Brinkmanship beyond the brink

30 September 2015

A first reaction to today's bombardment of targets in Syria by Russian warplanes. We are witnessing the actions of a regime whose shaky grasp on power has led it to take up one adventure after another, without regard for the humanitarian consequences. The regime's fear that the spectacle of Ukraine is failing to keep its domestic audience in thrall has most recently led it to posturing on the world stage on the issue of Syria - and today beyond posturing, to engage in military action in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Let's put aside the fact that Russia's failing economy cannot long withstand the cost of these adventures. Let's not even consider the inevitable, that the Russian public will one day finally realize that it is not dreams of empire or a sense of belonging to a Great Power that it needs, but a chance to reclaim its lost civil liberties. Let's think of those living in Ukraine whose lives have been disrupted and destroyed by Russian adventurism - and now in Syria, a country desperate for peace, for whom the symbolic olive branches of the United Nations flag, so recently on display at its annual General Assembly, have one more time, and demonstratively, been cast aside and put to flames.  

A second reaction. The actions of the Kremlin are motivated by a number of calculations. One is certainly the desire to prop up the rule of its ally, Bashar al-Assad. At least since the Arab Spring, this has been one of the regime's primary motivations. A second motivation is to protect the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria. But three other calculations are probably more significant today. The first is the price of oil. Military disturbances in the Middle East can be almost guaranteed to push the price of oil upwards, so at the very least the financial cost of any military intervention is off-set by a rise in the price of oil. Second is to spoil the growing entente between Iran and the Western powers. By allying with Iran in a joint strategy to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia is likely able to postpone the day that Iranian oil will enter the world market, an event which, when it happens, will no doubt push down oil prices yet further. And third is the refugee crisis. Putin almost certainly sees this as a means to put pressure on the EU. His military intervention in Syria will only maintain and possibly increase the flow of refugees westwards.

A third reaction. As time goes by, we are increasingly seeing the externalization of methods long used by the Putin regime domestically in Russia. The regime's hold over the Russian public has always been closely related to the use of mass violence and war, backed up by the manipulation of the media. The methods used, so far successfully but with increasing desperation, to keep Russian domestic opinion in thrall are now being used on the international stage. The problem the world faces in dealing with this regime is that its actions are spurred by a sense of its own weakness, and it really has no other goal beyond its own survival.


See 'Syria crisis: Russia "begins air strikes",' BBC, 30 September 2015

From the BBC:

"What's the human cost?

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and a million injured in four-and-a-half years of armed conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war.

And the survivors?

More than 11 million others have been forced from their homes, four million of them abroad, as forces loyal to President Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other - as well as jihadist militants from IS and other groups. Growing numbers of refugees are going to Europe.

How has the world reacted?

Regional and world powers have also been drawn into the conflict. Iran and Russia, along with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, are propping up the Alawite-led government. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the Sunni-dominated opposition, along with the US, UK and France."