Having established Russia’s ability to project its military might in the Middle East and created the illusion that his country is a global power, President Vladimir Putin is now pivoting toward diplomacy in Syria.
It began with Bashar al-Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow in mid-October. Later the same month, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, in Vienna. Next, representatives of 19 countries convened in the same city, at Russia’s behest, to discuss a political solution for Syria’s future. That was followed by another set of talks on November 14, which resulted in an ambitious yet incomplete deal.
All of this was designed to generate international support for Russia’s strategy, which seeks to turn the Syrian civil war into a counter-terrorist operation. And generate support it did. The November 14 deal drew heavily on an eight-point “peace plan” that Russia had circulated at the United Nations ahead of the talks. It involves the drafting of a new constitution with input from opposition groups and the organization of presidential elections, both by 2017.
With this plan, Putin is giving the West what it wants—an orderly exit for Assad, potentially. But in return, Russia will gain considerable control over Syria’s political transition. The Kremlin will seek to harvest the maximum dividend from its role in Syria: the West’s agreement to turn the page on Ukraine and draw down sanctions, and its recognition of Moscow as an indispensable partner in global affairs.
Putin has employed the tactic of turning a civil war into a counter-terrorist operation before—in Chechnya, where Russia launched a war in 1999 that lasted for almost a decade. The Kremlin regards its campaign in the small Muslim republic as a model of conflict resolution to be replicated elsewhere. Last year, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called it “one of the business cards of Russia” and a “good, unique example in history of combat of terrorism.” In thinking about how Russia’s folly in Syria might develop, Chechnya provides a number of important lessons.
Russia’s war in Chechnya was brutal. The Kremlin initially defined all those who opposed its military action as terrorist sympathizers, entirely indistinguishable from Islamic extremists. It bombed the Chechen capital of Grozny indiscriminately, killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians (official figures were not compiled) and forcing thousands more from their homes. Later, it began to target moderate Chechens; in 2005, the FSB murdered Aslan Maskhadov, the democratically elected leader of Chechnya’s independence movement. His predecessor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, was assassinated by car bomb in Qatar in 2004. Though the Russian government denied any involvement in the attack, a Qatari court convicted two Russian security agents for their roles in the bombing.
This was all part of Putin’s strategy to eliminate viable alternatives to his vision for Chechnya’s future as Russia’s most loyal vassal in the North Caucasus. To ensure this, the Kremlin oversaw a political transition in Grozny in which a new constitution was adopted and a dynastic dictatorship—the Kadyrov family—came to power via sham presidential elections. A bomb killed Akhmad A. Kadyrov, the first of Putin’s handpicked leaders, in 2004. His son Ramzan A. Kadyrov replaced him, and still rules today.
Both Kadyrovs understood that, in exchange for Putin’s patronage, they had to ensure that Chechnya would cease to be a hotbed of terrorism. As human rights organizations and independent journalists have documented, Ramzan Kadyrov has achieved this through extreme and arbitrary violence: abductions, detention without trial, disappearances, collective punishment, extrajudicial executions, and the systematic use of torture. The “Kadyrovtsy”, his private militia, conducted some of these atrocities of their own volition, but the Chechen strongman oversaw many if not most of them himself.
Today, after 15 years of bloody fighting that has left the Russian population traumatized and cost tens of thousands of lives, the Kremlin boasts that Chechnya has been “pacified.” This is the future that Putin sees for Syria, and his tactics there follow a similar pattern to those he used in Chechnya.
Putin has accused those in the West who oppose his intervention in Syria as playing a “double game”—pretending to condemn Islamic fundamentalism without taking the necessary steps to eradicate it. The Russian President claimed that his country intervened militarily in Syria because of the Islamic State, but Russia’s bombing campaign has largely targeted areas that have no ISIS presence. Instead, Russia has bombed other members of the armed opposition, including a number of groups affiliated with the moderate Free Syrian Army, which poses the greatest threat to the survival of the Assad regime. Even after the destruction of Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt on October 31—for which ISIS claims responsibility, in revenge for Russia’s intervention in Syria —Russia’s targeting did not radically change.
Tactically, Russia’s bombing campaign has followed the Chechen template. First, the campaign has focused on civilian areas without discriminating between civilian and insurgent targets, killing hundreds of civilians and hitting at least four hospitals to date. Second, a ground offensive has followed the shelling of civilian areas. In Chechnya, Russian troops made up the ground forces, while in Syria a combination of regime forces and their Lebanese and Iranian allies have marched in behind the Russian bombs.
As the November 14 deal makes clear, Putin envisions the next step to be a political transition in which Bashar al-Assad, or whichever member of his family or clan replaces him, gains democratic legitimacy through the adoption of a new constitution and subsequent presidential elections. With the moderate opposition defeated and the regime’s future secure, he or she will then take on the extremist opposition, attempting to rid Syria of ISIS. All the while, Moscow will staunchly support Damascus’s actions. Syria, in short, will become an island of stability in the otherwise chaotic Middle East—and a loyal Russian vassal.
