How Trump's moves against Syria may benefit Vladamir Putin

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA
The US attack on air bases in Syria last Thursday obviously help Donald Trump domestically. They came just as Congress took it’s scheduled Easter recess. With Congress not in session, changes are that there will be no significant developments in the multiple ongoing investigations into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia and the media could focus instead on Trump’s newfound differences with Putin. If nothing else the bombing helped push the news that House Intelligence Committee chair Devon Nunes had recused himself earlier that day and that Nunes himself was under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. 

Trump surrogates were quick to take to the air to proclaim that the attack showed that the administration was not colluding with Russia. But it is not immediately clear that the attack itself or calls for regime change hurt Vladamir Putin or are contrary to Russia's interests. It may actually help him in several ways. 

First, Putin's primary interest in propping up Assad is not based on Russia's economic interests or even the fact that Syria has been an ally of Russia since gaining its independence. Instead, Putin seems to view this as a move to stop western interests and help to prevent a westernization and liberalization of the Middle East. It is an old KGB officer fighting a proxy war against 'Western imperialism' and win or lose, it plays well with Putin's base in Russia. (See The Economist explains: 'Why Russia is an ally of Assad' from September 2015.) A direct US strike, causing limited damage, combined with additional sabre rattling and calls for Assad to step down actually enhances the propaganda value of Syria for Putin without costing him anything. 

For his part Putin, and some of his allies in the Western media, denied that Assad was behind the chemical attacks at all and attempted to generate conspiracy theories to cause confusion. 

Additionally, calls for regime change in Syria, combined with evidence that the US is willing to get militarily involved have the potential of prolonging and/or deepening the conflict in Syria. As of late last year, the consensus opinion was that Assad was in the final stages of winning the Syrian civil war and that ISIS was crumbling

The stated goal or regime change keeps the conflict going indefinitely or at least through next year's Russian elections. An extended conflict means keeping already depressed energy prices from sinking even lower (which helps both Putin and Trump), it likely means increased weapon sales to Syria and Iran for Putin (and for the US and various other Western countries to various clients) and it helps to keep the minds of the Russian people off of their weak domestic economy.

Finally, an end to the fighting in Syria would cause many of the millions of refugees in the Middle East and Europe to head for home. Currently Putin is using the refugees to great advantage to cause discord in Europe and put politicians in power who better serve Moscow's interests. 

The Syrian conflict has numerous players, many of whom have multiple conflicting interests (see video below). It is entirely possible that I'm missing multiple angles on this. However, it does not seem obvious to me that Donald Trump's bombing of a Syrian air field and calls for regime change hurt Vladamir Putin's interests in any way.

At any rate, Putin felt comfortable enough to release his chief domestic opponent from prison on Monday. 

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