Karen Dawisha is the Walter E Havighurst Professor of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is a world-renowned Russia expert who has written extensively about Soviet foreign policy, Russia-Middle East relations, and contemporary Russian politics. Her most recent book, published in 2014, is Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Putin's Kleptocracy was widely praised for its brilliant and in-depth examination of the Kremlin's links to organized crime. But it also caused international controversy by being denied publication by Cambridge University press on the grounds that it violated Britain's libel laws. I interviewed Karen Dawisha via Skype on October 27, 2015. The transcript of the second part of our interview, dealing with Russia's Middle East strategy and intervention in Syria is below:
Russia's alignment with Assad in Syria has often been described as a product of long-standing historical linkages dating back to the early Cold War. To what extent is Russia's intervention in Syria motivated by the fulfillment of historical legacies?
Karen Dawisha: The Russians have had a treaty of friendship and military cooperation with Syria since the 1960s and there is not a single senior intelligence or air force officer in Syria who has been trained anywhere else but in Russia. When you look at where the Russians are, there are in two places. They are in Latakia, as they have their base in Tartus, and they are in Damascus. And of course they fly missions everywhere. But that is the blueprint of the Syrian regime itself. If the regime collapses, the Russians will have to have the capability to evacuate a large number of Syrians somewhere. Of course, they could just leave them to their fate, but lets just imagine that they don't.
So I don't think we should see the Russian behavior in Syria totally and exclusively on the US-Russian plane. There is a legitimate and long-standing Russia-Syria tie that is quite important. There are many generations of Syrian men travelling to Russia. They often marry Russian women who they take back to Syria and they have children together with dual passports. There is a lot of migration back and forth. That is not to say that Russia then or now cares about its citizens, in the same way Britain or the United States would feel obliged to protect its people. But at the same time, last year, when Yemen unraveled, it was Russian capabilities that moved foreigners including Americans out of Yemen. So they have an interest in making sure their citizens are evacuated. You can imagine that there are many Russians who are in positions of some authority in the hierarchies of the FSB, foreign intelligence, the GIU and the military branches who have had stints in Syria. There is a sense in which there is a big group of people in the military and intelligence services who have obligations and ties to Syria.
Many Russian academics and policy analysts have declared that ISIS is an imminent danger to Russia's security, and that Russia's intervention in Syria is necessary to pre-empt a terrorist attack on the streets of Moscow. In your view, how committed is Russia to combatting ISIS?
Karen Dawisha: Based on my correspondences with Russian journalists, the strange ease in which Russian Islamists from the North Caucasus get passports to fight in Syria stands out strikingly. So what is that about? In Russia, you have to apply for a passport and if any group is being watched closely in Russia, it is the Islamists. If you go to the mosque in Dagestan, the FSB has a large presence in the congregation watching and taking notes. It intrigues me how so many people can gain passports to go to Turkey and then across the border to Syria. There is a no visa regime for all Russians to Turkey, but they still need a passport. So when Putin says there are 5,000 fighters with Russian passports on the side of ISIS, he knows the number as the government approves the passports. So the Russian objectives vis-à-vis ISIS must be considered carefully.
There is compelling evidence that ISIS is infiltrated by all major intelligence services, including the Israelis, CIA and FSB. We shouldn't be naïve about what ISIS is. On the one hand, it is logical to let these people go so they can be turned against the West, when they previously turned against Moscow. Russia has an interest in eradicating Islamist radicals elsewhere. They won't be criticized for their human rights violations, by imprisoning them all in Chechnya and Dagestan. No one will say if it's a good thing or a bad thing to kill people with bombs in the air. But there are other aspects to it. For example, it is said in Washington DC by people watching this very closely that when the cell towers that are ISIS's key form of communication were ruptured, people from Assad's regime went to repair them.
There are a lot of very risky double games being played in this conflict, and if Assad sent people to repair the ISIS cell towers, the Russians would know about it. The Russians trained all of those people.
Egypt in particular has been a staunch ally of Putin throughout the Syrian campaign and Putin has a great deal of personal popularity in Egypt. What do you think explains the Russia-Egypt alliance?
