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In Syria, history teaches us that Russia’s overconfidence will backfire

By Oubai Shahbandar

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s fall from grace was a long one. Once one of Russia’s most preeminent and richest oligarchs, he was exiled into the Siberian gulag by President Vladimir Putin for his support for domestic reform. Now living in exile, in the wake of Russia’s interventions in Syria and the Middle East, he rhetorically asked on social media: “Will ordinary Russians be willing to accept the price of our beloved president’s (Putin’s) bloody diplomacy?” It is a question worth asking for various reasons. The Russian people are being fed a steady diet of sanitized images and news clips from Syria as the Russian invasion enters its second year. However, despite the “successful” narrative being promulgated by the Kremlin, is there a chance that a brave Russian soul will take a stand and call out the invasion for what it is: An occupation that is responsible directly and indirectly for the deaths of thousands of Syrians? This question arises at a time when this week marks the 37th year anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On Dec. 25, 1979, Soviet forces entered Afghanistan ostensibly on the “brotherly invitation” of the Communist regime in Kabul, to prop up widely unpopular leader Babrak Karmal. The echoes of the Soviet justification for the Afghan invasion can be heard in Syria today. What Russian historians and officials are loathe to admit is that shortly after the Kremlin dispatched its occupation force to Afghanistan, Andrei Sakharov – an outspoken Russian nuclear physicist and “dean” of a small network of dissidents – signed a letter opposing the invasion. He was immediately sent into internal exile and cut off from the outside world. What made this extraordinary display of courage even more remarkable was that Sakharov almost surely knew what awaited him if he so boldly challenged the invasion. This act of defiance flew in the face of the accepted status quo. The initial phase of the Afghan invasion went relatively smoothly with little casualties, and seemed to succeed in propping up the Russian-backed regime in Kabul. Similarly in Syria, Moscow seems to be ecstatic that its forces have succeeded in propping up President Bashar Assad’s forces while suffering very few casualties of their own. However, Russia should take care, for history can be cruel in its reminders to those who fail to heed its lessons. The battle for Aleppo may have been won, but it is clear that Russian forces will be based in Syria for a very long time. Just as the initial “successful” phases of its invasion of Afghanistan gave way to a drawn-out quagmire, the longer Moscow stays in Syria, the more likely it could find itself suffering protracted resistance. Neither the Assad regime’s media nor the Russians to this day acknowledge that the Russian presence in Syria was cemented in a secret pact that gives Moscow “carte blanche” authority – the textbook definition of what constitutes an occupation. Unsurprisingly, Moscow today is using the exact same terminology it used in Afghanistan when attempting to justify the presence of its military on Syrian soil. Moscow took pains to portray its invasion of Afghanistan as a “humanitarian intervention,” just as state media such as RT today refer to the destruction of Aleppo and the forced eviction of tens of thousands of Syrians as a “successful” humanitarian mission. Russian media also steadfastly refuse to even mention the word “Aleppo” in broadcasts of last week’s assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, despite the clear linkage made by the attacker as he fired shots into the ambassador’s back. Rather, Russian channels are busy broadcasting a “Potemkin Village” projection in Aleppo. Russian film crews recently tagged along with Russian armored vehicles and infantry patrols as they entered the rubble-strewn neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo that were destroyed in large part with Russian munitions. Just like their Soviet propaganda predecessors, these traveling troubadours dutifully reported the officially sanctioned Kremlin line that the Russian Army was providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. The local populace was said to be happy to “welcome” Russia’s intervention. Adhering to the Putin-approved talking points on Syria is a requirement for the Russian press. However, the Russian Army will likely increasingly find itself in the crosshairs on the battlefield in Syria, as Putin orders more military personnel into the country. One wonders if Moscow will heed the lessons of both history and the recent past. The Russians prematurely celebrated their “victory” in Palmyra earlier this year when they hosted a choreographed concerto held among the famed Roman ruins of the city. Putin blundered badly .With Russia’s military assets concentrated squarely in northern Syria, Assad’s militias in Palmyra quickly dissolved, as they did when Daesh originally captured the city. The Russian celebration was short-lived, and Russian soldiers will almost surely have to be deployed deeper into the desert landscape of eastern Syria. None of this matches neatly with the pre-packaged Kremlin narrative. It is not a far-fetched notion that the Russians could one day face in Syria similar circumstances as Afghanistan. Take, for instance, one particularly edifying Afghan case study: The full weight of the Soviet military was launched to capture an Afghan rebel stronghold in the 100-kilometer long Panjshir river valley in the north. The narrow valley became an open killing field as the Russians launched every type of munition they had. The operation was deemed “mission accomplished,” yet the Soviets were never able to hold the terrain. Time will tell if the valleys in Syria’s Idlib province prove as challenging to the Russian war machine as Panjshir in Afghanistan once did for the Soviets. Equally as important, time will tell if a brave Russian voice will arise from the wilderness to beseech fellow countrymen of the grave folly of invading Syria. Either way, Putin would do well to heed the important lesson that many other overconfident invasion forces throughout history seem to always forget: Pride always comes before the fall. – (Courtesy–Arab News)

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