The Russians are in Syria and the war is about to become bloodier and messier. At one level, this is a power play, with Russia beefing up its international power and prestige in the face of what seems to be a weakening America.
But at another level, it reflects a genuine disagreement on what course of action is most likely to bring about peace and stability in the Middle East. Where America and the West see Syrian President Bashar Al Assad as an obstacle to peace, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees him as by far the best option to end the war.
This difference reflects views of human nature and society in which Russia and the West are fundamentally at odds. Ironically, recent scientific research suggests Putin is very likely right.
The popular modern view is people everywhere are, at the most basic level, the same. Everyone wants freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Thus, if a country is ruled by a brutal dictator, which Assad certainly is, his regime reflects his behavior and that of his henchman. Logically speaking, therefore, if you remove the dictatorship and provide a level of education and training, the result should be a peaceful democracy. This is why the West supported so enthusiastically the Arab spring. It is also, of course, a large part of what drove the invasion of Iraq. By removing the dictator and the entire Baath Party apparatus from power, and dissolving the army, there should be no obstacle to peace.
Then there is the other view, which sees people in different parts of the world as fundamentally different. Not that everyone in each nation has the same temperament, of course, but that the prevailing temperament varies greatly from area to area. What this view implies, very crucially, is that governments reflect the prevailing temperament of the people, and not vice versa.
Thus if people readily accept and respect democratic, humane governments, governments tend to be democratic and humane. If, on the other hand, they obey only brutal and authoritarian rulers, rulers tend to be brutal and authoritarian. In this view, if you remove a tyrant then the result is likely to be not a peaceful democracy, but a new and equally brutal dictator, or anarchy.
Now comes the scientific evidence. Recent studies show liberals and conservatives have deep-seated emotional differences, which have physiological roots. For example, conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala, a portion of the brain involved with emotion and threat. These differences in turn seem to be epigenetic in origin, epigenetics being the new science showing how the activity of genes is affected by our early life experiences.
The imprint of our upbringing is such that character cannot be changed in adult life by something as trivial as a change of government. What is more, epigenetic differences can be inherited directly from parents and grandparents at the moment of conception, so that even a completely different childhood experience cannot wipe them out completely.
Community studies have shown that Arab parents, especially in rural areas, have methods of childrearing very different from those in the West. Punishment is harsh and often physical, with an enormous stress on obedience and conformity. Further, attitudes to authority remain much the same as they were in Ottoman times. Harsh officials are feared and obeyed, lenient ones despised and ignored. Science suggests that these two characteristics – childrearing and attitudes to authority – are closely related.
In Putin’s view, the invasion of Iraq and Western support for the Arab spring has undermined brutal but stable governments and brought chaos and bloodshed. It can hardly be denied that the suffering of the Syrian people during the civil war is incomparably worse than anything suffered under the Assad regime. The same can be said of the situation in Iraq and Libya and elsewhere. Putin believes the only real solution is a regime brutal enough to maintain order, and yet not a threat to anyone else. Assad’s regime is about the best to offer.
This view is based to a large extent in experience. The Russians nearly bankrupted themselves trying to pacify Afghanistan and Chechnya. In Afghanistan, they failed. In Chechnya, they succeeded by installing a brutal local tyrant who would maintain order in his own way, but as a Russian client.
It is also a view that reflects the Russian temperament. Compared to Westerners, Russians are more likely to punish their children and also more willing to accept powerful authority. Though moderating in recent decades, which explains why Russia has become relatively more democratic, they are closer than we are to the Middle Eastern temperament and thus better able to understand Arab peoples.
But regardless of the reason for his views, science suggests Putin is right. Ignoring these lessons has cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. And as long as we continue to ignore them, airstrikes can never bring peace to the Middle East.
Dr Jim Penman is joint director of a research program into the physiology behind human social behavior. His book, Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West, is published by Cambridge Scholars.