Streetwise Professor

December 10, 2012

The Wages of a Zero Sum Mindset, Russo-Syrian Edition

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:50 pm

Russia’s defense of Syria’s Assad is overdetermined.  (And don’t believe for a minute its claims that it is not protecting Assad: walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a duck-it’s a duck.)

There are military-diplomatic reasons.  Syria is a long-term ally in the region-Russia’s last one.  Syria provides Russia with its only port in the Med.  Russia has legitimate fears of another jihadi outpost, this one at the heart of the Middle East.

There are domestic political reasons: in a reprise of its role in the Holy Alliance, Russia’s extreme fear of an popular overthrow of the government leads it support any regime facing popular opposition, no matter how odious that regime might be.

But a big reason can only be described as psychological, and rooted in Russia’s obsession with the Cold War, and in particular its loss in the Cold War to the US,.   Recent Russian squealing about the US’s alleged lapsing into a Cold War mentality (e.g., the Magnitsky Act) is so much projection that reveals just who really thinks about the Cold War non-stop. More generally, Russia is obsessed with respect, and regaining its great power status.

Putin for one marinates in these obsessions.

One effect of this obsession is the pronounced tendency to oppose reflexively anything that the United States supports, or that Russia even suspects it might support.  Hence, the fact that the US is attempting to orchestrate Assad’s ouster is sufficient for Putin and Lavrov and the rest of the gang to oppose it.

Ironically, in so doing they are jeopardizing Russia’s more objectively-based reasons for wanting to maintain a foothold in Syria.  By creating obstacles to every attempt for the UN or NATO to get rid of Assad and transition to some other government, Russia (assisted by China) has ensured that the conflict has become a protracted war to the knife in which the most radical forces-jihadi forces, in particular-have decisive advantages.  Given its longstanding relationship with all aspects of the Syrian military and security forces, and its connection with Assad, if anyone could have brokered an outcome that would have avoided the bloodshed and chaos that have occurred in the last two years, and which will almost get worse when the inevitable comes to pass, it was Russia.  But it dug in its heels, permitting Assad to hang on, and to escalate, and to make a cataclysmic end almost certain.

When this end occurs, Russia’s influence in Syria will be nil, and its image in Syria and the Middle East generally will be deeply blackened.  It can kiss Tartus good bye.  There will be a major jihadi enclave that much closer to Chechnya.

If it had not responded so reflexively to western initiatives to find some way of getting Assad out, and indeed, if it had utilized its connections and influence, it could have preserved something.  Instead it will lose everything.  Even overlooking the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding, and the dangers that a post-civil war Syria will pose to its people and the region, and just looking from a purely self-interested Russian perspective, Putin and Lavrov played this badly.  The opposite game will prove very expensive for Russia.  Yes, the US would have gained from Assad’s departure, especially at the outset (not so clear now, given how things have gone, but his eventual departure is inevitable).  In the Russian zero sum world view, given the salience of the US in the Russian mind, that was sufficient reason to fight for Assad to the bitter end.   But it will prove to be a grievous wound, and an entirely self-inflicted one

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  1. Never underestimate Russia’s ability to cut off its nose to spite its face. It occurs over and over, not only on the national scale but on the personal scale as well. The sovok mentality.

    Comment by Gordon — December 11, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

  2. @Gordon. Exactly. Like the old joke about the Russian granted a wish by a genie: “I wish that my neighbor’s cow dies.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 11, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  3. @Professor,

    Actually, the genie/cow joke goes like this:
    Genie to Muzhik: “You are asking me for the third time that you neighbor’s cow dies. But he only has one cow!”

    In a similar vein:
    After a cattle epidemic… “It ain’t a pity my cow died. It’s a pity the neighbor’s survived.”
    “I’d rather my cow die than the neighbor have two cows.”
    “There’s no more joyous sight in life, than a neighbor’s roof on fire.”

    I just remembered a good genie joke, however…
    Muzhik finds a bottle, rubs it, a genie pops out.
    – I can grant any wish you want. But your neighbor gets double of anything you get. You wish for a cow. You get one, but your neighbor gets two. You wish for a barrel of gold. You get one, but your neighbor gets two. Etc..
    Muzhik thinks for a moment…
    – Poke one of my eyes out.

