20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Syrian crisis continues to escalate, and is slowly reaching the level of a regional catastrophe. Western countries, led by by the U.S. and France, insist on “Libyan-scenario-style” intervention. Russia and China are blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions that would implement Western policy. Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Moscow-based Middle East Institute, spoke with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova about the specifics of the Syrian war, and various scenarios of further developments in the region.



O.Kh.: What is the rationalization behind Russia's stand on Syria?

Y.G.: Russia's position represents a conservative, Anglo-Saxon-style standpoint, in the tradition of Winston Churchill as well as the Westphalian system, which provides that every state must deal with its terrorists and separatists on its own. In his time, Leon Trotsky thought that the global revolution should prevail. Today, our colleagues in Washington and Brussels support a global Islamic revolution that is being provoked by the “Wahhabist Axis.” The Axis, which includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar, aspires, by any means, to establish a caliphate in the region. Moscow and Beijing look at these developments in amazement: the idea of such a revolution sickens us. Therefore, Russia will not allow the Security Council resolution on Syria sought by the West. The study of the U.N. vote results is rather interesting. One hundred and thirty-three countries supported the resolution, while sixty others rejected it or abstained. Among the latter are India and many former Soviet republics, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, who [in other matters] never shied away from voting against Russia’s interests. Those countries are perfectly aware that if the situation develops in the direction of revolution, one of them, Uzbekistan, for example, could be next.

O.Kh.: Why, then, did Russia abstain during the Security Council vote on the Libya operation, and is now vetoing the resolution on Syria?

Y.G.: No two situations are alike as is demonstrated by the “Libyan scenario” and the end of Qaddafi.  Qaddafi fought showing restraint in his use of the military, acting in an almost gentlemanly manner towards his Western opponents. But, in the end he was lynched.

Syria is no Libya, and if there is a foreign invasion, not only will Assad and his family be murdered, all the Alawi, and other “unbelievers” will also be killed. Moreover, after the Libyan crisis was resolved, Russia saw that all the agreements it had made with the West in return for passing the Security Council resolution, were violated. For one thing, Russian Railways lost a €2 billion contract. Putin can be called non-democratic, or whatever, but he is not an idiot, and he learns fast both from his own mistakes, and the mistakes of others.

I am not saying Assad or Qaddafi are good. Obviously, they are both bad... But whatever may come after them is likely to be catastrophic.

O.Kh.: Is there a possibility that Syria can be attacked without the U.N. resolution?

Y.S.: There will be no attacks at least until after the November elections in the U.S. America is on the verge of war with Iran, and it's impossible for them to maintain two wars simultaneously. In addition, the U.S. has to take into account the concerns of China for whom Iran is a major energy supplier.  China is not only America’s greatest potential adversary, it is also America’s most important trade partner. France has announced that it may withdraw from NATO's military structure. Without European and American support, Turkey will not attack Syria. [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdogan tried to convince Russia to give the green light for Turkey to start anti-Syrian activities, but it got him nowhere.

O.Kh.: What are Russia's interests in Syria?

Y.S.: Russian trade with Syria is small—$2 billion per year, but it doesn't mean that Syria should be thrown to the wolves. Syria is the closest country to Russia in this region in many aspects. It has a large community of Christian Orthodox living there, and the Russian Orthodox Church has influence on the Russian government’s policies. Syria is the home for about one hundred thousand Russian speakers, of whom thirty thousand have Russian passports. Imagine a country with thirty thousand American citizens facing that kind of aggression. The U.S. would immediately send aircraft carriers to its shores. Russia is doing no such thing. We are making our views known through diplomacy.

Do some Russian generals have an interest in the Tartus material supply center? Of course, they do. But it’s not a significant issue: Tartus consists of three floating piers and a couple of barracks with fuel, lubricants and water on a territory of two hectares. It’s ridiculous to call it a naval base. If Russian ships cannot use Tartus for docking in the eastern Mediterranean, so what? They will go to Haifa or Limassol. Both the Israelis and Cypriots will meet them with open arms.

O.Kh.: At what stage is the civil war in Syria today? To what extent is the situation destabilized?


Syrian rebels in Idlib. March 11th, 2012.