Karen Dawisha: General Sisi, to put it mildly, is an extremely authoritarian leader. We have allowed the Egyptian military to kill and imprison Muslim Brotherhood members from the very beginning. We knew about it and were fine with it. The trials were not too public. General Sisi is not a very subtle person; he is not a Sadat. For all our talk about democracy promotion, we allowed the Egyptian military to unravel a democratic election. I suspect that General Sisi is allowed to do this to keep the border with Israel secure. The main US priority is ensuring that the Palestinians do not build too many tunnels or at the very least share the coordinates of the tunnels they build with Israel, so they can meet them on the other side. We have put a lot of pressure on General Sisi to not be too horrible to the Muslim Brotherhood. General Sisi, to maximize his leverage, needs to dangle an alternative to the US and Israel. Russia is the alternative. By looking like he might pivot towards Russia, he would get more support.
Israel has also largely refrained from criticizing Russian aggression in Ukraine and has strengthened ties with the Kremlin in recent years. What do you think is behind the growth in cooperation between Russia and Israel?
Karen Dawisha: Israel has played a very understudied role in recent Middle East developments involving Russia. Israel has visa-free travel to Russia and no sanctions. Israeli banks are flush with Russian money, and as soon as it enters an Israeli bank, it is clear to go. Israel is very important for Russia, and it also protected in Washington. If the Israelis gain intelligence assistance from Russia and here is something they have given us, the Russians will protect Israel in the Security Council in exchange for protection of Russian interests in the General Assembly. There is a trade-off of a mutual need for protection.
It has been recently speculated that Putin's aggressive anti-ISIS stance in Syria is a way of deflecting attention in the West away from Ukraine. By making itself indispensable as a counter-terrorist ally, Russia can gain Western support to lift the sanctions, a normalization mirroring Putin's cooperation with Bush after 9/11. Do you believe there is a connection between Russia's Syria and Ukraine strategies?
Karen Dawisha: The people I trust most see Syria as the anti-Ukraine. Sanctions relating to Ukraine are not going to be lifted anytime soon, and can only be lifted by Russia's full compliance with the Minsk agreements. The Europeans who would love to lift sanctions, especially the Germans, will not do so, unless there is huge progress in elections in Ukraine and the stabilization of Eastern Ukraine. Maybe they will forget about Crimea for now and lift sanctions. So Syria is mainly a PR move, though it obviously does have independent motivations. It effectively is a "lets wean the Russian public off Ukraine by giving them another red meat issue, Syria."
It seems as if Putin has been able to make the shift quite successfully. And like the West, Putin is not sending masses of Russian boots on the ground, so there are no coffins coming back as it begun to happen in Ukraine. Russian boys were coming back from Ukraine, not knowing where they were obliged to fight or where they were stationed, and Russian casualties would overtime soften public opinion. The Kremlin denied the existence of Russian troops in Ukraine, so any proven fatalities would create a horrible situation for them. From a PR point of view, it is always better to be killing Arabs than other Slavs and there are fewer downside risks.
Finally, one of Russia's main objectives, by analyzing their rhetorical statements and the opinions expressed by many major Russian academics, is the creation of a parallel anti-ISIS coalition that will compete with the US-led one. Russia has already curried the support of Iran, Iraq and the solidarity of Egypt. How successful do you think Putin's coalition-building efforts be in the long-term?
Karen Dawisha: It is obvious that Putin is trying to build a coalition and the Kremlin's effort to send Medvedev to DC is a sign that Russia is trying to force us to sit down with them. They want to do that not because they care a great deal about the Syrian regime but about Russia's own prestige and standing. They would benefit greatly from the PR generated by another awkward meeting between the Russians and the Americans. It would allow the Americans to do what the Europeans want, which is to lift sanctions. Putin wants the Europeans to break from the United States, to weaken NATO, to diminish the unipolar world and allow Europe to do what it wants, which is trade with Russia. All of these objectives are what is driving Russia to want to sit down with the US as a major bargainer in resolving the Syrian crisis.