“I think that we should be prepared to go down in flames with the Shah of Iran,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said to President Jimmy Carter in 1978 when violent demonstrations against the shah were convulsing Iran.
The protests had begun a year earlier and the shah had responded with force; the Carter Administration publicly supported the shah. The protests continued and it eventually became apparent that Iran was on a path to a revolution.
Kissinger, who had worked with the Iranian leader when he was secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, thought that supporting the shah despite his internal problems would send a message to leaders around the world that if they did the bidding of the United States that they would be supported even in the face of internal opposition. The shah was forced to flee Iran in January of 1979 and went into exile. The revolutionary regime that came to power after his flight blamed the United States for supporting the shah and in November of 1979 the American embassy was stormed by Iranian militants and the Americans employed there were held hostage for more than one year.
It is possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin is receiving advice similar to what Kissinger told Carter regarding embattled Syrian president Bashar Assad. The Assad family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, but a revolt that began more than a year ago has resulted in a civil war and the rebels now control large parts of that nation.
In neighboring Egypt, the regime of Hosni Mubarak fell after the Egyptian Army failed to support him when anti-government protesters filled the streets of Cairo, but the Syrian armed forces, whose leaders adhere to the same minority Alawite Shiite Muslim faith as the Assad family, have remained loyal to the regime.
While the U.S. and other states in the region have called for Assad to resign and go into exile, the Russian government has continued to support him. University of Oklahoma professor and Syria expert Joshua Landis recently gave some insight into the possible reasons for that support. When the Soviet Union was one of the world’s two superpowers it supported the Assad regime, and the Syrian military relied on the Soviets for supplies and training.
According to Landis, most of the top commanders of the Syrian armed forces received training in the Soviet Union, and have close relationships with their Russian counterparts as a result, and many of them have married Russian women. It is estimated that there are more than 30,000 Russian citizens who currently reside in Syria. At one time, the Soviet Union had military bases in nations around the world, but the only one that its successor state, the Russian Federation, currently has is a naval installation in Tartus, Syria on the Mediterranean Sea.
Putin has publicly lamented the end of the Soviet Union, and it is possible that he and those around him see Syria as a reminder of a time when the Kremlin’s power extended far beyond the plains of Russia. In addition, Landis believes that the Russian president may fear that Assad’s government will be replaced by a radical Islamic regime that could inspire fundamentalism in the Muslim population of the Russian Federation and neighboring states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
But some of Putin’s more astute advisors may point out to him that his willingness to support Assad to the bitter end will ensure that the Syrian government that replaces the Assad regime will be hostile toward Russia as a result.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.