The Russians are coming.
That’s the essence of headlines across the Arab world this week. And Arabs are not happy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is intervening on the side of Syria’s beseiged president, Bashar al-Assad … widely reviled across the Arab world. Like so many things in the Middle East, it comes down to religion.
The region is locked in a cold war between the Arab Sunni majority – led by Saudi Arabia – and Shiite Iran. Assad is effectively at war with Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. He is a member of a Shiite splinter group and is backed by Shiite Iran. About 100,000 civilians have died in the conflict, many of them Sunnis. So Putin has just cast his lot with the underdogs … and lost what few friends he had in Arab capitals.
But this isn’t about Assad or making friends in the Middle East. It’s about Russian military muscle. At stake is the Russian navy’s access to the Syrian port of Latakia. That’s where those jets were sent this week and Russian troops are busy reinforcing the air base to handle more.
There’s a connection between Russia’s Syrian intervention and its incursion into Ukraine. That country’s pro-Western tilt prompted Putin to send troops to annex the Crimean Penninsula … site of the Russian navy’s only warm water port.Now Putin is intervening in Syria because if he loses Assad, he might also lose access to his navy’s front door on the Mediterreanean.
If anyone doubts Putin’s resolve in Syria, here’s a fact worth keeping in mind: This week’s Russian airstrikes mark the first time since World War Two that Moscow has engaged in combat outside the former Soviet sphere.