President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most notorious gambler, has rolled the dice in Syria’s civil war. At first glance, he seems to have come up with a seven: By boldly deploying the newest weapons in his arsenal in order to save Bashar al-Assad’s tottering regime, he has swiftly transformed the Kremlin into the center of Middle East diplomacy. His message is simple: Russia is back as a major power and a solution to this deadly, depressing war runs through Moscow.
After a month of bombing anti-Assad Sunni rebels, Putin summoned Assad to a surprise meeting in the Kremlin, setting off fresh speculation that a made-in-Moscow formula for ending the war was now in play. The United States was understandably intrigued: After only one meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to invite Russia’s ally, Iran, to a new round of Syria peace talks, which occurred on Oct. 30 in Vienna.
Can Putin succeed where others have failed? It’s possible, but unlikely. The Russian president has opened a hornet’s nest in Syria, and everyone, including Putin, is being stung again and again.
A closer look at Putin’s gamble shows that his seven may, in fact, end up as snake eyes — a losing gamble that fails for reasons uniquely Russian, relating to the often ignored but crucial fact that more than 20 million of Russia’s 144 million people are Sunni Muslims, who naturally sympathize with the Sunni Muslims currently being bombed and killed by Russians in Syria. Any Russian miscalculation in Syria could therefore severely undermine Putin’s political power base at home.
And it doesn’t stop there. Not only has Putin ordered the bombing of Sunni rebels in Syria, he has also created a new Russia-led coalition of Shiite powers — Iran, Iraq, and Syria — capable of sharing intelligence and striking as one against its Sunni enemies. In this way, whether intended or not, he has opened a de facto war against Sunni Arabs, who are led by Saudi Arabia, and aligned with the United States.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed that he seeks no proxy war with Russia — yet that is precisely what appears to be emerging. This region of chronic turbulence — already burning with war, hatred, and religious schisms — has now become even more unstable, fueled by the formation of two antagonistic coalitions: Russia’s Shiite alliance, and a U.S.-supported Sunni coalition.
For Putin, this poses an existential challenge from which there is no escape — a dilemma rooted in Russian demography and history. Most of Russia’s Sunni Muslims live in the Northern Caucasus, historically the scene of anti-Russian Islamist upheavals. Chechnya was the scene not long ago of two bloody wars pitting Muslims against Slavs. Neighboring Dagestan is another powder keg, part of the jihadists’ self-proclaimed caliphate of the Caucasus. Clerics there deliver sermons considered sympathetic to the goals of the Islamic State — and as many as 2,400 young Muslims across Russia have answered the call, a development that sends chills up and down Putin’s spine.
The Russian president recently told CBS’s Charlie Rose that the “most important” reason Russia entered the war in Syria was the “threat of their return to us.” His chronic nightmare has been that, once trained in the tactics of modern terrorism, these young Muslims would slip back into Russia and blow up planes, trains, theaters and schools, as they have done before. “We are,” Putin explained, “better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory.”
Fears about Islamist terrorism permeate Russian history. In the 19th century, Leo Tolstoy and other Russian writers penned popular stories about Russian officers fighting wild Islamist warriors in the Northern Caucasus. This was a common theme in many books — the Slavic officer battling the Islamist renegade, one fighting to protect Christian civilization, the other determined to uproot it.
Interestingly, the theme is even being echoed today on Russian television. Dmitry Kiselyov, Putin’s favorite firebrand anchorman, explained with nationalistic bravado why Russia was fighting in Syria on his weekly program: “Russia is saving Europe from barbarism for the fourth time,” he said.
Saving Europe for the fourth time? “Let’s count,” he replied. “The Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler, and now the Islamic State.”
Kremlin leaders have struggled with their fraught relations with Russia’s Muslims several times over the past century. During World War II, the Muslims of Crimea were unceremoniously exiled to Siberia, because they could not be trusted to fight the Nazis. After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin pleaded with Ukraine to remain in the union. “We cannot have a situation,” Yeltsin argued, “where Russia and Byelorussia would have two votes as Slavic states against five for the Islamic states.”
Russians also recall the Basmachi of Central Asia, an almost forgotten tribe of Islamic State-like warriors who formed their own caliphate in the 1920s, rising against Russian domination. They were mercilessly slaughtered by Russian troops a decade later. But their Islamist message has again begun to stir millions of unemployed, restive young Muslims in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, representing a direct threat to Russia.
Putin seems especially worried by this prospect. A month ago, he observed military maneuvers by 100,000 Russian troops in Central Asia. As many as 7,000 Muslims from the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia may now be fighting with the Islamic State, he warned, bringing terrorism into their neighborhood by way of Afghanistan. They could also come by way of Syria and Iraq.
Like his predecessors, Putin too is haunted by Islamist terrorism. He sees it as an emerging threat to Russia’s stability as a nation — in his view, it must be fought and destroyed, whether in Syria or in Russia. History suggests he will come up short in both places, and suffer the political and diplomatic consequences.
No one can any longer conceal the fact that Russia, leading a quasi-holy alliance with Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, is now at war with Sunnis in Syria. Over and over, these attacks are shown on Russian television. The pro-Kremlin reporters who covered Ukraine are now covering Syria — same reporters, same message of Russian triumphalism — raising degrees of pride among ethnic Russians but mountains of anxiety and pain among its Sunni Muslims.
Russia’s Sunni Muslims are baffled and frightened by what they see and hear. Even if Russia had not entered the Syrian war, another Chechen-type eruption was a looming threat – and now, the possibility of a revolt by angry Muslims is even more real. Indeed, it may only be a matter of time.
That is why Putin’s gamble in Syria is so risky. He may be further alienating Russia’s own Sunni Muslim population, and inciting the very violence he had hoped to avoid.