You have to give Barack Obama credit for consistency.
Vladimir Putin’s bold move, one of a series that has caught the administration by surprise, to send forces to Syria is a measure of weakness. The Russians are making the same mistake they made in Afghanistan in 1979, again wading into a “quagmire,” the president promises.
But Syria 2015 is not Afghanistan 1979.
It’s true that Vlad the Impaler has stepped into a war that’s big, getting bigger, and fueled by faith, a region-wide conflict that spills over national borders and embroils tribes and sects in a vicious way. And, in joining the Iran-led axis of Shi’a powers, he’s bet on the side that is a minority in the Muslim world.
But not every war – not even every Middle East war – is a quagmire. Team Iran is not only on a roll, but many of the fundamentals are favorable. Russia’s signing up with the side that’s better organized than its opposition, and has options. It can operate on many fronts other than eastern Syria: Lebanon, Iraq, around the Gulf. The war’s refugees give Putin lots of leverage with the Europeans. As the sanctions regime collapses, Iran’s petro-dollars will help erase the Saudis’ financial advantages, many of which are being rapidly squandered in Yemen. The Turks are helpfully attacking the Kurdish fighters that have been the most successful anti-ISIS element in Syria. Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian Shi’a militias provide ground forces to complement Russian aircraft and drones.
And, unlike Afghanistan in 1979, Russia has no need to invade and occupy Syria. In many ways, Moscow can share the burdens of the fight with Tehran, cherry-picking tactical opportunities that will multiply Putin’s strategic standing. Indeed, Russia has been excluded from Middle East influence for two generations, and much global influence since the fall of the Soviet empire. In the form of the rump Alawite state, Russia has a local ally with some legitimacy, if only the legitimacy that comes from fear of Sunni reprisals should Assad fall. Russia and Iran don’t even need to save the Assad family, just the regime.
Further, this war centers on one of the most important parts of the Middle East, not the wilds of the Hindu Kush. Tehran, Bagdad, and Damascus are central to the regional balance of power and indeed the global balance of power. The fight will be long and messy, but the outcome matters.
Finally, with Obama’s retreat from the region, there is no global rival backing the Sunni opposition. The Afghan mujahideen were going nowhere until the United States started arming them with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other advanced weaponry; Saudi Arabia can play the role that Pakistan played in the 1980s and 1990s, but if America won’t play any part at all, the Soviets aren’t likely to pay a price. The Russians’ Afghan quagmire was, to a substantial degree, made in America – by Ronald Reagan.
Russia is a crippled power; its people are older and die younger every year, its wealth comes largely from exporting fossil fuels, and its military – despite the investments Putin has made – is a pale shadow of the mighty Red Army. But even irreversible long-term trends don’t make defeat inevitable now, or any time soon. Even if this is history repeating itself, it’s worth remembering that it took a decade for Russia to call it quits in Afghanistan, a country that’s never been the same since.
This quagmire consistency truly is a hobgoblin of Barack Obama’s mind; he sees every war this way. He is content that there is an “arc” to history, one that inevitably “bends toward justice.” Vladimir Putin, by contrast, believes in the “great man” theory of things, and he thinks himself to be one of those great men. Along with the Iranians, he’s doing his best to bend things in his direction; he who dares wins.