A mythology surrounds the man who has been President or Prime Minister of the Russian Federation for the past sixteen years, particularly among a clique of sycophants in Western Europe and the United States. This Putin myth, embellished by the Kremlin's international television propaganda arm "Russia Today," has convinced some that Mr. Putin is much smarter and more thoughtful in his long-term thinking than his peers in the West. My question to those who still believe in the Putin myth of infallibility is this: why did the Russian president recently decide on sending his armed forces to Syria to participate in that sad country's interminable and ever more bloody civil war?
Not even the Russian president bothers to deny that Russia is establishing a forward operating base adjacent to the Syrian port of Latakia. The evidence is so overwhelming in an age of Internet access to satellite photography, why refute the obvious? Putin does offer a rationalization of sorts; the Kremlin, so says the Russian president, has decided to join the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS. In reality, with Russia's Syrian ally (and Iran's puppet) Bashar al-Assad on the ropes , President Putin has made a strategic decision to join with the Iranian Shiite theocracy and its Hezbollah proxy to continue to wage war on Syria's Sunni Arab majority, primarily to save a long-time client from total collapse.
If Putin is as smart and savvy as his fans in the West maintain, why has he not learned from America's failed overseas intervention in Iraq, not to mention Vietnam? Then there is the example closer to home, the Russian geopolitical disaster of a quarter of a century ago; the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. If an army of 150,000 soldiers backed by massive airpower could not defeat the Islamist fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, what calculus leads the Kremlin to believe that the much weaker Russia of today can have anything but a temporary and localized impact on the horrendous Syrian Civil War?
It appears that prestige, and a desire not to lose Russia's version of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba--the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria-- are the basis of the deployment of Russian military assets to Latakia. Whatever the short-term benefits are for Assad and his Alawite minority regime, the long-term impact for Russia will be brutally punishing. The appalling Russian experience in Afghanistan should have informed Russia's decision makers of the dangerous path they have embarked upon.
When Iran deployed its Hezbollah militia, paid mercenaries and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to Syria in the earlier stages of the Syrian Civil War, there were predictions outside the Middle East that this marked an irredeemable turn in the tide of battle in favor of Assad. A much more knowledgeable observer, the Beirut-based Palestinian-American journalist Rami Khouri, warned that Iran's intervention in the Syrian Civil War would only inflame sectarian passions, leading to a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict. That predication had been vindicated in all its horror. Now Putin is doubling-down on the hell that he and his Iranian ally have contributed towards creating. Russia, which today has only a fraction of the military capability of the former Soviet Union, cannot achieve victory for Assad. However, as with Iran's intervention in Syria, Vladimir Putin will succeed in galvanizing hatred towards his nation, unleashing a jihad against the Kremlin that will not only involve evermore fighters from the Sunni Arab world joining in a holy war against Russia's invasion of Arab land. In all probability, the festering discontent within Russia's own borders among a disaffected and increasingly militant Muslim minority in regions such as Chechnya will be exacerbated. In the early years of Putin's rule, Russia was subjected to a wave of terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of Russian civilians, all attributed to unrest in Chechnya. That is but a harbinger of what will come, a predictable bloodbath on Russia's own soil as blowback for Mr. Putin's ill-fated attempt to show he can militarily intervene in the Muslim world without incurring the consequences his Soviet-era predecessors experienced over Afghanistan.