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Putin's war in Syria is Chechnya revisited

Vladimir Putin should not think he can re-arrange the Muslim House in Syria any more successfully than he has done so in the North Caucasus

Nearly four months into its intervention, Russia is an active combatant in the Syrian civil war. This is not just an assertion. It is borne out by casualty figures and the refugee flows.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirm in their latest figures that Russian air strikes have killed more Syrian opposition fighters than they have Islamic State (IS) group fighters. The figures are 1,141 to 893 respectively. Both the Observatory and the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) put the civilian death toll from Russian strikes at between 1,000 and 1,200.

A similar picture is revealed by refugee movements since 30 September when the bombing campaign began. Over a hundred thousand refugees have fled to the Turkish and Jordanian borders. Between 5 and 22 October last year the UN reported that Russian air strikes led to the displacement of 120,000 people from Aleppo, Hama and Idlib.

The number of Syrians seeking refuge on the Jordanian border was 3,000 in late September. That reached 12,000 by December and 17,000 by last week. Brigadier General Saber Taha Al-Mahayreh, who is in charge on Jordan's Syrian and Iraqi borders told Middle East Eye that the majority of refugees at Ruqban came "[in a] short period of time, when [the Russian] attacks intensified".

The Russian military say that if a drone detects a weapons dump under a hardened cover, it is legitimate to bomb it, no matter whom it belongs to. It could always be sold on to IS. But even on targets defined as terrorist, the civilian casualty toll is great. A Russian strike recently on a prison run by al-Nusra Front near a popular market in Idlib province killed almost as many civilians and detainees as it did Nusra fighters -  26 of the former and 29 of the latter.

More than 20 opposition leaders have been assassinated since the Russian intervention, mostly from Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest groups fighting Assad. Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaish al-Islam rebel group was the most high-profile victim, and his assassination by Syrian Army was thought to have been aided by Russian surveillance.

The list includes Abu Rateb al-Homsi, an Ahrar al-Sham leader in Homs area. Homsi was one of the men Assad released from Sednaya Prison to Islamise the opposition when it was largely secular and unarmed. Homsi went on to lead the Liwa al-Haqq rebel group before it merged with Ahrar al-Sham. In Riyadh, they signed an agreement supporting negotiations with the Syrian government, despite threatening to walk out of the talks.

The bombing raids and assassinations are both ways to re-arrange the chairs at the negotiating table before one has even been convened. Far from helping the peace talks take place in Geneva, the bombing campaign is killing them.

There is no agreement between Russia and America on whom in the Syrian opposition should live and whom should die, who is a "moderate" and who is a "terrorist," who is legitimate and who is not. Russia reserves the right to decide for itself, although it has Arab allies in Jordan and Egypt who agree with it. There is no dialogue between Russia and Turkey and therefore no agreement on which Kurdish groups should be represented at the talks. There is no possibility of an Iranian delegation sitting at the same table with a Saudi one. And even if the outer ring of combatant states agree, they lack control over the militias they arm and finance.

It is clutching at straws to think that Putin has bought himself leverage with Bashar al-Assad or indeed with Barack Obama after the sanctions imposed after the Ukrainian conflict. When Putin attempted to persuade Assad to soften his response to the unarmed uprising in Deraa in 2011, the Syrian leader ignored him. Now that the war has become a question of life or death for Assad, his wife and mother, there is little likelihood of that lever working more effectively now, even if we rashly assume that peace is on Putin's agenda.

Obama is relaxed about letting Syrian fires burn, as any Syrian lobbyist in Washington will unhappily relate. He is deeply sceptical about the prospect of an early solution to the war. He knows Russia will get itself deeper and deeper into this conflict but he is not bothered. It was Putin's fundamental mistake to think that he was.

What, then, led Putin to make such a fundamental decision on 30 September? He and Assad were contemporaries as heads of state, but they were never close. Assad ignored Putin for the first five years preferring visits to Western capitals instead. It was only when Russia came to a deal on Syria debt that the first Moscow visit materialised in 2005. Similarly, Syria was not on Russia's radar until the Arab Spring and 2011 when Assad first crushed an unarmed civilian uprising in Deraa.

