protect, indefinitely, Assad enclaves along the Mediterranean and the Damascus area in case the war drags on. Both outcomes might satisfy Iran, which has made it clear Assad must stay on, no matter the level of bloodshed or the fracturing of the country.
The Guardian said Putin freaked out over Assad’s weakness.
Jazeera tries to make sense of it all.