The Risks of Having Giant Friends: Russia Propping Up Assad Undermining The Very Interests It Wants To Protect

30 October 2015

By Amir Taheri

Right now no one could know where the Russian intervention in Syria might end. Entering a war is often easy and getting out always difficult.

However, if history provides any indication, the kind of intervention we now witness in Syria has seldom achieved its stated objectives.

If the mood music from Moscow is to be trusted, the Russian objective is to prevent the fall of the beleaguered President Bashar Al-Assad. Regardless of whether or not that objective is achievable, Assad would do well not to bank on such speculations.

The reason is simple. Russia is not embarking on so perilous an adventure because of Bashar's beautiful eyes. Rightly or wrongly, Moscow believes it has certain strategic interests in Syria that would come under threat if the Assad regime were swept away before Moscow secures those interests.

However, imposing Assad on an unwilling nation may not be the only way to protect Russian interests. If Moscow finds or is offered other ways of securing its interests it might not hesitate to drop Assad like a hot potato. Worse still, along the way, Moscow might conclude that by propping up Assad it would be undermining the very interests it wants to protect.

With Russian planes flying in Syrian skies, it is no exaggeration to suggest that it is now Vladimir Putin who is in the pilot's seat as far as Assad's future is concerned.

In that context, Assad would do well to cast a brief glance at Russian history. He would see that two important features stand out.

The first is that the Russian style of projecting power abroad often leads to direct centralized control from Moscow.

Not for Russians the loose version of imperialism practiced in ancient Persia and Rome, not to mention the more recent Ottoman Empire, in which the center allowed the peripheries latitude bordering on autonomy. The Ottoman ruler even had a variety of titles: Khan, for the Turks, Padshah for Persian-speakers, Qaysar (Caesar) for Christians, Sultan for Arabs, and Caliph for Sunni Muslims, etc.

The second feature is that Russia never hesitated to jettison an ally that was past his sell-by date. The British romantic attachment to old allies, even the corrupt Shah Shojaa in Afghanistan, is incomprehensible to Russians.

From the beginning of the 19th century when Russia emerged as an expanding empire, Petrograd, and later Moscow, often invaded foreign lands in the name of protecting local rulers against real or imagined enemies. That is what they did in more than a dozen Muslim khanates and emirates in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia.

In every case, the ''saved'' khans and emirs were quickly dumped into the dustbin of history as Russia simply annexed their territories.

We saw the same method in post-War eastern and central Europe when, having saved the locals from Nazism, Stalin simply absorbed a dozen nations into his Empire.

More recently, we have had the examples of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea where Russia intervened as savior and ended up as master. At a different level, Russia has also played fast and loose with its allies in eastern Ukraine, encouraging them to bark at some points and tightening their leash at others.

In 1945 the Soviets encouraged a secessionist movement led by Jaafar Pishevari in the northwest Iranian province of Azerbaijan. A year later, Moscow simply dumped the hapless Pishevari in exchange for the promise of an oil concession in northern Iran; a promise that was never fulfilled!

Pishevari died a year later, a broken man destroyed by alcohol and chagrin.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviets intervened in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia supposedly to save the local regimes against ''enemies of Socialism.'' Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland, Janos Kadar in Hungry and Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia were first saved and then dumped. In Hungary, Imre Nagy, a long-time ally of Moscow, was not only ditched but put to death.

The recent history of Afghanistan provides other reasons for reflection by Assad as he fantasizes about his new Russian protectors.

In 1979, the KGB organized a military coup in Kabul that brought Nur Muhammad Taraki, a historic figure of the Afghan Communist movement, out of prison and into the presidential palace.

In October of the same year, Taraki was assassinated by a group of Afghan military directly reporting to the KGB. He had started getting too big for his boots, believing the fiction that he had been swept to power thanks to a mass movement of the non-existent Afghan proletariat. The man installed in Taraki's place was Hafizullah Amin, a veteran Communist militant who had spent years in Moscow.

At the time, those of us who covered the Afghan imbroglio believed that Taraki had been ditched because he did not feel he owed anything to the Soviets and that Amin would last because of his proven loyalty to Moscow.

How wrong we were! In December of the same year, the KGB sent a hit-squad to kill Amin in his palace and install in his place Babrak Karmal, the man the Soviets had brought with them from Moscow. To add insult to injury, Moscow published ''documents'' supposedly proving that the assassinated Amin had been an agent of the American CIA for decades.

Karmal, the president ''who came in a Russian suitcase'' managed to stay alive but was eventually seized one late night, thrown in a plane and shipped out of Kabul to somewhere in Kyrgyzstan.

His successor as president, Muhammad Najibullah, had been head of the Afghan secret police ''Khad'', and thus in close contact with the KGB. However, even that did not ensure his safety in the end. In 1992, as the Soviets decided to withdraw from Afghanistan they even refused to take Najibuallah's family to safety with them.

Nicknamed ''topoli'' or ''the roly-poly one'', Najibullah managed to hang on for a bit longer but was in the end forced to seek shelter in a United Nations' compound in Kabul. From there for almost four years he repeatedly begged his Soviet comrades to ship him out into safety, with no success.

Najibullah's end came when the Taliban captured Kabul, raided the UN compound and seized the former president and his brother who were sheltered there. Both men were castrated and then hanged in public by Taliban.

In a brief statement Moscow condemned the ''barbarous act''.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 



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