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Putin's model of success

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Western officials puzzled about Vladimir Putin's intentions in Syria are missing big clues. There is a clear model for the campaign Russia is pursuing on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: Chechnya.

The Muslim republic in the North Caucasus and the decade-long war Putin launched there in September 1999 have mostly been forgotten since the dictator installed by Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, consolidated control in the late 2000s. But the Kremlin regards it as a “good, unique example in history of (the) combat of terrorism,” as Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's prime minister, put it. Chechnya, Medvedev said last year, is “one of the business cards of Russia.”

What are the components of this winning formula? First, define all opposition to the prevailing regime as terrorist. That enables a fundamental political aim: to eliminate alternatives.

In Syria today, moderate and secular opposition forces arguably are getting harder to find. That wasn't the case in Chechnya in 1999. The country's nationalist president, Aslan Maskhadov, had won a democratic election, defeating an Islamist opponent. His predecessor, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was so secularized that he was unaware how many times a day Muslims pray. Russia killed them both, along with every other moderate Chechen leader it could find.

It should be no surprise that Russia's first Syria bombings have been aimed at the remnants of the moderate opposition. It's not just that they are backed by the United States; they represent a viable alternative to the Assad regime and so, under Chechnya rules, must be eliminated. “He doesn't distinguish between (ISIS) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go,” President Obama said after meeting Putin at the U.N. “From their perspective, they're all terrorists.”

The first stages of the Russian military campaign in northern Syria have followed a familiar pattern. Heavy bombing and shelling of civilian areas preceded scorched-earth sweeps, just as in Chechnya. Assad's forces and their Lebanese and Iranian allies may have to step up their notorious brutality to match Putin's tactics in Chechnya. But they may have expert help: Kadyrov has asked Putin to send his 20,000-member personal army, known as the “kadyrovtsy,” to Syria.

Kadyrov and his relationship with Putin offer another lesson to those wondering whether Putin is prepared to dispose of Assad — a prospect that Obama has bet on. The Chechen strongman is more sinister than the soft-spoken Assad; Kadyrov is known to do his own killing and torturing on occasion and brazenly orders hits on his critics. Many believe him responsible for the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last winter.

The International Crisis Group reports that senior Russian security officials tried to undermine the Chechen by arresting his gunmen for the Nemtsov murder. Putin rebuffed them, awarding Kadyrov a medal after the hit. The same rules will apply to Assad.

Obama's response to Putin's new offensive has been to predict that the result will be “a quagmire.” But Putin has heard that before. For years Western leaders warned him that the war in Chechnya was unwinnable. Putin nevertheless persisted through a decade of bloody fighting. The result was the pacification he now trumpets as a “calling card.” Don't expect him to give up anytime soon on a similar result in Syria.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

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