The Western psyche finds it difficult, if not quite impossible, to understand how Eastern tyrannies think. During the Cold War, this handicap was known as “mirror-imaging”: trying to guess what the Soviets would do by imagining what we would do in the same circumstances. The Ukrainian famine, the show trials, the Great Terror, the military purges and other acts of capricious malice should have dispelled the delusion that dictatorships can be understood with classical political science. Robert Conquest once asked the Russo-Hungarian historian Tibor Szamuely why Stalin had ordered his old friend Marshal Yegorev killed. Szamuely replied: “Why not?” It was a better explanation than most Sovietologists could muster.
Mirror-imaging has raised its head again, this time in the Middle East. The question I get asked the most about Syria is why Russia continues to back Assad. And it’s always based on one of a series of mirror-image misconceptions.
“Putin just wants to retain control of Russia’s only warm-water port”. Yet the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, has repeatedly offered Russia control of the Syrian port of Tartus in exchange for its diplomatic abandonment of Assad. No joy.
“Putin wants payback for acquiescing to the Libya intervention, which turned into ‘mission creep’ and then regime change”. Yet the United States, Britain and Nato have repeatedly scuppered the possibility of military intervention in Syria. Just yesterday the Nato Secretary-General again insisted that he has no plan or desire to interfere in Syria – even after the Houla and Quebair massacres. Deference to Russia on this point was so stark that by acceding to Kofi Annan’s six-point protocol for Syria, the United States implicitly rescinded its earlier demand for Assad’s renunciation of power: a demand it has now, incoherently, restored, even while continuing to insist on the legitimacy of the Annan protocol.
“Putin has no special attachment to Assad or his regime; as his foreign minister says, he only respects the Syrian ‘state’ and her ‘people’”. Yet Putin’s idea of respecting his own “people” is to violently raid the homes of both opposition leaders and their families, then force the opposition leaders to turn up for questioning before the Investigative Committee on the day that their anti-Putin protest is scheduled to take place. Russian parliament has just authorised the levying of $9,000 fines against participants in “illegal” demonstrations – $30,000 if you happen organise one. (The average annual income in Russia is a little over $8,000.) Putin’s idea of a “state” is a ramped-up crime syndicate: Upper Volga with kickbacks. He built himself a $1 billion palace on the Black Sea that he can never live in. Why? Why not?
Or how about this item from the Moscow Times:
In an open letter published on [independent newspaper] Novaya Gazeta’s website, [Dmitry] Muratov said security guards forcibly transported deputy editor Sergei Sokolov to a Moscow region forest and left him alone with Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, who threatened his life.
The Investigative Committee is Russia’s version of the FBI. Try to imagine the deputy editor of the New York Times being driven out to the Berkshires and being told by Robert Mueller that unless the paper cooled it with stories about warrantless wiretaps, the deputy editor might just have a bad accident.
“Putin just wants to be seen as a geopolitical power broker and to negotiate a Mideast conflict into remission for once”. And so in the midst of adopting this mantle he supplies new or refurbished attack helicopters to the regime which has just used attack helicopters to lay waste to the city of al-Haffeh, now successfully “cleansed”, according to Syrian state media.
The truth is this. Putin’s only criticism of Assad is that Assad has not already destroyed this annoying little revolution and convinced the world that he is doing so as part of of the global war on terror. (The man rumoured to be running Moscow’s Syria policy is Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s successor as director of the FSB.) When Russia sounds more conciliatory to the Western position, it is to buy more time for Damascus. If Putin has one lament, it is only that Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s smarter older brother, died in a car crash in 1994. Thus was a perfectly good client state entrusted to a combination of Fredo Corleone and Forrest Gump. If Putin ever did accede to a “transition” of power, you can be sure the man to take Bashar’s place would be more like Bassel, and like Vladimir.