Behind the Syrian Proxy War, Told by the Pros

Russian president Vladimir Putin at the September 2015 UN Conference. Courtesy photo by CNN.
Russian president Vladimir Putin at the September 2015 UN Conference. Courtesy photo by CNN.

Russian president Vladimir Putin at the September 2015 UN Conference. Courtesy photo by CNN.



By Cristina Galloto
BU News Service

Former U.S. Embassy diplomat of Moscow Donald Jensen and distinguished journalist Marvin Kalb offer their heated thoughts on Russia’s “New Cold War” in Syria

WASHINGTON, DC – In the latter part of September, Russian leader Vladimir Putin began military action in Syria, much to the dismay of the Western world. From the ideological frontlines of the 1980s Cold War, Former U.S. Embassy diplomat of Moscow Donald Jensen and distinguished journalist Marvin Kalb spoke up, blasting Putin’s current military agenda as wildly imperialist in nature.

“By helping [Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president] and flexing his military muscles in the Middle East, Putin is once again demonstrating to the whole world that Russia is back as a major power,” said Kalb. Kalb, 85, covered Soviet politics throughout his career at CBS and NBC News, and is a former moderator of “Meet the Press” from 1984 to 1987.

“Putin has a number of reasons why he has decided to up the ante,” said Kalb from his office at the think tank Brookings Institute. “One of them [Putin] says over and over again is to try to save the Assad regime which was on the edge of collapsing by bombing rebels in opposition to Assad. [Putin] is in fact helping the Assad regime.”

In his new book Imperial Gamble, Kalb calls the conflict a “New Cold War,” a war where Syria has become the arena of an apparent proxy war between Russia and the West, where every nation has to fend for itself, and where Putin’s leadership closely resembles that of Stalin and Peter the Great.

Jensen concurs. He says there is a fundamental clash between what the Americans and the Russians are looking to achieve in Syria.

“The Russian goals in Syria are statist, highly cynical, and manipulative. But also – and this is where they resemble the U.S. – They seek to ensure strength in Russia’s role as a great power in the region.  The U.S. also wants to be a great power in the region,” said Jensen.

Jensen served on numerous diplomatic assignments in Moscow during the 1980s and 1990s. He headed negotiations on the 1988 INF treaty with Moscow and became one of the first Americans to inspect Russian missiles. Jensen returned to Moscow in 1991 for a temporary duty assignment which coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union.

“I was there during the coup, got to visit KGB headquarters, was under gunfire, all that stuff,” Jensen said, leaning back in his chair, nostalgically. He also worked on Russian domestic developments in the US Embassy Moscow from 1993 to 1996.  “That was the heyday of reforms and we thought Russia was going to turn into Massachusetts, [a democracy], and it didn’t.”

Jensen’s career as a diplomat “ended as the realization grew that Russia was not going in the way that we wanted. It was very corrupt.” Now, over twenty years later, Jensen can be found researching and writing about Russia as a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University Center for Transatlantic Relations. With the unveiling of what Kalb calls the “New Cold War,” Jensen can’t help but feel frustrated with Putin’s antics.

“When the Russians started bombing, it was a slap to Obama because it happened right after they talked, the U.S. still talked about their hope to cooperate with the Russians in settling the Syria problem and deciding where Assad would go. They still said that even after the diplomatic slap.”

A quarter of a million Syrians have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War since an Arab Spring uprising against Assad in 2011. Millions more have been forced from their homes out of desperation, actively seeking refuge in Europe and beyond. Fighting in the war are an Assad-backed regime, pro-democracy Syrian rebels, and jihadist militants from the Islamic State. Tensions have heightened since September when Putin put Russian boots on the ground and began aggressive airstrikes that obliterated anti-Assad forces and civilians alike.

“Part of this is driven by Russia’s very explicit desire to overturn the global order. Russia thinks that the global order is stacked against Russia,” Jensen continued. “Anything Russia does, which is often an instinctive U.S. move, comes from that resentment, that cultural difference, that different reading of history.”

Jensen does not trust that President Barak Obama understands the innate differences in Russia’s worldview or the seriousness of the Kremlin’s attempts to “undermine the West”, which in turn fuels the proxy war situation in Syria.

“The President has said many times that he does not want a proxy war with Russia. And I believe him,” said Kalb. “He doesn’t want it, but that is exactly what is emerging.” Jensen even went as far to say that Obama is divided on “whether Russia is a regional power disrupting order in Europe or a global threat.”