    Comment by So? — December 11, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

  4. Well, after closing Lourdes, Cam Ranh, opening up a “multi-modal NATO logistics terminal” (don’t call it a base!) in Ulyanovsk, continuing “megatons to megawatts”, I wouldn’t exactly call Putin anti-American. Although some say, he became anti-American after being snubbed after the first two. Anyway, I’d say it’s simply incompetence. When you build your apparatus based on loyalty, you get brain-farts like that. Putinism of the brain. It can turn outright grotesque, absurd… shameful even.

    Comment by So? — December 11, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

  5. Those are all priceless, @So? And all so spot on.

    Re the brain fart. The few deaths of adoptees in the US are of course tragic. But the reasons that these kids are here are (a) the population of orphans and abandoned children in Russia is huge; (b) few Russians adopt; and (c) the orphanages in Russia are little short of a holocaust. Americans are giving these kids a chance by adopting in Russia, and having to navigate a cesspool of criminality and corruption to do it.

    Would that Russia’s touching concern for orphan Russian children extend to, you know, kids in Russian orphanages. Talk about obsessing about the mote in your neighbor’s eye, and ignoring the beam in your own. A lot of things about Russia are infuriating, but there is nothing more infuriating and disgusting than their hypocrisy and cynicism about adoptions.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 11, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

  6. Are we absolutely sure that Assad will fall? For over a year I have heard overly optimistic media reports that the tide has turned and Assad is finished, yet he’s managed to soldier on.

    Granted, he has slowly lost more and more control of Syria, and his ability to impose force is severely degraded. But the war could easily go on for another year or more. Both Iran and Hezbollah are assisting him, plus he has a core area of support within the country – the religious minorities who know any Sunni lead government will treat them like garbage once they are installed.

    I think chances are still pretty good for Assad to survive somehow either still as ruler of Syria (although if so, the civil war will likely last two years or more), or as ruler of a rump Alawite state on the coast (where the Russian base is at). I think either would satisfy the Russians just fine.

    Despite what the media believes, insurgents do not have invulnerable morale, nor are there unending numbers of them. I think the decisive battles of the Syrian civil war still need to occur.

    Comment by Chris — December 13, 2012 @ 11:34 am

  7. @Chris-I discounted reports to that effect until recently. These things tend to tip rapidly and decisively, but establishing the time the beleaguered force will disintegrate is hard. But to me the pace of degradation of his forces seems to have picked up, so I think it is inevitable. Yes, the decisive battles are yet to come, but when they do come I can’t see Assad’s forces winning.

    Interestingly, today Russia’s Deputy FM, Bogdanov (if I remember his name correctly) admitted that Assad was losing, and that it was necessary to contemplate the prospect of his fall. I thought he was going to break into tears. That’s a big concession by the Russians.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 13, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

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  11. You didn’t mention this, but Putin’s stance towards Assad shows that Russia will stand by its allies much more resolutely than the US does (remember Mubarek). This may be something to consider for a third (or second) world dictator looking for a sponsor.

    Assad’s rule may eventually collapse in Allepo, Damascus and much of the country but I don’t see the Alawites not fighting to the bitter end in their territory, which is compact and mountainous enough for them to maintain an enclave given their military training and arms. They and the Christians are about 20% of the country’s population. They will not surrender because surrendr would mean the end of their community. The final result will be more like Georgia/Abkhasia, or that Serb enclave in northern Kosovo, rather than total takeover by rebels/revolutionaries as in Libya.

    Comment by AP — December 16, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

  12. @AP – I agree with your assessment. If Syria was a monoculture, then at some point the goons in Assad’s army would just fall apart after enough of the infrastructure of the modern army fell apart. At some point, the people just give up. They do so because the rank and file ultimately believe the new guys coming into power are just like them and will look out for them. However, Syria is not a monoculture. Once the modern army falls apart, the Alawites will adopt the tactics of the guerillas to hold onto their own land. It’s also possible that the Christians and other minority Muslims sects will do the same. The Kurds have already de facto left the Syrian state – they just need to negotiate with the Turks on what they can accept.

    I think eventually partition will happen, although it’ll take a grand bargain between the Russians and the West to accomplish this. If an independent Alawite state comes into being, it’ll have all sorts of weird repercussions int he Middle East although it may take the better part of a decade to sort it all out.

    Comment by Chris — December 17, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  13. @ Chris. The Alwaites are a compact majority in two neighboring Syrian provinces on the coast, with a population of between 2-3 million, enough for a feasible country. They actually wanted their own country in the 40’s but the French colonial authorities forced them to be part of Syria, with the consolation prize of dominating Syria’s army, which meant, eventually, taking over the whole country.

    Comment by AP — December 17, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

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