Natalie Nougayrède writes: A few days after Russia launched its military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Barack Obama said it would “get stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work”. Ten months on, that has yet to come to pass. As Russia helps its ally Bashar al-Assad try to retake Aleppo, the last strategic urban stronghold of the Syrian opposition, there aren’t many signs of the Kremlin’s war machine being either hamstrung or stuck. Indeed Russia seems to have registered more victories than setbacks in Syria. Hardly anyone remembers that, just last March, Vladimir Putin had announced he would begin withdrawing his forces. The withdrawal turned out to be as theoretical as Obama’s quagmire.
Most attempts to explain Putin’s military operation in Syria have focused on the following: 1) allergic to popular uprisings, he wants to prevent regime change in Damascus of the sort that happened in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; 2) he wants to secure Russia’s last foothold in the Arab world; 3) he wants to demonstrate Russia will do what it takes to defend an ally; 4) he wishes to divert attention from Ukraine as well as extract western concessions such as the easing of sanctions; 5) he is opportunistic and has capitalised on American unwillingness to get further involved in the Middle East; 6) he believes that by creating chaos, even if there is no clear endgame, Russia shows it can overturn western plans ; 7) it’s all about Russian domestic politics: nationalism and military assertiveness go hand in hand with Putin’s need to safeguard his own power structure.
There is probably truth to all of the above. But as Russia’s bombers hammer Aleppo’s besieged population in what could be the most decisive battle of Syria’s civil war, consider this as another piece to the puzzle of Putin’s mind: Syria is where Russia wants to erase the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. [Continue reading…]