Is Chechnya Putin’s blueprint for Syria?

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria makes Russian President Vladimir Putin the unchallenged power broker in Syria. Sure, Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey also have influence, but the Kremlin’s red lines matter.

The Kremlin could barely contain its glee at Trump’s move. Putin praised the decision as “correct,” and Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the U.S. pullout creates good prospects for a “political solution” in Syria.

{mosads}As Bashar Assad re-consolidates military control over the country with Russian and Iranian military support, international attention has turned to a “political solution” in Syria. With the United States largely vacating its remaining influence, what will Russia’s strategy be?

It pays to consider the Chechnya precedent. It was the Second Chechen War (1999-2009) that launched Putin’s political career, when in September 1999 a series of apartment bombings in several major cities shook Russia. Putin, then prime minister, immediately blamed Chechnya and declared, war which brought him from obscurity into the presidency.

Decades before providing Assad cover for using chemical weapons and razing large portions of Aleppo, Putin oversaw a scorched earth campaign in Chechnya, razing the capital city Grozny to the ground.

Against the backdrop of such bloodletting, the Kremlin engaged in a charade of negotiating with Kremlin-backed Chechen leaders, largely to assuage the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that was demanding formal peace talks. The Russians wanted to manage the process, and they essentially only allowed one side to participate. Simultaneously, in order to crush the Chechen independence struggle, Putin ignored and marginalized moderate and secular Chechens such as the legitimately elected president at the time, Aslan Maskhadov.

After the Syrian civil war began, Moscow pursued a similar strategy, seeking to marginalize any opposition groups that demanded Assad’s departure. In June 2012, three years before Moscow began its military intervention in Syria, the Geneva Communiqué outlined a U.N. roadmap for ending the violence and establishing a transitional governing body. On this basis, Moscow then engaged in peace talks but only with those groups who did not demand Assad’s departure.

Over the years, Moscow engaged such faux opposition figures as Qadri Jamil — a Syrian politician who “always hovered on the outskirts of [Assad] regime politics,” according to Carnegie Middle East Center — and Randa Kassis, leader of Movement for Pluralistic Society, who publicly supported Putin’s Syria policy and co-founded the pro-Kremlin Center of Political and Foreign Affairs. Khaled Mahamid, another member of Syrian opposition, openly supports Moscow’s goals of restoring Assad’s control across Syria.

Putin has long sought to give the patina of international law to Russian involvement. In 2015, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2254, which outlines the political transition in Syria. The Kremlin sponsored many rounds of peace talks in Astana and Sochi, which ostensibly reaffirmed 2254, but the talks produced little of substance and mostly marginalized groups friendly to the United States. Often, the Assad regime’s symbols decorated conference facilities. While the spirit of the 2254 envisions the Syrians choosing their own future, it is easy for Moscow to use it to legitimize a sham election to restore legitimacy to Assad.

Indeed, Syria’s current electoral law does not allow many in the diaspora to participate in elections, in effect disenfranchising millions forced to flee as refugees, many of which after facing barrel bombs, chemical weapons, or death squads are directed to their towns and neighborhoods because they were deemed disloyal to Assad.

In Chechnya, Moscow’s human rights violations and marginalization of moderate voices went hand-in-hand with the rise of extremism. Putin-installed Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist, and oversaw Chechnya’s Islamization.

No amount of reconstruction could erase the tensions that remain beneath the false calm. And brute force works until it doesn’t.

Syria is far more complex than Chechnya, with multiple actors who pursue different and at times competing interests. Putin is not guaranteed success.

In Chechnya the Kremlin installed its chosen leader, while in Syria it sees no alternative to the one who was there from the beginning. But in both cases, Western policymakers continue to cling to the belief that their goal to reach genuine conflict resolution aligns with Moscow’s.

The reality is different. Putin, who has been pushing his version of a Syrian constitution since at least April 2016, is now in a better position to pursue the Chechnya model in Syria. Far from a genuine resolution, Moscow could preside over a frozen conflict of its own making. With Putin’s management it is guaranteed to simmer for many years to come.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Tags Chechnya Donald Trump Putin

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