How Putin is Winning and Losing Syria

No one is in Syria because of ISIS.

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.

The Russian line is that they’re in Syria to fight ISIS. But the Russians, like the Turks, Iranians and Europeans, don’t care about ISIS. By declaring itself a Caliphate, ISIS made itself non-aligned. The fighting in Syria isn’t about ISIS. It predated the rise of ISIS as a major player. It’s about Syria.

ISIS has become a convenient excuse for converging on Syria. But no one is there because of ISIS.

The Turks are bombing Syria for their old hobby of killing Kurds. Turkey will occasionally bomb supposed ISIS targets for propaganda purposes, but mostly its air force bombs the Kurdish enemies of ISIS. Russia will do the same thing, hitting ISIS for propaganda purposes, but focusing on Sunni anti-Assad groups.

Turkey and Russia are bombing so many of ISIS’ enemies, that they might as well be backing ISIS.

Putin and Erdogan aren’t there to fight ISIS, but neither is Obama. Obama’s campaign to “degrade” ISIS is another failure and no amount of cooked intel to make it seem like he’s winning can change that. 

Obama got into Syria to back Sunni Islamist coalitions. Russia is in Syria to back a Shiite Islamist coalition. We never got around to bombing the Shiites because Obama’s red line wavered and broke, but the Russians are making up for it by bombing the Sunni Islamists that Obama was backing.

Obama is protesting to Putin on weak grounds. Granted, Moscow is lying about its agenda in Syria. It isn’t there to fight ISIS. It’s there to fight other Sunni Jihadists, some of whom are linked to Al Qaeda, which ISIS is also fighting. But then again Obama has lied just as much about Syria as Putin has.

The US, Europe and Russia are fighting over which bunch of Islamic terrorists to support. It’s a lot like the Cold War. There are no good guys. Just bad guys that we support and bad guys they support.

Putin is there to support Iran’s Shiite terrorists. Obama is there to support Saudi Sunni terrorists. No one is there to support ISIS which is why bombing it is not a major priority for either side in this contest.

We’re the only ones bombing ISIS full-time, but that’s because Obama was caught shorthanded by ISIS genocide being televised and couldn’t think of anything else to do. His new alliance with Iran and his old alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood make it hard for him to bomb or not bomb Assad. Bombing ISIS is a compromise since both his new Iranian friends and his old Brotherhood friends oppose the group. 

Bombing ISIS allows Obama to pander to both Shiite and non-ISIS Sunni Jihadists and their backers. 

But Putin is thinking strategically. He wants to reduce Western influence by backing a Shiite axis. Obama has no coherent plan anymore. The original Arab Spring plan of backing the Muslim Brotherhood that caused the Syrian Civil War fell apart ages ago. Obama supports the Sunni Jihadists on paper, but has been hesitant about providing them with weapons or air support. Meanwhile he’s backing their Shiite Jihadist rivals in Iraq. 

While Putin acts as the Shiite air force in Syria, Obama acts as the Shiite air force in Iraq. It’s a good deal for Iran and less work for Putin, but it does nothing coherent for American national interests.

The Shiite axis lets Russia expand its power in the region at bargain basement prices. Moscow can’t afford even those prices, but Putin has given up on economic development and is basing his entire regime on restarting the Cold War. Russian streets are full of angry old Communists holding up signs reading, “We are ready to perish to help Putin.”

And the war has all sorts of interesting fringe benefits.

The Muslim migrant invasion of Europe may not have been a calculated Russian strategy, but then again it just might be. Hungary is already talking about moving away from the EU and toward Russia. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic feel betrayed by the EU. 

Non-EU members who might have seen the EU as a defense against a Russian invasion now feel they have to choose between a Russian invasion and a Muslim invasion.

Unexpectedly, Syria has proven to be a major asset for Putin’s Eurasian expansion program. It has probably done more to help him get the old WarPac gang back together again than invading Ukraine. 

The more chaos Russia creates in the Middle East, the more Muslims flood into Europe, the shakier the European Union becomes. If Putin achieves nothing else in Syria, he can keep the flow of Muslim migrants going long enough to bring down the rest of Europe.

And if Europe is in bad enough shape, his Eurasian Union becomes more viable. 

The Soviet Union became a major threat once the rest of Europe has been ruined by WW2. The Muslim migration isn’t quite WW2, but then Putin’s plans for the Eurasian Union are just a poor mashup of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union which will somehow uphold Russian power while being majority Muslim. It’s hard to imagine a worse and more unstable entity than the USSR, but a Eurasian Union with Russian ex-KGB rulers and Muslim armies subjugating Slavic countries might just be the ticket.

Back in Syria, Putin has made Russian airpower into the protector of Assad and Hezbollah. The US will be expected to coordinate its moves with Russia. Israel has already worked out an arrangement under which it may have to coordinate air strikes against Russia’s Hezbollah terror allies with… Russia. 

It’s a dangerous game for Russia. Russian air power is no match for either the US or Israel. Quite a few Russian pilots were shot down and captured by the Israelis during major wars. But Putin is gambling that Obama won’t have the guts to push him and that Netanyahu has too many other things on his mind.

He’s probably right about Obama, but he may be wrong about Netanyahu.

Stopping Iranian weapons shipments to terrorists has been a primary goal of Israeli operations abroad. Israel has pursued that goal by hitting targets from Dubai to Sudan to Syria. If Putin expects to extend his umbrella over Shiite terror groups targeting Israel, he won’t be able to do that without a fight.

Israel views Iranian aid to Hamas and Hezbollah as an existential threat. The ability of both groups to strike deep within Israel in ways that disrupt life in major cities has become a major crisis. If the situation escalates, Israel may be forced to go back to the territorial strategy of holding security zones.

But Israel is one of the few players in this game that puts the terror threat first because it strikes close to home. For Obama and Putin, for Turkey and Iran, it’s all about geopolitical strategy and power blocs.

Russia, Turkey and Iran want to rebuild old empires. Obama wants to undo colonialism by backing Islamists. The only common denominator in their goals is that they will all lead to more terrorism.

The bigger question is how much water does Putin intend to carry for the Shiite axis.

The Ayatollah Khomeini may have called America the “Great Satan”, but he called Russia the “Lesser Satan”. On the year of his death, he did send a letter urging Gorbachev to abandon Communism and study Islam. Gorbachev’s face reportedly turned redder than usual, but the letter served as the basis for a growing relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Lesser Russian Satan. 

Putin’s Eurasian Empire depends on seizing or controlling a lot of territories that were originally controlled by Iran. These include parts of Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Georgia and Armenia. Those may not be Iran’s major focus now, but a collision course between these two wannabe empires is inevitable.  

Russia and America are both playing an old disastrous Cold War game of building up Muslim terrorists and terror states. Russia helped innovate moderate Muslim terror tactics only to fall victim to them. The United States has backed a Muslim Brotherhood that intends to conquer the United States.

Putin may be winning now in Syria, but it’s a victory that belongs to Iran. Its Shiite terrorists will strike at America and Israel, but they will eventually also strike at Russia. 

Putin is thinking longer term than Obama. But not by that much.