“And my view,” said Jensen, who spent many years working in Moscow, “would be that Russia seeks to overturn the global order. But I don’t think that will happen.”

How ever divided the administration may be, both experts said that one crucial piece of the Kremlin’s rational has gone largely overlooked by the Obama Administration: religion.

Putin has coined the conflict in Syria a “Holy War”, according to an AP Report, ever since his sit-down with Pope Francis in June when the two discussed the fate of the Christian minority in the Middle East. Russia, a historically Orthodox nation, has deep-rooted cross-cultural ties with the Eastern Orthodox population in Syria. The leader of the Catholic Church urged leaders of Orthodox nations to offer humanitarian aid and defense to his followers in the both the Ukraine and Syria, according to a CNN report. Putin has sought the church’s approval for his military venture, according to Jensen. Through that, Jensen said Putin has been able to sell his military agenda to his people as morally just and religiously intact.

“Russia sees the Church and State as very close…so when they see Syrian Christians, just as they saw Serbian Christians under attack and threat, it creates an additional incentive for them to intervene,” said Jensen.

But a wary Jensen said the Orthodox tie is simply “twist[ing] and claim[ing]” bogus that contradicts how little religion actually means to most Russians.   

“Russia claims to be a spiritual place, and if you have been there, you find few places that are less spiritual… And in Russia you even have a phrase ‘Orthodox Atheist’ because the cultural baggage of weight of the church in Russian society is historically so big, you don’t even really have to be a believer to have an affinity with Orthodoxy.”

Jensen calls the “Holy War” a matter of verbiage and rhetoric, saying there is little truth to labeling Putin’s military action as protecting his own. Rather, Jensen suggests it’s a diplomatic dance that “provides Moscow with a wedge to use against the U.S. and indirectly curry favor with the Vatican,” despite the Church’s historically rocky relationship with the Kremlin, and in accordance with the West’s seeming lack of concern for the Christian minority in the Middle East.  

Putin’s true intention, Kalb argued, is to grow his empire. “He is solidifying already existing military bases in Syria. The Russians have had bases there since the 1950s. What he is doing is strengthening… those already bolstering military bases.”

Both Jensen and Kalb see a prolonged future of Russian forces in Syria even after a post-Assad settlement.

“Russia’s deployment of equipment suggests Russia wants to be there even if Assad leaves,” Jensen said. “And Assad, I think, I would have no doubt that they would throw him under the bus if it was part of their calculation. But Russia will be there with an enhanced military presence, and Russia could then be a player in whatever comes next.”

And despite the alleged lack of holiness in the war, the role of religion in this Middle Eastern conflict does, of course, matter. Kalb and Jensen said the Syrian Civil War bleeds into the longstanding competition between the Islamic Sunni-Shia divide, making the conflict more than just a geopolitical rivalry.

“[Putin] has created a Russia-led Shia coalition of Syria, Iran, and Iraq. And because it is a coalition of Shia nations, it is in de-facto opposition to all of the Sunni Muslim nations to exist in that part of the world. And those Sunni nations are supported by the United States,” Kalb said.

“So you have a region of the world that is already extremely tense and fiery become even more so as a result of the de-facto establishment of these two coalitions.”

Jensen and Kalb both reported that they expect an enormous spike in domestic terror threats to Russia as a result of Russia’s military action against other Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. There are somewhere between four to seven thousand Russian Sunnis fighting on behalf of ISIS in Syria and both men say those fighters will not forget the fighting Putin has carried out against Sunnis in the Middle East.

Those fighters make Putin “desperately concerned that one day [those Sunni Muslims] will return to Russia and create terrorist opportunities in Russia,” according to Kalb. Jensen added that this is “very dangerous to Putin…I think they have a lot to worry about frankly.”

Ultimately the two claimed that coming together on a Syria solution would be very difficult for Russia and the U.S. because the differences are so great. “Russia is burned in its own mind by the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Jensen. “Russia dreams – and I do mean dream in the non-intellectual sense – dreams of itself as a great power… Russia deeply resents the United States.”

And for the first time in an hour, Jensen momentarily broke his seriousness to speak comically about Russia. Leaning forward as if to tell a secret, he said, “Syria is a tailor-made opportunity to do as Italians would do.” Jensen, an Italian-American, flicked his hand up from the bottom of his chin and smiled. “Destroy our Obama policy, show disrespect, establish boots on the ground, protect your boy, and if your boy collapses, your troops are still there.”

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