At the time, Putin would have listed his main regional allies as Turkey, Israel and Iran, in that order. When the Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu flew secretly to Moscow in a private jet to persuade Putin not to supply Iran with the latest surface to air missiles, Putin sacrificed his Iranian interests for his Israeli ones. The missiles were taken off the flat bed railway trucks destined for Tehran.

What prompted such a radical and risky decision ? Was it the imminent collapse of Assad? Was it part of a grandiose geopolitical project to restore a Soviet or indeed an Imperial Russian presence?

How Putin found his voice

One clue is a personal one, and it is to be found when Putin had no voice, no public record, and no following. 1999 was a bad year in Russia. Rival oligarchs were running riot. Not for the first time since 1992, the Russian state felt as if it was being shaken apart. Enter an unknown and untested hireling from Petersburg.  

Putin, often described as a creature of the KGB, owed his rapid promotion to Moscow to the Family, Yeltsin's self-serving band of oligarchs and neoliberal economists, which were thought of by Bill Clinton as Russia's future. The nemesis of US's plans to reshape Russia in its image did not emerge from the communist party, but from the bowels of the regime Washington was supporting. Putin's career very nearly foundered on a scandal in which Petersburg lost $100m of food imports as barter for Russian timber, oil and other raw materials.

Putin needed more than just sponsorship to become known in times of turmoil. He needed something bigger like a war. Chechen militant attacks in Dagestan and around Moscow provided him with one.

Russia lost its first campaign in Chechnya and it sued for peace. An uneasy one followed. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, ran out of money and the better financed and equipped Wahabi-influenced field commanders under the rival leadership of the warlord Shamil Basayev began to take over. Foreigners were kidnapped. A raid was staged in Dagestan and Russia was hit by a series of apartment bombings in which over 300 died.

In one of them, a group of FSB agents in a car with Moscow plates was caught by local police in Ryazan, a city outside Moscow, planting a device. The FSB said it was a training exercise. It was never proven, but the suspicion that the bombings could have been mounted by the FSB to justify a second war in Chechnya never went away either. The ex-Russian spy who joined MI6, Alexander Litvinenko, claimed to have more evidence on the apartment bombings. A British inquiry found that his poisoning was "probably ordered" by Putin.  

Putin found his voice, which he took from the street: "We'll get them anywhere. If we find terrorists in the shithouse, then we'll waste them in the shithouse. That's all there is to it." That voice is still the one he uses today in Syria.

The Second Chechen war made the first seem restrained in comparison. The savagery was not one sided. The Nord-Ost theatre siege, the Moscow metro bombings were Chechen militant atrocities. Pure terrorism which in the case of Beslan, targeted Russian children. The savagery of Russian counter-insurgency in Chechnya was however sustained. The following is a taste of it.

The late and much missed Anna Politkovskaya described in her last book "A Russian Diary" a video taken during a transfer of Chechen prisoners by the Special Operations Unit of the Russian Ministry of Justice. These fighters were allegedly "amnestied" after an assault on the village of Komsomolskoye in February to March 2000. Anyone interested in the fate of Syria should re-read this.

"The video is like a feature film from a fascist concentration camp. This is precisely the way the guards behave, their assault rifle at ready lined down a hill, at the bottom of which is the railway track with the waiting wagons. The men and boys (one is clearly 15 to 16 ) are flung from vans or themselves jump to the ground. They are all in bad physical shape, some being carried by their friends. All are wounded. Some are without legs, some without arms; the ear of one of them is hanging off, half-severed. The soldiers can be heard commenting: "Look they did not take that one's ear off properly." Many are completely naked, barefoot, covered in blood. Their clothing and footwear are tossed out of the vehicles separately. The fighters are completely exhausted. Some do not understand what is required of them and stumble about in confusion. Some are insane. On the video the soldiers beat them in a routine, automatic sort of way, as if they are doing it out of habit. There are no doctors to be seen. Some of the stronger fighters are ordered to pull from the vans the bodies of those who have died during the transfer and drag them to one side. At the end of the video there is a mountain of corpses of the amnestied prisoners by the railway track."

