Afghanistan was once thought of as the last battle of the Cold War. But that designation must be accorded the ongoing struggle in Syria.
The late dictator Hafez Assad built his tyrannical regime in the image of the late Soviet Union. He usurped power in his own country four decades ago, when the power of the USSR was on the rise. His armies and factories were in the Soviet mold, as were his feared intelligence services. The Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination Hafez Assad forced on the hapless Lebanese in 1991 was vintage Warsaw Pact.
History hasn't altered much: Now Hafez's son, Bashar, in a big battle to defend his father's bequest, has Vladimir Putin's Russian autocracy by his side. The Soviet empire has fallen, but there, by the Mediterranean coast, a Syrian tyranny gives Russia the old sense that it still is a great power.
Time and again at the United Nations, Moscow has declared the sovereignty of the Assad regime a "red line"—and stated that it would veto any resolution in the Security Council that would put it in jeopardy. True, Beijing also has gone along for the ride, so fervent a believer is China in the unfettered claims of national sovereignty—the rulers there forever thinking of their hold on Tibet. But China has paltry interests in Damascus, and the Arab oil states have of late set out to win Beijing over to the cause of regime change in Syria with guarantees of oil supplies and inducements in the energy sector.
No such luck with the Russian Federation—Russia has huge reserves of oil and gas in its own right.
Mr. Putin is invested in Syria, as well as in other dictators in the region. There are philosophical and ideological stakes at work here. Mr. Putin has ridden the windfall of oil and gas revenues for a good decade, buying off the middle classes, tranquilizing his country, and justifying his authoritarianism at home as the price of restoration of grandeur and power abroad. But the middle classes have turned against him. And former supporters have grown weary of his Mafia state, with its rampant criminality and cronyism. And so when Russians took to the streets to protest the rigged elections to the Duma of Dec. 4, Mr. Putin's response to the fury was identical to that of the Arab rulers when faced with the protesters of the Arab Spring.
There was something familiar and repetitive about Mr. Putin's paranoia—his dark view of the world, the insistence that the Russian protests had been instigated by foreign conspirators. The campaign of vilification waged against U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul—the charge that he had been dispatched to Russia to subvert its political system—bore a striking resemblance to the Syrian charge that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford had fed the flames of the Syrian rebellion.
The sun has set on the Soviet empire, but Mr. Putin stands guard, with a "philosophy" of his own—order secured by a strongman. Russia stood idly by as tyrants such as Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarrak fell. But in the Libyan case it stepped out of the way at the U.N. Security Council, and its abstention gave the Western democracies the space and a warrant to unseat Moammar Gadhafi. Syria gives Russia a chance to correct for the error it made.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been emphatic that there can be no repeat of Libya. By his lights, the green light given to protect Libyan civilians had turned into a warrant for regime change.
Democracies are on a rampage, so the Russian custodians of power insist, and a line has to be drawn in defense of an autocratic cabal of nations. Russian history alternates long periods of quiescence with sudden rebellions. The Putin autocracy was taking no chances.
Syria feeds another Russian obsession: Islam. If the Chinese see Tibet everywhere, the Russians are fixated on Chechnya. In the Syrian inferno, the Russians see a secular tyranny at war with radical Islamists, and thus see in Syria a reflection of themselves.
The rulers in Damascus have insisted that their regime is battling religious terrorists destined to shatter the peace of the minorities—the Alawis, the Christians, the Druze, the Ismailis. The Obama administration had once subscribed to that view but has come to abandon it, as have the Europeans. Russia remains a holdout, secure in the belief that it has a special insight into that impasse between regimes in the saddle and radical Islamists.
Old military considerations also endure. Syria offers Russia a Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, a city in the territory of the ruling Alawis at that. The base is derelict, but it is better than nothing, an asset to bring into the standoff with the United States. It is a shabby play at empire, but the Russians drew solace as their lone aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, steamed into the port from the Arctic last month.
The powers that be in NATO—neighboring Turkey included—have not been terribly coherent in dealing with this Syrian crisis. They show little taste for a military offensive that would topple the Syrian dictatorship.
An American president proud to have ended an engagement in Iraq is not itching for a war of his own in Araby. The United Nations offers no way out, and Russia is not the only obstacle.
Those "emerging" powers—India, Brazil, South Africa—have shown moral obtuseness of their own and have sided with the brutal regime in Damascus. The prayers in Homs for deliverance at the hands of outsiders—a Libya redux—may, in the manner of desperate prayers, be answered. More likely, the contest will be decided on the ground. Both the regime and the oppositionists who have paid so dearly in this cruel struggle are betting that time is on their side.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chair of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and International Order.