Jackson Diehl writes: Western officials who pronounce themselves puzzled about Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Syria are missing some big clues. There is a clear model for the campaign Russia is pursuing on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a legacy that is Putin’s pride: Chechnya.
The Muslim republic in the North Caucasus and the decade-long war that Putin launched there in September 1999 have mostly been forgotten by the outside world since the dictator installed there by Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, consolidated control in the late 2000s. But the Kremlin regards it as a “good, unique example in history of [the] combat of terrorism,” as Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s prime minister, put it. Chechnya, Medvedev said last year, is “one of the business cards of Russia.”
What are the components of this winning formula? First, define all opposition to the prevailing regime as terrorist, indistinguishable from the most extreme jihadists. That enables a fundamental political aim: to eliminate alternatives. In Syria today, moderate and secular opposition forces arguably are getting harder to find. That wasn’t the case in Chechnya in 1999. The country’s nationalist president, Aslan Maskhadov, had won a democratic election, defeating an Islamist opponent by 59 to 23 percent. His predecessor, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was so secularized that he was unaware how many times a day Muslims pray. [Continue reading…]