What would Russia’s support for Assad cost Vladimir Putin?
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 20, 2015 [Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin]
This week the world witnessed yet another chemical attack in Syria. After horrendous footage from Khan Sheikhoun showed children suffocating from sarin gas and relatives crying over piles of dead bodies, Russia was forced to react. But while Washington used the attack as an excuse for missile strikes on a regime-held airbase in southern Syria, Moscow did the exact opposite – it used it as an excuse for more excuses. And the excuse was produced quickly: The ministry of defence announced that there was no chemical attack but that a rocket had hit a stockpile of “terrorists'” chemical weapons, which led to the release of the poisonous gas.
To many Russian journalists, this explanation sounded familiar. In 1999 during another “counterterrorism operation” (the one that brought Vladimir Putin to the presidency), a Russian rocket attack hit the central market in Chechnya’s capital Grozny. Between 60 and 140 people died, hundreds were injured. The Russian authorities were quick to announce that the incident was caused by an explosion of a stockpile of weapons belonging to the “terrorists”.
Eighteen years later the Kremlin is using the same excuses, but this time not to protect itself but its ally Bashar al-Assad. But who are these excuses for? The international community would hardly believe them, given how absurd they are: Even if the Syrian opposition had stockpiles of sarin gas or a similar nerve agent, an air strike couldn’t have released the gas. The two sarin gas precursors are stored separately and are mixed only just before they are to be used. In other words, you would have the same success releasing sarin gas by bombing chemical stockpiles as you would making borscht soup by throwing a grenade into a vegetable market.
So clearly, the only audience that this lame excuse is intended for is the domestic one. Russian housewives who watch TV regularly are unlikely to go on Wikipedia to find out what sarin gas is. In principle, they wouldn’t have known about the chemical attack, if no one had told them, but in the era of the internet, controlling information is more difficult and therefore it’s better to have the excuse ready ahead of time.
|Now, so much blood has been spilled that Assad cannot step down and Putin’s withdrawal of support would be interpreted internationally and domestically as a sign of weakness.|
But what is quite striking is that even the independent Russian media paid very little attention to the incident. While in other countries the chemical attack dominated headlines, in Russian media it was mentioned in passing, while on social media it was hardly discussed.
The war in Syria is of little interest to the Russians – whether those supporting Putin’s regime or those opposing it. And while the invasion of Ukraine provoked mass anti-war protests in Moscow other Russian cities, the Kremlin can rest assured that whatever war crimes it becomes complicit in in Syria, there will be no protests at home. That, of course, enables Putin to do a lot.
But what about reactions from the rest of the world? This is where Putin is facing potentially very bad consequences.
First, the chemical attack negates his major geopolitical achievement of the last few years: the 2013 agreement to destroy the chemical weapons of the Syrian regime. The success of this agreement was attributed to Putin and he, in some form or another, has been considered its guarantor. When the agreement was concluded, Republicans in the US praised Putin as an example of a strong leader and decried Barack Obama’s weakness.
But today, despite the alleged destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons, sarin gas is killing children and the whole world is watching. And along with them, it’s killing Putin’s reputation as an influential world leader who is able to control the situation in the region.
Second, the chemical attack is putting an end to the cooperation between Putin and Donald Trump. To the chagrin of the American public, their honeymoon dragged on for quite a while. Now, there is no pragmatic reason justifying the continuation of this partnership. The White House had already said that it will not change its position on Crimea and after the chemical attack, it crossed out cooperation with Russia in Syria. After the US missile strikes on the Shayrat airbase, RT general director (and once a fervent supporter of Trump) Margarita Simonyan wrote on Twitter, referring to the possibility of close US-Russia relations: “Well, my friends, there was a chance. But the chance has been royally f***** up.” And she’s very much correct.
Is it really that Putin doesn’t understand that his support for Assad and his complicity in the humanitarian crisis, first in Aleppo and now in Idlib, are preventing him from making up with the international community – something he very much needed after the war in Ukraine? Of course, it’s impossible that he’s not aware of this.
But we shouldn’t forget the context in which Putin sees his partnership with Assad. He remembers how Saddam Hussein, a once-close partner, was dethroned and executed. He remembers the terrible death of another friendly dictator – Muammar Gaddafi. In the world’s dictators’ club, there are fewer and fewer members and Putin can’t but project their fate onto himself. In this context, his friendship with Assad does not have a rational justification as much as an emotional one.
In the end, it’s already too late. As the saying goes “Betrayal at the right time is not betrayal, it’s preemption.” In the case of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, this would’ve made sense, but in Assad’s case, “at the right time” would’ve been 2014 when Assad could’ve simply not run in the elections, which Moscow could’ve requested. Now, so much blood has been spilled that Assad cannot step down and Putin’s withdrawal of support would be interpreted internationally and domestically as a sign of weakness.
In chess, this is called “zugzwang” – when every move is only making the situation worse. Whatever Putin chooses to do – to continue supporting Assad or to abandon him – it would have serious consequences for his reputation.
But Putin is not a chess player, he’s a judoka. And in judo, one has to use the strength of one’s opponent against him. And indeed, Putin has been winning points every time he faces pressure. The anger and sanctions of the West, he used in mobilising his electorate in the face of a “foreign threat”. He used terror attacks in Russia to gather state employees in central squares and demonstrate “national unity in the face of terrorism”.
The question that remains is: Can the international community react to war crimes in Syria in a way that Putin cannot use to fortify his power?