John R. Bradley in The Spectator:
When Russia entered the Syrian civil war in September 2015 the then US secretary of defense, Ash Carter, predicted catastrophe for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin was ‘pouring gasoline on the fire’ of the conflict, he said, and his strategy of fighting Isis while backing the Assad regime was ‘doomed to failure’. Two years on, Putin has emerged triumphant and Bashar al-Assad’s future is secure. They will soon declare victory over Isis inside the country. The dismal failure turned out to be our cynical effort to install a Sunni regime in Damascus by adopting the Afghanistan playbook from the 1980s. We would train, fund and arm jihadis, foreign and domestic, in partnership with the Gulf Arab despots. This way we would rob Russia of its only warm-water naval base, Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In the process we would create a buffer between Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, to divide the anti-Israel Shia axis. And we would further marginalise Iran by extending the influence of our Sunni Gulf allies from Lebanon deeper into the Levant. Half a million Syrians were slaughtered as a consequence of this hare-brained scheme, which geo-politically has resulted in the exact opposite of the intended outcome.
Putin, though, had grasped the reality at the outset. Unlike Afghans, ordinary Syrians were used to living in a liberal, diverse culture that, while politically repressive, championed peaceful religious co-existence. Most of them were nervous about seeing their country transformed into a Wahhabi theocracy. Assad, for all his faults, was the buffer between them and internecine carnage. They stuck with the devil they knew, and there was no popular revolution against Assad — nothing compared to the Tahrir uprising that ousted the hated Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The millions-strong demonstrations in Damascus were pro-regime. Among the two-thirds of the Syrian population now living in government–controlled parts of the country, Assad is more popular than ever, and Putin is a hero.
Small wonder Putin recently mocked Washington for ‘not knowing the difference between Austria and Australia’.