I have recently (“Dismounting the Camel”) argued that the United States and the West can no longer control the Middle East, and that we need to stop trying because we’re just making things worse. Into this gloomy scenario rides Vladimir Putin, prepared to intervene militarily to prop up the long-standing Russian ally, Bashir al-Assad.
The first reflex of US policy-makers and pundits (including the Obama administration) seems to be to oppose the Russian intervention. We ought to think again.
The Russians (and the Soviets before 1991) supported the secular nationalist Assads, father and son, as they had supported other similar regimes in Iraq and Libya. They had a very cordial relationship with the original Arab nationalist dictator, Egypt’s Nasser. Because these rulers typically opposed Western imperialism, the US and the West considered them as enemies in the Cold War. That mindset continued to shape US policy right up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. We know how that turned out.
Our rejection of Arab nationalism has inevitably produced an ever-more-radical Islamism, culminating in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Our interests will be better served at this point by encouraging the Russians to bolster the Assad regime, since secular democratic opponents of that regime have been consistently outmaneuvered and marginalized by the radical Islamists. We picked the wrong horse. The Russians have the one horse that can successfully confront ISIS.
So we should wish Putin success in propping up and strengthening Assad. Moreover, even if he keeps Assad in power, Putin will inevitably find, as the West found, that it’s easier to get into the Middle East than to get out. Russia will become the new target of Islamist rage (remember the Soviet war in Afghanistan?). Thus, Putin will be able, in the short run, to block the advance of ISIS and possibly even to destroy it. And in the long run, bogged down and the target of unrelenting Islamist attacks (think Chechnya), Russia will be weakened.
What’s not to like?