Politkovskaya's report is posthumous. She was to lose her life for reports like this, along with human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, the two members of the parliamentary commission investigating the flat bombings and a host of other honest souls. The trail of blood usually led back to the man Putin put in charge of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, the younger son of an assassinated Chechen rebel turned Moscow placeman.

Politkovskaya was the daughter of a Soviet diplomat, probably also a senior KGB man. As a child of the Soviet elite, she had the fearlessness of an insider. When she reported about abuses perpetrated by Russian servicemen, she also reported abuses on Russian soldiers, such as treatment terrified conscripts received from hazing. Politkovskaya was a Russian patriot.

George W. Bush had Putin's back during this period, although the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg was overwhelmed with referrals. It was a marriage of convenience. Russia supported the War on Terror, as long as Bush subsumed Russia's campaign in Chechnya into it. The same process continues to this day, although there is more reason to conflate the insurgency in the North Caucasus with IS, as this is what the militants themselves do. The Russian response to Chechnya is a textbook example of how to breed a generation of suicide bombers. Russia went out of its way to assassinate the middle ground as it, and Assad, is now seeking to do in Syria.

The war that Putin restarted in 2000 has never left him, just as the Iraq invasion three years later has never left America or Britain. Russian military intelligence today claims there are 3,000 Russian Federation nationals and 4,000 from the post-Soviet space fighting Assad in Syria. That is 7,000 fighters ready to return and fight on the streets of Moscow. When Putin sees IS or Syrian opposition forces, he sees the same enemy that Russia has been fighting in the North Caucasus and in Tajikistan in Central Asia for the past three decades.


The second driver of his calculations in Syria is Libya. Dmitry Medvedev's career has not recovered from his decision to abstain in the vote for the UN resolution that paved the way for the NATO intervention. When Gaddafy was killed (Russians claim with French and British involvement) a hue and cry went up in Moscow. Medvedev was denounced as traitor. A high-quality film appeared on the internet saying as much. Russia's worst fears were realised when the Libyan state fell apart and they say they are determined not to repeat the experience in Syria.

"In general the issue of regime change, toppling regimes and promoting democracy or whatever, it was what Putin was afraid of. It was regarded as a form of pressure on behalf of the West, there was a regional balance in the Middle East, and to remove Assad, to destroy this country, it was regarded as a disaster. To turn Syria into another Libya was totally unacceptable. This was the thinking." one Russian expert said.

Putin then is set not just on keeping the Syrian state intact. With this objective many would agree. He is also fighting against the Arab Spring in all forms and with all the means at his disposal. His praise of, and support for the military coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt is based on nothing less.

What follows is a contest of wills, trench warfare, First World War style. The campaign will be fought as much on the economic as the military front. Putin claims he has the foreign reserves to see the current crisis created by record low oil prices out. He said in his last interview with Die Zeit, that his central bank has $350bn in gold and foreign currency reserves along with two reserve funds of $70bn each: "We believe that we will be steadily moving towards stabilisation and economic growth," he said.

Russian economists such as Vladislav Inozemtsev and Stanislav Tkachenko are more sceptical. Tkachenko said the cost to Russia of severing ties to Turkey could exceed $30bn. "The fragile shoots of economic growth in Russia, after nearly a year of recession, would be torn out of the ground," he added.

Saudi Arabia has bigger pockets than Russia, and several other reasons to keep the price of a barrel at records lows - squeezing shale oil out of them market and doing its best to hamper Iran's re-entry into global markets.

All the signs point to a prolonged and protracted Russia military intervention. Look for accommodation blocks being built for the families of Russian pilots in Latakia. Six-week rotations will not do.

Each foreign intervention in Syria creates its own dynamic. Russia's is no exception. Their bombing raids have left thousands more Syrian fighters with a score of their own to settle. They have TOW missiles and they pray for Russian tanks to come into range. The popular rage is great. Putin should not think he can re-arrange the Muslim House in Syria any more successfully than he has done so in the North Caucasus. If he were wise, he should plan his exit strategy now.  

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during his annual press conference in Moscow on 17 December, 2015 (AFP).

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