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The Fear That Drives Russia's Support For Syria's Assad


Repeated American attempts to work with Russia on Syria have foundered on a fundamental difference. Vladimir Putin insists on a deal that includes Bashar al-Assad as part of Syria's future. So the civil war grinds on and the situation of civilians there grows ever more dire. So why? Arms exports? Access to the port of Tartus? Standing up for old allies?

In a recent article in foreign affairs Fiona Hill argues that Putin looks at Syria and sees his old fears of Chechnya brought back to life. Fiona Hill is co-author of "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," and joins us now on the phone from Florida near Miami. Good to have you with us today.

FIONA HILL: Hi. Thank you, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So how can Mr. Putin look at a civil war in Syria and see a nightmare for him, the old rebellion in Chechnya?

HILL: Well, this is a prism that he's brought to looking at most conflicts like the conflict in Syria that threaten the sanctity of a state. Mr. Putin actually came in to the presidency, if you can recall, back in '99-2000 in Russia, just as the second war in Chechnya was starting off. And he saw that as his biggest challenge of keeping the Russian state together, so it didn't fall down the same path as the Soviet Union into collapse. And Putin was really brutal in pursuing the war in Chechnya. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the whole course of the conflict, including many civilians.

The capital city of Grozny in Chechnya was reduced completely to rubble, and Putin thought this was worthwhile because it kept the state together. And over the course of the conflict in Chechnya it morphed in the same way that we've actually seen in the war in Syria. It went from a conflict that was mostly focused on political secession from, Chechnya from the Russian Federation, and over time, really took on more of an extremist element, more of Sunni extremist groups who moved in to exploit the conflict and also many people who came from outside, including from Syria, to fight in Chechnya.

And Putin is now pretty much concerned that we're going to see a repetition, the collapse of the state in Syria, knock-on effect for conflicts at home for him as well as more broadly across the whole of the Middle East. And yet again, another collapse of the state, that is something that he would like to see avoided at all costs.

CONAN: Now Russia, a state with considerable resources, was able to pacify, I think that's probably the right word - Chechnya. It is a completely different situation in Syria.

HILL: Neal, I'm very sorry. I didn't hear that. Could you repeat it, please?

CONAN: I was saying that because of its enormous resources, Russia was able to pacify Chechnya, at least for the time being. Syria seems to be a very different situation.

HILL: That's very much the case. Yes. Mr. Putin has a lot of things that he was able to draw upon that Mr. Assad has not. He was able to take out the Chechen position, both at home and also abroad. In 2004, the Russians assassinated one of the top leaders of the Chechen opposition, Mr. Yandarbiyev, who had been an acting president and he was in Doha in Qatar at the time and was killed in a car bomb explosion.

Also other members of the opposition were picked off in other cities including in Europe. And Mr. Putin brought the full weight of the Russian army against the Chechens. And also he was able to pursue the war for such a long time quite ruthlessly because the Chechen opposition generally, because of a number of very high-level terrorist attacks and this infiltration of extremists, lost any kind of support among the population.

So it was a very different conflict. It was very much confined to one region of Russia, although there were terrorist attacks and spillover across the whole of the Russian Federation. But it wasn't at all like Syria where it's a full-blown civil war. And Mr. Assad is actually, at this point, seemingly perhaps not outgunned but certainly outnumbered by the number of opposition that are arrayed against him.

CONAN: There are those who say, wait a minute. Yes, Mr. Putin may be alarmed by the prospect of anarchy, particularly anarchy where Sunni extremists can get involved. But there are other Russian interests. Russia sells a lot of weapons to Syria. Russia has a port on the Mediterranean, in Tartus, because of its arrangements with Syria.

HILL: Well, these all add to Mr. Putin's interest in Syria itself, but his overwhelming fear is of the collapse of the state. In addition, in fact, to the two elements that you've mentioned in terms of weapon sales and also access to this naval facility at Tartus, there's also a quite sizeable Russian population, 30,000 people roughly, people who are married to Syrians. There's also a Russian Orthodox Church interest in the Christian communities inside of Syria. And also, Assad did help Putin in the case of Chechnya.

He prevented a number of groups who were supporting the Chechens, including from a broader ethnic group in Syria that originated in the Russian North Caucasus from collecting money and sending recruits there. But overall, the biggest concern for Putin, having seen what happened in Libya with the fall of Gadhafi and the chaos that's originated there, as he looks across the rest of the Middle East, he looks at Iraq, he looks at the prospects of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal, he looks at what's happening in Egypt and across North Africa now, Putin thinks this is just going to be yet another state collapse that's going to have very negative knock-on effects for Russia, that has also, from his point of view, been battling with extremism now for several decades.

