Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti / Kremlin / Reuters / LANDOV

Putin’s Syrian gambit

To understand the Russian president’s motives abroad, look to his struggles with Islamic radicals closer to home

December 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin is an odd blend of the obvious and secretive. For that reason, a great many motivations are ascribed to his actions.

In Syria, for example, Putin is seen as propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because he wants the power to influence any diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. He also wants to keep Russia’s naval base in Tartus, its only foothold in the Mediterranean. This is especially important to him now, with Ukraine and Georgia seeking to join with the West and essentially turn the Black Sea into Lake NATO.

Putin is also propping up Assad to demonstrate that Russia, unlike the United States, is not a feckless friend but stands by its allies and longtime partners. Additionally, he is haunted by the image of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi dragged through the streets and shot after the U.S. and France bombed him out of power in 2011.

Russia and Putin are deriving some side benefits from the Syrian civil war. Russia has recently spent serious money modernizing its army, and the new training and equipment are being tested under battle conditions in Syria. The war is something of a trade fair for Russia, the world’s second-largest seller of arms, after the United States.

His style derives from his KGB training and service. After the madness of Stalin’s purges, the KGB was fairly consistent in issuing warnings before taking any action, if only because it was more economical to scare dissidents into silence than to put the machinery of oppression into operation against them.

Putin has followed this playbook. For example, a few months after he was first elected president in 2000, he invited Russia’s oligarchs to the Kremlin for a chat. His message was that they could keep their money as long as they kept their noses out of politics. Those who crossed him found themselves in exile or in prison.

He was similarly to the point about Syria as he harked back to his street-fighting days, saying, “The streets of Leningrad taught me one thing — if a fight can’t be avoided, it’s best to hit first. Better to fight them there [Syria] than wait for them here.”

As with most politicians, Putin’s prime motivations are domestic. His poll numbers remain high, driven by the rush of patriotism after the annexation of Crimea and amplified after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) bombed a Russian passenger jet in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But over the longer haul, it’s the bedrock issues of money and security that matter most.

Russia has more Muslims than any other European country, including France.

Putin can’t do much about Russia’s deteriorating economic situation, a result of sanctions, low energy prices and capital flight. He badly wants the sanctions lifted; his immediate use of them against Turkey after it shot down a Russian bomber are an indication of how seriously he takes sanctions as a tactic.

Part of Putin’s motivation for going into Syria was to demonstrate to the West something he said with elegant concision a number of years ago: “Together we defeated fascism. Together we will defeat terrorism.” The obvious implication is that in a life-or-death struggle, allies don’t impose sanctions on one another. That tactic hasn’t worked for Putin, in part because he has bombed U.S.-backed groups in Syria at least as often as ISIL, and the latest confrontation with Turkey means relations with other NATO countries will remain rocky.

The one thing Putin doesn’t want is a series of terrorist attacks on Russian soil at a time of economic decline. Whether the best way to prevent that is to fight Islamic radicals in Syria is another question. But there are certain stubborn facts that he has to deal with at home. Anywhere from 14 million to 20 million citizens of the Russian Federation are Muslim — 10 to 15 percent of the population. Russia has more Muslims than any other European country, including France.

Putin takes a carrot-and-stick approach to managing relations with Russia’s Muslim population. In late September 2015, with considerable fanfare and with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas present, Putin presided over the opening of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, which can hold 10,000 worshippers. Even with that addition, Moscow lacks sufficient mosques, and Muslims can often be seen praying on freezing streets. Many of the Muslims in Moscow and other large cities are from Central Asia and are grateful to find work in Russia, as their remittances are vital for their families back home.

As for the stick, Putin is keeping the pressure on anyone even suspected of radical affiliation, especially in the restive semiautonomous republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. This of course further encourages radicalization, but so far radicalized Russian Muslims have been less inclined to take up arms against Moscow than to travel to Syria and join ISIL. For Putin, this has three advantages: It gets them out of Russia, ensures that a certain percentage will be killed in battle and makes it easier to track those who return home. Russia’s borders are tightly controlled — more so than European countries’ — and unlike the U.S., Russia is not hampered in data collection by pesky rules.

Putin has staked a lot on his strategy of mollifying some Muslims at home while oppressing the most radical so that they leave the country and join ISIL, allowing Russia to fight them in Syria and prevent them from returning home. It could prove either a winning gambit or a fatal miscalculation. It will be fascinating to watch it play out.

Richard Lourie is the author of the forthcoming book “King of the Wolves: Vladimir Putin and His Russia.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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