Vlad and Yuri: How Putin is applying the lessons of Afghanistan to Syria

Vladimir Putin is following in the footsteps of his old KGB boss Yuri Andropov, who took the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in 1979 to shore up a failing client in Kabul. To succeed where Andropov failed, Putin will need to devote considerable resources and manpower to save Bashar al-Assad. But there are also significant differences in the challenges the two faced that favor Putin. Saudi Arabia will be his constant enemy, just as it was Andropov’s.

In the fall of 1979, Andropov was the principal advocate in the Kremlin of a Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan to keep the communist Afghan government in power. The Marxist Afghan party was rapidly losing control of the country to the mujahedeen, and KGB chief Andropov warned defeat in Afghanistan would destabilize all of Soviet Central Asia. Andropov convinced an ailing Leonid Brezhnev that it would be an easy and cheap victory. In 1956, Andropov had been the Soviet ambassador in Hungary who called for Soviet intervention there, which had kept Budapest in the Warsaw Pact.

The Soviets never resourced the war properly. At their peak effort, the Soviets deployed just over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, far too few to pacify the country. Andropov escalated the war considerably when he became party boss, but the number of boots on the ground was never enough. Russia had put double the number of troops into Hungary, a flat plain easy to conquer, and had a huge army in 1979, but the Kremlin never brought enough resources to the fight in the Hindu Kush.

There are important differences between Syria and Afghanistan. First, Putin is trying to save an Alawi Muslim ministate on the Mediterranean Sea, not the whole country. Latakia and Tartus are Putin’s priorities. The Alawistan he envisions will be an enclave with links to Damascus and Aleppo but isolated from the rest of Syria. But even this rump will need lots of boots on the ground to survive. Air power alone will be insufficient, and the Syrian army is already too weak on its own.

Putin does have regional allies, which Andropov lacked. Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias have been fighting with Assad for years. In the 1980s, Iran backed the mujahedeen, although it was mostly preoccupied with the war with Iraq. Iranian and Iraqi Shiite troops have increased their numbers in Syria recently. Russia has placed itself firmly on the Persian and Shiite side of the Saudi-Iranian regional confrontation.

Finally, Putin has no Pakistan to battle with. Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq was Moscow’s greatest nemesis in Afghanistan, providing safe haven, arms, training and leadership to the mujahedeen. Zia won the war against the USSR, taking all the risks. Neither Jordan nor Turkey is so inclined to take on the Syrian file as enthusiastically as Pakistan took up the Afghan file.

Full article: Vlad and Yuri: How Putin is applying the lessons of Afghanistan to Syria (Al-Monitor)

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