CONAN: And knock-on effects in terms of - it would be a bad day for another of Russia's allies, Iran.

HILL: Yes, it would do. And Iran has been a very important ally for Russia in the Middle East. Ironically, from our perspective, Russia finds Iran a stabilizing force. This is because Iran provides a counterweight to all of the Sunni Muslim powers in the region, being predominantly Shia. And Putin actually sees, and the rest of the Russian leadership, sees Iran very much as a rational actor.

Although they are perhaps not very supportive of the idea that the Iranians will acquire a nuclear weapon, they do see Iran's role as counterbalancing, as I said before, Saudi Arabia and other powers there, and as playing a very important counterweight in the region. So the loss for Iran, again, is also - of an ally in Syria would also be problematic from the Russian perspective.

CONAN: There is also the question of, well, sort of the good old days, at least from Mr. Putin's point of view. Syria is the last of Russia's old client states in the Middle East. As you mentioned, Libya - that no longer obtains anymore. They've lost Libya. And there's, of course, Mr. Putin's attitude towards the Soviet Union. He said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

HILL: That's true. He did say that. It tends, however, to be misunderstood, his point there. He wasn't bemoaning the loss of communism and of the Soviet bloc per se. He was really worried about the collapse of the state. This is really something that's a hallmark of Putin. It's this collapse of the state, of any state, really, but most predominantly the Russian state. And that was the collapse of the Soviet state that he was bemoaning there. But it's certainly true that Russia has really lost any position that it had previously in the Middle East. Assad is not just the last of the old Soviet era allies, he's also the last, in Putin's view, of one of the old secular allies, one of the old secular states in the Middle East.

And Putin sees that as a great blow. He really sees that the Arab Spring has been nothing in his view but the - basically the arrival of extremist Islamist governments in the region, and he sees that that will be the prospect for Syria, that it will become divided, a failed state and a source of extremist violence and knock-on effects for the rest of the region for decades to come.

CONAN: Now, all of that, at least from his point of view, is a consistent argument. Nevertheless, he seems to be on the wrong side of history here, and this is a position that is costing him quite a bit with everybody else in the Middle East. Russia is going to come out of this as the bad guy.

HILL: Well, that's certainly our view. Putin, however, resisted those kinds of entreaties during the war in Chechnya. It's probably hard for people to recall now, as it seems quite a long time ago, but the war in Chechnya dragged on for pretty much 10 years. And during that time there was an awful amount of criticism against Putin. There was a great deal of pressure applied domestically and also internationally on the Russian government to sit down with the opposition to work something out to stop the slaughter.

At different points Chechnya was described by various Russian analysts as a round-the-clock slaughterhouse, pretty much as we're looking at Syria right now. And basically Putin resisted all of that. His view was that he was going to find a solution on his terms and make a deal, which is what he did in the end. He found a former rebel, the Kadyrov family - it was Ramzan Kadyrov who is now the head of Chechnya, but his father, who Putin made a deal with to restore a semblance of order to Chechnya and to basically take the region under control.

So Putin's looking at Syria now, and he sees a divided opposition. He sees no prospect whatsoever any strongman emerging. And he would like to see what is going to be down the line in Syria, and of course we can't offer anything. So in Putin's view then he'll just hold out to see what the alternatives are.

CONAN: Chechnya, as you say, was largely contained within Russia. Yes, some Syrians went, some Saudis went, some other Gulf Arabs came, some from Afghanistan, of course, as well after they had fought the Soviet Union there. But this was largely a Russian issue inside Russia. That is not the case with Syria. Turkey is involved. Lebanon is involved. Israel and Jordan, and of course Iraq.

HILL: Yeah, that's absolutely right. That's the main difference here. I mean, this is one of the areas where we would have the biggest difference with Mr. Putin's interpretation of events. Right now I think Putin doesn't have any better plans than anybody else does. He's waiting to see how things play out. And it's very much that danger of just letting things play out that we're the most concerned about.

But there's nothing that we have in our arsenal of entreaties and of counter-arguments that Putin is going to be swayed by right now. He looks at the humanitarian disaster, and for him that isn't as salient a point as it is for everyone else.

The refugee problem is definitely a disaster for the entire region. Putin - the refugee problem in Chechnya was largely contained inside of Russia itself although there were tens of thousands of Chechens who sought refuge across Europe. Putin wasn't swayed by that issue when it came to Chechnya. And frankly, he wasn't swayed by any of those humanitarian considerations when it came to Libya.