Yet Russia’s “business card” is not all that it seems. Chechnya may appear to be orderly, but the Kremlin’s actions simply displaced terrorists into neighboring regions, destabilizing southern Russia. In 2007, the North Caucasus insurgency movement—originally based in Chechnya—declared an independent Caucasus Emirate ruled under Sharia law, from which the group will wage global jihad. In 2010, the Emirate carried out a series of terrorist attacks on Moscow’s metro system, and in 2011 targeted the city’s Domodedovo International Airport. Today, Dagestan, Chechnya’s eastern neighbor, is a hotbed of terrorist activity and regional ISIS recruitment.
Meanwhile, the key issues that animated Chechen civil society 15 years ago—rampant corruption, clan hegemony, embezzlement, and state-backed brutality—remain unaddressed, and serve as recruitment tools for the Islamist fundamentalists.
The same is likely to happen in Syria. No matter who emerges victorious from the presidential elections in Damascus, he or she will find defeating ISIS difficult if not impossible, even with Russia’s support. Furthermore, as other terrorist groups, including those in the North Caucasus, have demonstrated, ISIS does not need to control territory in order to pose a terrorist threat. As ISIS has faced increasing pressure on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, it has shifted tactics, most notably carrying out a series of attacks in Paris, which killed at least 129 people. But even if ISIS were defeated in Syria, the group would likely move to solidify its hold over vast swathes of territory in Iraq—in which an estimated 3.9 million to 4.6 million people live.
Furthermore, and as with Chechnya before it, the basic concerns that motivated Syria’s anti-government protests in March 2011 and led to the start of the civil war—anger over corruption, unemployment, state-orchestrated violence, and a lack of freedoms—remain.
For most Russians, the first month of their country’s bombing campaign in Syria resembled an entertainment show. State-controlled TV stations showed Russian planes bombing ISIS-controlled areas and sophisticated computer graphics portrayed precision bombs slamming into ISIS strongholds. But then Metrojet Flight 9268 burst apart in mid-air.
Until the crash, Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria had been nothing but positive for the Kremlin. Domestically, Putin’s approval ratings rose to unheard-of heights, topping 88 percent in one October poll, even as Russian exports dropped, imports plummeted, and Central Bank reserves slimmed. Internationally, Putin took the opportunity to present Russia as an indispensable power, not only in Syria but globally.
The crash may have made the costs of the Kremlin’s Syria folly clearer to the Russian public. In October, opinion polls showed that most Russians supported the intervention, while over a third worried that it may become too costly, particularly due to terrorist attacks. But state-controlled TV has repeatedly demonstrated its extraordinary capacity to shape Russian opinion in a way the Kremlin needs. Already, the state’s propaganda machine has begun presenting the destruction of Flight 9268 as further evidence that hostile forces, from U.S. imperialists to Islamic terrorists, surround Russia—and that only Putin can keep it safe.
Putin received his reputation as a no-nonsense leader following his forceful response to a series of highly controversial apartment bombings in September 1999, a campaign that led to the second Chechen war. Four buildings in three Russian cities were blown up, killing almost 300 people, and Putin quickly blamed terrorists from Chechnya. Less than a week after the fourth bombing, a fifth bomb was uncovered. It was disarmed before it could explode, and the bombers were arrested and identified. They turned out not to be Chechen terrorists, but instead agents of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, or F.S.B.
The numerous attacks by Chechen terrorists during Putin’s first years in power strengthened rather than weakened him. In 2002, terrorists seized the Dubrovka theatre in suburban Moscow, leaving 170 people dead. In 2004, female Chechen suicide bombers carried out twin attacks on the Moscow metro, killing 51 people, and another two on Russian domestic flights, killing 89. Later the same year, Chechen terrorists took more than 1,100 people hostage in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. The attack left 335 civilians dead, many of them children. In each incidence, Putin fought violence with violence, appealing to the public’s sense of patriotism to win its approval.
The destruction of Flight 9268 will only strengthen Putin’s resolve in Syria. Speaking in mid-November, Putin vowed revenge on the terrorists who blew up the plane, saying, “We will search wherever they may be hiding. We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them.” This may sound much less emphatic than his famous promise after the 1999 apartment bombings—”if we find them [terrorists] in the toilet, excuse me, we’ll rub them out in the outhouse”—but the message is the same.
However, Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria risks escalating into something far more serious than its campaign in Chechnya, against an enemy far more numerous—and murderous.
Aided by a media controlled by the Kremlin and reaching a population deprived of alternative perspectives, Putin’s strategy for resolving the Syrian war, like his earlier strategy for resolving his Chechen problem, is convincing in Russia. It’s a vision that reflects Putin’s worldview: Stability and predictability are better than the uncertainties of democracy and revolution.
In backing Assad, as with backing the Kadyrovs, the Kremlin is pushing back not just against the West, but also against the whole idea of a popular uprising against authority—what Putin fears the most. With Chechnya, he offers Russians a neat template of the advantages of his autocracy, albeit one that requires heavy editing. It is much less likely that he can offer even that with Syria.