Y.S.: The idea that there are "stages of civil wars" is the invention of charlatans and ivory tower theoreticians. Currently in Syria the government is winning against its opponents, but it doesn’t mean that the civil war will be over any time soon. Victory, right now, is beyond the grasp of both the government and the insurgent forces. This situation is gradually turning into the Lebanese scenario where various groups are slaughtering one another. This phase of war in Syria reminds one of the 2000-03 period in Chechnya. Can Assad’s government hold on? Easily. If he lasts until the big Gulf war, the war between Iran and the Arabic monarchies—Qatar and Saudi Arabia, then the world will forget about Syria.

O.Kh.: You call Syrian rebels 'insurgents,' while many politicians and mass media call them the 'opposition.' How do you explain the difference in terminology?

Y.S.: There is no opposition in Syria, as there was none in Libya. You can't consider as ‘opposition’ all these crowds of gangsters and criminals, or the various radical Islamist groups—the classic Al-Qaeda who announced a jihad against Assad, to the Muslim Brotherhood who are supported by Qatar, and the hard line Salaphists who get support from Saudi Arabia.   It’s just as pointless to call them opposition, as it was pointless to apply this term to the armed Landsknekht gangs who wandered around Europe during the Thirty Years War. Their only goal is to tear Syria apart, to kill Assad and anyone else in their way, and either to establish an Islamic Caliphate on any piece of land that they manage to bite off, or slaughter all heretics and members of other faiths.

O.Kh.: If it's all so obvious, why would anyone call them opposition?

Y.S.: If you belong to that part of Western society that is called ‘useful idiots’ and this includes the leaders of the U.S., Great Britain and France, you can call anyone the ‘opposition.’  You need to justify why you are giving air defense systems to groups that suspiciously remind one of the terrorists cells whom you had just fought in Afghanistan or Iraq. There is no other way to explain it than by characterizing them as the "opposition." It’s easier to say that there is a tyrant and opposition, and that we are helping the opposition.


Military operations between Syrian rebels and government forces at Busra al-Harir, several kilometers away from the Jordan border. December, 2011.


О.Kh.: What is the West's interest? Concretely, who in the West has an interest in supporting the "opposition?"

Y.S.: The interests of the state and those of a politician, who heads such state, always differ. The military and intelligence service don’t have any interest in supporting drug cartels and Islamist groups, including the Taliban, in Afghanistan, but the U.S. State Department does. Therefore, General Stanley McChrystal, who had raised a question about this, was fired. It’s the same with Syria. Many politicians have  personal, financial, bureaucratic interests there. There are also strategic interests of the U.S. in forming a coalition with the Gulf’s monarchies in the upcoming war against Iran. Syria is Iran’s partner, which means it has to be weakened. So why not bring democracy to Syria? The problem is that after such democracy is established, the country will be destroyed. But who cares? The ‘Wahhabite Axis’—Saudi Arabia and Qatar—has an additional interest in that war: to them the Alawi are heretics, so Assad has to be killed, and the Alawi are to be burnt at the stake.

O.Kh.: If the U.S. and NATO are planning to implement the “Libyan scenario”  in Syria…

Y.S.: They are not planning it, it's already taking place.

O.Kh.: But it's clear that this scenario will destabilize the region…


Syrian rebels during the firefight in Idlib. March 10th, 2012.


Y.S.: Who cares about it?

O.Kh.: Do you think that the U.S. voters don't care?

Y.S.: Of course, they don't. Why should they care if a war starts somewhere at the other end of the world? Any American citizen will tell that a war brings benefits to the economy, as long as this war is not on U.S. territory. Saudi Arabia alone provides $60 billion in arms contracts for the U.S. budget. What is there to care about?

O.Kh.: How about the lives of the civilians in the Middle East?

Y.S.: When have the local inhabitants had any say in what happens? If you live in Syria, your influence on what is taking place there equals zero. People in Syria, like people in other Middle Eastern countries, want to know nothing about their neighbors—they just want to be left alone in peace.

It was not a choice between a warm and fuzzy peace-friendship-reconciliation scenario and killing of thousands of people. Instead, it was a choice between killing tens of thousands and slaughtering millions. It's about choosing between bad and worse.

O.Kh.: Why does the Syrian population support Assad?

Y.S.: There is one simple reason why the majority of the population supports Assad. This majority includes not only Alawi, but also Christians and Shiites of all denominations. They are perfectly aware of the consequences if the Islamists come to power. Assad has the support of some secular Sunni as well, who, after the Arab Spring, realized that if Assad leaves, Syria will no longer be a secular state. Kurds do not oppose Assad either—he was the one who gave freedom to the insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It has always had a dominant position on Syrian territory and since it was about to receive full autonomy a là the Iraqi model (Iraqi Kurdistan),  they have absolutely no interest in the Assad regime's overthrow. So now you have a different picture of what is going on in Syria, quite different from what you get from CNN, Reuters, Al-Jazeera and other anti-Assad pool media coverage.


