I spent almost two years from the latter part of 1979 to the latter part of 1981 writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Soviet military thinking about conflict in the Third World during the Brezhnev era. A revised version of the dissertation was published in 1982 as a book (my first!): The Third World in Soviet Military Thought.
Because this was a topic of great importance at the time, my book received a fair amount of attention when it first came out. After Gorbachev began the Soviet withdrawal from the Third World, however, the subject of this book became less important. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the Yeltsin-era retreat from engagement in the Third World, the book became largely irrelevant for understanding ongoing international relations.
Putin, of course, has pursued a more active foreign policy toward what used to be known as the Third World, but not really a more active military one. To my amazement, though, a paperback version of The Third World in Soviet Military Thought was published in June 2013. However, with a list price of $44.95, I don’t anticipate that there will be many who will buy and read it.
But I did. It seemed like a journey back to a distant time. The book focuses on subjects that were of importance to Soviet military thinkers then. Many of these—such as the categorization of wars in ideological terms (including wars between imperialism and socialism, civil wars between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, wars between bourgeois states, national liberation wars)—now appear quaint and irrelevant for understanding today’s (and perhaps even yesterday’s) world.
There was, however, one theme discussed back then by Soviet military thinkers that impressed me as being highly relevant for understanding certain conflicts now—especially the one in Syria. Some of the Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers were making a genuine effort to accurately understand the new types of conflict that were then occurring. One of these they termed: wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction. What they understood about these conflicts between a dictatorial regime and its opponents was that they were not conflicts between two parties, but among three. Here’s what I wrote in my book’s conclusion about the implications of their envisioning these conflicts in this way:
“In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction…[b]oth communists and non-communists united to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (dictatorship of the proletariat or republican democracy). The communists in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the non-communists fighting the dictatorship. However…the communists stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while the United States is supporting the dictatorship, the Soviet Union will support the communists, making them stronger compared to the non-communist opposition….When the dictatorship eventually falls, the communists are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from the USSR and its allies while the non-communists have received nothing…. Either of these could come to power, and so Soviet support of the communists increases the communists’ chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the non-communist opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the Soviets can take advantage of.” (pp. 129-30)
While re-reading what I had written over thirty years ago, it struck me that the same logic—with updated terms—could be used for understanding the current conflict in Syria: In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction, both radicals and moderates unite to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (radical Islamist rule or some form of democracy). The radicals in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the moderates fighting the dictatorship. However, the radicals stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while some external forces are supporting the dictatorship, others will support the radicals, making them stronger compared to the moderate opposition. When the dictatorship eventually falls, the radicals are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from their allies while the moderates have received nothing. Either of these could come to power, and so external support of the radicals increases their chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the moderate opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the radicals can take advantage of.
There are, of course, some important differences between the conflicts that Soviet military thinkers were describing back in the 1970s and Syria now. Back then, it was the U.S. supporting regimes of extreme reaction whereas now it is Russia and Iran who are doing so. Also back then, it was the Soviets and their allies who were supporting the radical opposition whereas now it is Sunnis outside Syria that are doing so. But both then and now, the U.S. did or is doing little or nothing to support the moderate opposition.
There are other similarities between then and now: the U.S. was and is reticent to support the moderates for fear that they may actually be radicals. External radical forces, by contrast, always seem able to distinguish between their allies and rivals within the internal opposition fighting against the dictatorship.
Studying what Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers had to say about conflicts between the people and a regime of extreme actions has lessons that both Washington and Moscow would do well to heed.
For Washington: If external support goes to the radical opposition but not to the moderate opposition, then the radical opposition will be in a stronger position to take power after the dictatorship falls.
For Moscow: Supporting regimes of extreme reaction is a losing proposition since (as Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers clearly understood) they are “doomed to failure.”
And for both: Moscow’s support for a regime doomed to failure and America’s unwillingness to support the moderate opposition in Syria only increases the likelihood that it is the radical opposition that will eventually prevail there.