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Saving Syria

Strategy (in its strict sense) is about survival in a situation. I have studied it for forty years. The Syrian situation seems to center on Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin—also a survivor—is making a move. The news says Russia is flying planes and tanks and troops into Latakia, a port city in Syria. Let me stick my neck out and try some strategic analysis: Is this bad news or—as my analysis suggests—could it be good news?

It’s a truism that the only way to end the Syrian refugee crisis is to stop the wars in Syria. And for years there has been no prospect this will happen soon. I’ve been in Syria and some of its neighbours. I’ve traveled on those refugee routes, waited in those stations. These experiences serve only to increase my anguish watching images from Europe, images of those who had the money to make it that far and who now have nothing that they cannot carry.

The strategic issue in Syria, the key-log in the logjam that holds up real progress, is the Alawites’ situation. To neglect this fact is to condemn thousands to death and millions to displacement. Strategic insight number one is: A solution must protect the Alawites. Insight number two: Backing Assad’s opponents (the sum of much of the Western and Mid-Eastern worlds’ current policies) cannot do this.

The Alawites are a small Shia sect, most of who live in north-western Syria near Latakia. Assad is an Alawite. His is a despotic rule by a minority. Though he is evil beyond most people’s comprehension the Alawites support him. Alawites dominate the Syrian armed forces. If a non-Alawite were to depose Assad we could see a bloodbath in north-western Syria that makes today’s slaughter look like a picnic. Shades of (among too many others) Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi story?

To appreciate the opportunity that may exist today let’s take a trip through local history. During the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia got theAlawite State French_Mandate_for_Syria_and_the_Lebanon_map_en local tribes to battle Turkey in return for independence. France and Britain then betrayed them. After the war France ran the region with a mandate from the League of Nations. It set up an Alawite State, among others (see the 1922 map of what would become Syria). France’s direct role came to a messy end with its defeat in the Second World War, leaving Syria a new country with borders defined by outsiders and with pieces held together by too little glue. Syria’s new government was soon overthrown in a CIA-sponsored military coup, the first in a long series the last of which saw Bashar al-Assad’s father seize power in 1970. So France and the USA played key roles in bringing Assad to his present position. Though both countries now want to clean things up, neither can do much but make matters worse. American journalist Thomas Friedman, who invented the Pottery Barn Rule, says of the American desire to fix Syria, ‘We can’t fix Baltimore.’

But maybe Putin will help to restore order. For 45 years Russia has maintained a naval facility in Tartus, which lies within the old Alawite State. (As Russia’s only overseas naval facility it is strategically significant.) The new moves into nearby Latakia give Russia a locally accepted air, land and sea presence in the Alawite region. No other power can do this.

Putin is a despot of a different kind but he too must have an eye to survival. Despots do not often act stupidly. (Those who do do not long survive; only democracies protect stupid leaders.) What does Putin want? Plainly he wants to secure his own backdoor. And he can use foreign accomplishments to prop up his support back home. Already he has had the United States engage in military talks; and he has a meeting with President Obama this week. Putin is thus in a unique position. If he wants—and it seems he does want—Syria may start to settle down.


Dion Nissenbaum & Carol E. Lee (2015), “Russia Expands Military Presence in Syria, Satellite Photos Show”, Wall Street Journal,

Other Reading:

T.E. Lawrence (1922), Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Ware UK: Wordsworth Editions;

Image credit: Don-kun, TUBS, NordNordWest

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