For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart.
I don’t think Putin has in any way mistaken Syria for Chechnya, but the question of how to address an Islamic front or wave differs quite between what I would glean as Obama’s vision and Russia’s hard experience.
Obama has approached “Islamist” (I’ve been told the word does not exist in Arabic) aggression with what I call the “least war possible” by showing the “hand of peace” at the start of his first administration, by wiggling away and in every which way, from Fort Hood to Boston, from addressing Quranic instructions taken seriously by such as Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others (Sura 9:29 generally suffices for one vivid example of explicit instruction and intention), and by including some key figures in his Administration, essentially absorbing and by demographics overwhelming an adverse presence.
Simply put, for Obama, so I believe, the world is larger than Islam — or an Islam as Osama Bin Laden would have it — and will wear away at the machinery set in motion by it. However, taking this tortuously slow and steady route involves slim but telling differentiation and narrowing “true targets” — as those for the drone programs — to their minimum number.
Putin, perhaps, believes that so cautious and limited an approach will not work, not that he wants to step “in it” himself.
So between the two, Obama and Putin, NATO and Russia, and their spheres of influence, and this much with blessings from Iran, which is working with the Assad regime and with Hezbollah against Israel, and from Saudi Arabia, which believes it will pick up greater and Sunni-based regional influence, Syria has become a killing field from which the peaceful strive to flee and the warriors disarmed by their own glorious assessments of themselves haven’t the courage to transform themselves away from themselves and for the betterment of mankind and the pleasure, probably, of God as well.
With Maher al-Assad’s behavior and character associated with his military role noted worldwide and Bashar Assad’s, Obama’s, and Putin’s inability to address it, Syria has sunk into a devouring darkness.
Putin can neither finesse this play nor simply cleave the Gordian knot presented by Syria.
Obama, if I have got a little bit of his script about right — least war possible; court, engage, and prove the western way larger and more transforming than Islam; and goad Putin toward intervention — cannot stick with it much longer, essentially abetting the Saudi expansion of influence in a war zone in which both Shiite and Sunni extremists enjoy, so far, a fair amount of free range.
If the design has been to draw such forces into Syria’s abattoir and have them lead themselves to their own deaths through grinding mutual annihilation — a rather gruesome form of cooperation, that — then all’s well: let’s just work on getting those displaced by war fed, housed, and ready to resume lives in the Syria that will be when the whole grizzly episode burns itself down to cinders.
# # #