The decision that the Russians made on supporting the U.S. and the Europeans in Libya was made during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. And it seems very likely that Putin wasn't exactly persuaded by the arguments that Mr. Medvedev made at the time because he - since he came back into the presidency, he's been very vocal in his criticism of what happened in Libya.

So I'm afraid he's not someone who looks at the situation in the same way that Western leaders do. He has different calculations, and he's trying to see if the Syrian state can be held together by Mr. Assad. And I guess he will wait until it becomes completely apparent that that will not happen.

CONAN: We're speaking with Fiona Hill, co-author with Clifford Gaddy of "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." Her recent piece in Foreign Affairs, "The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad: Mistaking Syria for Chechnya." You can find a link to that article at our website, go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now, there is some suspicion that Syria may devolve into, well, different little warlord states, including an Alawite state led by Mr. Assad based in the western part of the country near the Mediterranean. That's where the Alawites, 12 percent of the population live, and that's the element from which Mr. Assad's family comes as well. At that point in the game, what does Russia do?

HILL: Well, you know, it's a very good question. I think it will depend on whether Assad asks for some kind of recognition for that state as the rump state of Syria, with the expectation that the rest of the territory might be regained. And if you think back to 2008, Putin actually has a track record already established, a recognition of entity.

After the war with Georgia in August 2008, the Russians were very quick to recognize the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in spite of the fact that no other countries followed suit. So we might indeed anticipate that Putin would recognize the Alawite state or whatever entity is formed around Mr. Assad as a rump state of Syria, especially if it looks like Assad can hold out in that kind of redoubt for some period of time.

CONAN: There is also a question in Syria that was not present in Chechnya, and that's the presence of so many chemical weapons.

HILL: That's absolutely right. I think that's the biggest concern. And I would personally have thought that that would be one of the issues that would have swayed the Russians early on. But it seems that their biggest concern is of the chemical weapons falling into the hands of the opposition, not that they would be actually used by Assad himself. Of course at this particular point, given what seems to be the inevitable collapse of the state structures, this has ratcheted to the top of our agenda, and I think we should be really pushing the Russians on what then they determine to do if there is evidence - there's already been speculation about the use of chemical weapons, but if there is evidence there that chemical weapons have been used by either side.

CONAN: And that evidence of use of chemical weapons in a very ambiguous and puzzling incident, what, about 10 days ago. Nobody is quite sure. The Russians have blamed it on the opposition though.

HILL: Yes. And that would be exactly the kind of response we would expect from the Russians. Throughout the conflict, Mr. Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, Mr. Putin and many others in the Russian leadership, their greatest fears they have expressed about the misuse or the appropriation and use of the chemical weapons has been against the opposition.

CONAN: And as we get back to power politics, there is the Security Council of the United Nations, and the Russians, of course, have a veto in that body. Thus far they've also been supported by China, but the feeling is if Russia was willing to agree to something, China might abstain and let it go ahead. Is Vladimir Putin going to continue to block any international action to intervene in Syria?

HILL: He's going to continue to block anything until he gets some ironclad guarantees, which will, of course, be extremely difficult to put together, about what is going to happen next in Syria, who is going to take charge and what it's going to look like. And he is not going to be sanctioning the possibility of anyone sitting down with what he looks upon as a ragtag band of opposition. And, of course, we've just seen a leadership crisis within the Syrian opposition. He's not going to sanction anyone sitting down with that opposition and negotiating forward without Assad being part of the picture as long as Assad is still in the picture.

CONAN: And what...

HILL: Again, this is exactly the position that he stood on when it came to Chechnya; he was not going to force into any kind of deals and negotiations with the Chechen opposition, in spite of all the entreaties from the outside to find a compromise.

CONAN: And briefly, as we see the Europeans edging more towards providing arms to the Syrian rebels, as that aspect flows more and more, what would Mr. Putin do should there be some sort of Western intervention?

HILL: I would imagine that what Putin will do here, again, will be to push against this, to protest it as much as possible, to demand an arms embargo. These are the kinds of positions he's taken on many other conflicts and similarly in regional wars closer to home. Russia has always resisted the arming of opposition forces.

CONAN: Fiona Hill, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it. Interesting piece.

HILL: Thank you so much, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Fiona Hill is the Steven and Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. She wrote a feature in Foreign Affairs this week called "The Real Reason Putin Supports Assad: Mistaking Syria for Chechnya."

Tomorrow, "The New Mind of the South" with author Tracy Thompson. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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