Vladimir Putin is reshaping the Middle East to fit Russia’s interests by adhering to fundamentals of international affairs that America’s foreign policy establishment sets aside in favor of what they deem sophistication. Unlike our “realists,” who start out compromising our interests with those of local allies, Putin is bending theirs to Russia’s. Unlike our liberal internationalists, who try to lead by giving power to local allies, Putin directs them in operations of his choice. Unlike our neoconservatives, who endlessly deploy force piecemeal, Putin uses it decisively.
The Wall Street Journal recently fretted that Putin’s tank, plane, and artillery expeditionary force is empowering Iran as well as Syria’s Assad: “Russian planes can target anyone Assad deems an enemy.” No. They are targeting anyone who stands in the way of Russia’s objectives. That’s a big, big difference. Neither Assad, nor Iran, nor Iran’s Shia allies in what used to be Iraq have any reason to delude themselves that Putin’s assistance will take them any farther toward their own objectives than is absolutely necessary for Putin to achieve his own.
Putin’s objectives are obvious: to secure Russia’s naval base at Tartus, surrounded by a substantial enclave of Alewis rendered reliably reliant on Moscow and who will serve as its pied a terre on the Mediterranean shore, and crush all challenges thereto; and, since ISIS is the apex of the Sunni militancy also infecting Russia through the Caucasus, crush ISIS. Unlike our geniuses, Putin knows that the Assad regime, the Shia militias, and the Iranians are the only people who will hazard their lives to save the Alewis and to crush ISIS. So he is arming and organizing them. But he has no intention of trying to re-unite Syria under Assad, or to try to re-unite Iraq under the Shia, much less of seconding Iran in its Islamic world war against the Sunni.
Use, Don’t Deny, People’s Strongest Motives
That is why Russian forces’ first targets are the Sunni militias who threaten the eventual Alewi enclave in the northwest, even though they are enemies of ISIS; why Russia will pay no attention to them once they no longer pose that threat, regardless of what Assad might want; and why Putin is supporting the Shia militias that are gathering to expel ISIS from Mosul as the Americans never did, but will drop them long before they put a big dent into the Sunni-stan that now encompasses what had been Western Iraq and Eastern Syria.
Putin will, however, help these Shia to make an example of ISIS, the dread of which will resound across the Caucasus. After that, the folks in Baghdad, Damascus, and Teheran notwithstanding, Putin can be expected to make deals with the Saudis and Egyptians about the relationship between an ISIS-free Sunni-stan and his Mediterranean enclave.
Unlike our liberal internationalists, Putin knows that foreigners’ incentives cannot overcome a people’s reluctance to fight only for their own ends. Knowing Sunni Arabs’ kinship to ISIS, he does not imagine that they can be relied on to fight it, or that the Kurds will fight ISIS beyond keeping it away from Kurdistan.
That is why Putin allies with people who have their own reasons for exterminating ISIS. Far from conditioning the alliance on asking the Shia to act moderately, he encourages the bloody sentiments that motivate them in the first place. But since his objectives coincide with theirs only to a certain point, he enters the alliance fully prepared to cut it short once his objectives—not theirs—are achieved.
Earn Respect through Strength
Unlike our neoconservatives, Putin knows that force discredits itself if it is not used decisively. Like Napoleon, he knows you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them. Russia’s expeditionary force in the Middle East, unlike America’s, is not there to drive around replenished minefields, getting legs blown off by IEDs. Their artillery will devastate ISIS’ strongholds as it did Chechnya. Their tank and plane combination will open the way for murderous militias.
Russia’s military orthodoxy is the decisive difference between its expedition in former Syria and Iraq and America’s recent ventures. Russian forces seem to be prioritizing objectives, weakening the rear with strategic air strikes, then moving the front forward with coordinated combined arms and little if any concern for collateral damage. Historically, this sort of behavior tends to engender respect rather than additional enmity.