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Oil has nothing to do with the Syrian Tragedy. The primary “driver” is the medieval political absolutism exploited and sustained by Putin, Assad, and Khamenei, each of whom relies on feudalism to keep themselves in business.

Note that Putin put $52 billion into the Winter Olympics at Sochi. What Putin has put into Syrian humanitarian aid: $0.00.

Obvious pacifism in the Obama Administration has been balanced some by weakening Putin’s own ability to prosecute his chosen enemies across time and in intensity. The in-and-out demonstration of power in Syria may reflect that reality, although the show worked well in Moscow.  The stalling of the incursion into Ukraine through Crimea also attests to the Russian Federation’s underlying fragility. However, Russia remains a nuclear power, a newly militarized (revived in that aspect) and nationalist state, and a little unpredictable. It may be for that reason that “diplomacy” rather than “confrontation” has so far defined the western limits of engagement in Syria.

No one knows today how it will end, but I believe the west may look back on this period with immense shame for not having done more to block “Moscow, Damascus, Tehran” while pulling Syria — and Syrians — out of the medieval mode and into a modern politics. Results of related efforts on the battlefield appear to me to have been mixed, although one may credit Assad with the incubation of ISIS through the election to bomb other targets and leave Baghdadi’s enterprise to develop.


The themes are now tangled but still coalesce around “medieval vs modern”.

What is “medieval” now?

And what is modern?

Although BackChannels has frequently paired “medieval” with “absolute power” — and as much seems so — it may be more worthwhile at this point to travel into the 21st Century image of deeply medieval political worlds.

BackChannels readers will get to Riyadh, but let’s start with Moscow.

I have used the term in my own work, as well, and I define sistema as a style of exercising power that turns the country’s people into temporary operating resources, against their wills and in breach of their rights.  Sistema is a deep-seated facet of Russian culture that goes beyond politics and ideology, and it will persist long after Putin’s rule has ended.  Sistema combines the idea that the state should enjoy unlimited access to all national resources, public or private, with a kind of permanent state of emergency in which every level of society — businesses, social and ethnic groups, powerful clans, and even criminal gangs — is drafted into solving what the Kremlin labels “urgent state problems.”  Under Putin, sistema has become a method for making deals among businesses, powerful players, and the people.  Business has not taken over the state, nor vice versa; the two have merged in a union of total and seamless corruption.

Pavlovsky, Gleb.  “Russian Politics Under Putin: The System Will Outlast the Master.” Foreign Affairs, May / June 2016 (10-17).

Q: What are the roots of Putin’s ideological worldview?

A: By the beginning of the 1990s Putin had developed almost all the ideas he espouses today. He’d only just started working in St Petersburg, but if we look at documentary recordings of the time, we see that he already had a whole series of attitudes concerning, for example, the idea that Russia’s system of administration should be a unitarian, centralized state, and also his condoning the chinovniki [bureaucrats] taking bribes. That surprised many people, but it’s undeniable that he took a positive view of this. He even shared—and repeated—the scandalous thesis of the then mayor of Moscow, Gavril Popov, that bureaucrats had the right to a commission on contracts.

Pavlovksy, Gleb (Interviewee) and Tom Parfitt (Interviewer).  “Putin’s World Outlook.”  New Left Review, 88, July-August 2014.

And here’s an image from the modern world according to Andy of Mayberry:

Posted to YouTube May 22, 2012.


The “Syrian Tragedy” — I don’t know what else to call it, for it represents in its various facets a bitter revolution, a (medieval) tyrant’s assertions about a family’s outright control and ownership of a state, a civil war but one complicated by multiple sides and the political “flavors” preferred — conveniently, earnestly, momentarily — by the roving bands of the hours — but it is most certainly the result of a consecrated villainy fit to the absence of conscience and the bloody caprice of the worst of kings and emperors of history.

Once tweeted: “Putin, Assad, Khamenei — together they are defending absolute power.”

Pavlosky, in the Foreign Affairs article cited, notes of Putin’s inner circle, “Transformed from a campaign committee into a presidential entourage, the team has changed only marginally in its composition.  These are people who have never once told Putin, “You can’t do that” (p. 12).

In light of that observation, it might be worth taking another look at Andy and Opie and the difference between a quarter earned and three “just because”.

Cited and Related Reference

Pavlovksy, Gleb (Interviewee) and Tom Parfitt (Interviewer).  “Putin’s World Outlook.”  New Left Review, 88, July-August 2014.

Pavlovsky, Gleb.  “Russian Politics Under Putin: The System Will Outlast the Master.” Foreign Affairs, May / June 2016 (10-17).

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