Russian president Vladimir Putin has recognized that his country seeks to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
In an interview with CBS News’ Charlie Rose that is due to be broadcast on Sunday, the Russian leader said that the only way out of the Middle Eastern country’s civil war — now in its fifth years — is to strengthen “the effective government structures” and help them fight “terrorism”.
From the beginning of the uprising against his dictatorship, Assad has insisted that the opposition is wholly composed of terrorists.
But that became a self-fulfilling prophecy when his regime imprisoned dissidents and targeted the Western-backed rebel forces in the south while releasing the fanatics and ignoring their territorial gains in the east.
Putin has nevertheless maintained the same line. As early as 2012, he censured Western countries for wanting to “use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.”
In reality, European countries and the United States have largely shied away from arming the Syrian opposition for fear of inadvertently aiding radical Islamist groups.
In his interview with CBS this week, Putin reiterated his concern that efforts to “destroy the legitimate government” of any country could lead to a replay of what happened in Libya “where all the state institutions are disintegrated.”
Russia acquiesced in an Arab and Western “humanitarian intervention” in Libya four years ago. In its view, the allies seized the opportunity to engineer regime change in Tripoli. Their bombing of government and military targets enabled Libya’s opposition to find and kill dictator Muammar Gaddafi and displace his regime. The country has been in turmoil since.
Russia saw what happened in Libya as the latest in a series of broken Western promises, going back to the end of the Cold War when it believed Germany and the United States had committed to not expanding NATO eastward.
In Syria, Russia seems determined to prevent the collapse of its only ally in the region.
There have been reports of Russian intelligence agents or special forces operating in Syria for more than a year. But in recent weeks, the country has made little effort to hide its increased support for Assad. According to the United States, Russia has deployed at least two dozen fighter jets to Syria in addition to artillery, tanks and troops. Most are stationed in the northwestern homeland of Assad’s Alawite tribe in and around the city of Latakia.
Russia also maintains a small naval base in Tartus, south of Latakia.
Assad’s regime controls most of the west of the country, including the capital, Damascus, and the coast. The self-declared Islamic State controls most of the east while Kurdish rebels are virtually self-governing along the Turkish border. Other rebel groups are active in the north, around Aleppo, and in the southwest, near Jordan.