October 7, 2015

GLOBAL IMPACT | Russia in Syria

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A few weeks ago at a U.N. Summit, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke to delegates from around the globe. His talk anchored itself heavily in the past. For example, he began his speech with a discussion of the U.N. and its founding purpose: to prevent future world wars by creating a body that allows for fair discussion between the sovereign nations of the world. He then touched upon Russia’s proud past as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, Putin argued, was ultimately one of the reasons why this august body even came to exist. And now, Putin believes it is a strong justification for their involvement in Syria.

The civil war has fractured the remnants of Syria into 1,200 different rebel groups that have sprouted up in an attempt to dethrone the unlawful leader, in their eyes, of Syria, current President Bashar al-Assad. However, all these different groups fight with slightly (or in some cases, extremely) different motivations. There are a few notable groups such as the short-lived US-trained Free Syrian Army, but the most notable one is definitely the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has thrived on this civil war. The war has allowed it to draft thousands of new young recruits with surprising ease first as pre-2014 al-Nusra front and then as ISIS. While arguably the least corrupt and most efficient rebel group in Syria, the organization has become notorious for its extreme public abuse of human rights. Their presence in Syria has created a murky situation where we have Western-backed rebels fighting not only Assad, but also the Islamic State. The United States and some other Western nations in the NATO bloc have been attempting now for over year to help with the aid of airstrikes, but with little success.

Now hot on his speech at the United Nations comes Putin with all of Russia’s historical baggage. Some Russian politicians are saying Russia has a right to interfere in Syria because, through some bizarre chain, it is their ancestral homeland. Putin himself has likened ISIS to the Nazis, thus creating a moral imperative for Russia to interfere much as they did in World War II, and more recently Ukraine. Not for personal gain, but for preserving “human rights”.

A lot of the media has been focusing on Putin’s motivations for interfering with Syria. There have been numerous reports that the “Theocrat & Autocrat” duo of Putin and the Ayatollah have begun to look into bombing ISIS and non-ISIS rebels. This would of course be in an attempt to help salvage Assad’s slipping hold on the country. But I think that a large factor in Putin’s sudden reversal to get involved with Syria largely draws from Russia’s history.

Putin built his early platform as a man of the Soviet Union in its prime. In its prime, the Soviet Union operated as one of two international superpowers. Much like America now, it had the ability to intervene when it saw its interests threatened, and was proud of its ability to do so. His massive shows of strength in Eastern European nations such as Georgia and Ukraine coupled with Russia’s recent economic boom have rightfully made him an extremely popular leader.

I don’t think that Russians necessarily like Putin for his policies, but because he makes them proud to be Russian. Intervention in Syria isn’t as much about stopping ISIS or the helping Assad, but rather it is about revisiting a prouder time in Russian history. Much in the way the Byzantines prided themselves as Rome’s children, Putin’s interventionist policies in Eastern Europe and now Syria not only make Russians forget the tough economic times at home, but also remind them of a time when their decisions shaped the world.