The majority of Syrians support current president Bashar al-Asad


O.Kh.: Do you think that democracy is impossible in Syria?

Y.S.: In the Middle East, Africa, large parts of Asia and Latin America there are only dictators, no one else. If you get rid of Saudi Arabia's and Qatar's narrow, private interests, it is completely incomprehensible why Syria should be democratized first, and not North Korea, Zimbabwe, or the Republic of South Africa. Theocratic dictatorships in the Persian Gulf are no better than the Syrian regime. Today, the secular Arab dictatorships are falling one by one—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen.

If Syria falls, Algeria is the only secular regime left. This will be bad, because it will mean that the Islamists are the only remaining force in power in this region. I don’t understand why they are considered democrats. Well, they are democrats in the Middle Eastern fashion. Here we find an insuperable contradiction that was described by a Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg in his book Liberal Fascism. In the West, the popular left theory has become dogma: any democracy is good, while any authoritarian, theocratic, monarchic regime is evil. In the Middle East, however, this dogma doesn't work. Middle Eastern democracy translates into a system of rule under which the minority will be slaughtered or, at best, turned into slaves.

For instance, Afghanistan's Loya Jirga (“grand assembly”) can have a democratic vote and decide that girls should not attend school. If girls still happen to attend, they get acid thrown into their faces, and then the school, with all of its teachers and students inside, gets set on fire. As for the sexual minorities, they have just one right in the Middle East—to be murdered. Only a dictatorship stops the slaughter of national, ethnic and other minorities. This is the way their world functions. I am not saying that Assad or Qaddafi are good. Obviously not: they are all bad. But what is likely to come after them, will be catastrophic. So now, when they say that democracy is coming to Syria, you have to realize that it will be a grotesque version under which some groups will be slaughtered; that's the way things work in this region. If Syria falls one day, Jordan will be next; other regimes will follow as well. It won’t be a picnic for Turkey, too. The choice is between these three scenarios: the current bad situation, a catastrophe or an apocalypse.


A bomber, known under the name of Abdullah, is holding a bomb, assembled for blowing up a road section in Idlib, Syria. Abdullah was hired by Abu Suleiman, leader of one of the numerous rebel groups operating in Syria. March, 2012


O.Kh.: How likely is the catastrophe?

Y.S.: It's quite likely. The collapse of Syria is inevitable after Bashar al-Assad. Before the Assads, Syria didn’t exist as a single state. This country was cobbled together in the late 1930's by the French from several hostile quasi-states. From the late 1940’s until the early 1970’s, when Hafez al-Assad came to power, Syria went through dozens of coups, and governments changed about two times per year. Those coups were not as brutal as in Iraq where government change meant that anyone who had any connection with the old government would be murdered in the cruelest way.  In Iraq, change of power was accomplished in a particularly barbaric way.  In the first years of Assad-Senior’s rule, there was a standard civil war. Terror was stopped, but only after considerable bloodshed including the lives of 25 to 40 thousand people who were murdered during the revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama in the Homs District. It was not a choice between a warm and fuzzy peace-friendship-reconciliation scenario and killing thousands of people. Instead, it was a choice between killing tens of thousands versus slaughtering millions. It's about choosing between bad and worse.

O.Kh.: How do you think the situation will be resolved in Syria?

Y.S.: Winston Churchill said that it's the past we need to predict. If Assad is overthrown, Syria will collapse. There will be genocide against the Christians and Shiites, involving heavy casualties, hundreds of thousands, or even millions may perish. There will be millions of refugees. It will turn into a Lebanese scenario—a civil war that will last for decades. Look at the Southern Philippines, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, let alone Sri-Lanka. There is a scenario where this whole region collapses, with only well-armed Israel left, trying to defend itself against the rest.  Another possible scenario would involve Assad’s chemical and biological weapons being acquired by terrorist cells—the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, or Shia Hezbollah. The second scenario is one where the Israelis may get involved in the conflict. A scenario of modernization is possible only through cooperation with Assad, because evolution is possible only if he retains power. In sum, there are no good scenarios, and there is nothing we can do about it: that’s just life.