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Putin’s Muslim Nightmare

The Russian president’s intervention in Syria is driven by fear of Islamic extremism among his country’s own Muslim minority. But rather than squelching the threat, it’s poised to make it worse.


President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most notorious gambler, has rolled the dice in Syria’s civil war. At first glance, he seems to have come up with a seven: By boldly deploying the newest weapons in his arsenal in order to save Bashar al-Assad’s tottering regime, he has swiftly transformed the Kremlin into the center of Middle East diplomacy. His message is simple: Russia is back as a major power and a solution to this deadly, depressing war runs through Moscow.

After a month of bombing anti-Assad Sunni rebels, Putin summoned Assad to a surprise meeting in the Kremlin, setting off fresh speculation that a made-in-Moscow formula for ending the war was now in play. The United States was understandably intrigued: After only one meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to invite Russia’s ally, Iran, to a new round of Syria peace talks, which occurred on Oct. 30 in Vienna.

Can Putin succeed where others have failed? It’s possible, but unlikely. The Russian president has opened a hornet’s nest in Syria, and everyone, including Putin, is being stung again and again.

A closer look at Putin’s gamble shows that his seven may, in fact, end up as snake eyes — a losing gamble that fails for reasons uniquely Russian, relating to the often ignored but crucial fact that more than 20 million of Russia’s 144 million people are Sunni Muslims, who naturally sympathize with the Sunni Muslims currently being bombed and killed by Russians in Syria. Any Russian miscalculation in Syria could therefore severely undermine Putin’s political power base at home.

And it doesn’t stop there. Not only has Putin ordered the bombing of Sunni rebels in Syria, he has also created a new Russia-led coalition of Shiite powers — Iran, Iraq, and Syria — capable of sharing intelligence and striking as one against its Sunni enemies. In this way, whether intended or not, he has opened a de facto war against Sunni Arabs, who are led by Saudi Arabia, and aligned with the United States.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed that he seeks no proxy war with Russia — yet that is precisely what appears to be emerging. This region of chronic turbulence — already burning with war, hatred, and religious schisms — has now become even more unstable, fueled by the formation of two antagonistic coalitions: Russia’s Shiite alliance, and a U.S.-supported Sunni coalition.

For Putin, this poses an existential challenge from which there is no escape — a dilemma rooted in Russian demography and history. Most of Russia’s Sunni Muslims live in the Northern Caucasus, historically the scene of anti-Russian Islamist upheavals. Chechnya


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