What does Putin want in Syria?

Putin Syria article photo

The United Nations Security Council ushered in the new year by unanimously passing a resolution on a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, welcoming a Russian and Turkish initiative announced just six days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces regained control of Aleppo on 22 December 2016. Having spent much of 2016 riding a diplomatic rollercoaster after Turkey’s November 2015 downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet, Moscow and Ankara – though on opposite sides of the conflict in question – suddenly emerge as aspiring humanitarians and peacemakers.

The seizure of Aleppo itself – seen as a major turning point in Syria’s soon-to-be-six-year civil war – was accompanied by several pushes to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the city’s rebel-held eastern sections. This rescue mission was made possible by another Russo-Turkish deal that facilitated a series of localised ceasefires between rebels and pro-government forces. The long-awaited UN-backed resolution is, in turn, expected to “allow rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access throughout Syria” in yet another small victory for the pop-up entente. The resolution has also called for negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan at the end of January, negotiations that may at last effectuate the conflict’s end.

Meanwhile, the city of Aleppo – once a flourishing centre of commerce and culture – is piled with rubble and stained with human blood in the aftermath of what United States President Barack Obama has called “a deliberate strategy of surrounding, besieging, and starving innocent civilians [and] relentless targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel” by Russia and its allies.

The Syrian Civil War has come at a terrible price, taking 16,913 civilian lives in 2016 alone, according to a recent report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Russia – Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally – joined the game in September 2015 with airstrikes against oppositionist forces. Since 2011, the Kremlin has thwarted numerous diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict, vetoing six UN resolutions, most of them aimed at helping the tens of thousands of men, women, and children struggling to remain alive amidst the fallen concrete and dust.

The butcher of Aleppo – that is the nickname that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has earned in the war-torn Middle Eastern country and the legacy that he will bear. After so much devastation, any Russia-endorsed humanitarian efforts – though certainly still welcome out of practical necessity – come as too little, too late.

Whether proven or alleged players, the words Putin, the Kremlin, Russian nationalists, or pro-Russian separatists have featured prominently in scandalous news in recent years, amongst them the Ukrainian conflict, the annexation of Crimea, the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, the poisoning of former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, a plan to stage a coup d’état in Montenegro, institutionalised torture in Russian prisons, and, just recently, Russia’s hacking to influence the outcome of the United States’ 2016 presidential election, to name but a few. And sadly, heart-wrenching Syria-related national misfortunes – like December’s assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov by a Turkish policeman screaming “Do not forget about Aleppo! Do not forget about Syria!” or the Christmas Day death of 92 passengers aboard Russia’s fallen Tu-154 airliner en route to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria – have done little to encourage Russia to reassess its involvement in yet another debilitating situation.

Instead, the Kremlin has chosen to position itself right in the spot light and side-line the United States to influence Syria’s fate, at the same time as reaffirming its spheres of influence and, in its quasi-unilateralism, rendering traditional reconciliatory mechanisms and institutions, such as the United Nations, redundant. Yet despite Russia’s resolve, it still remains unclear what exactly Putin wants in Syria. What could possibly have costed the lives of nearly half a million innocent civilians? And what could have compelled a country with a dubious interest in the Middle East to invest so much money and manpower into preserving a distant dictatorship when it could have been focused on alleviating the economic instability, poverty, and infrastructural decay corroding it from the inside out?

I spoke with Royal United Services Institution’s research fellow Sarah Lain, political scientist, conflict analyst, and university lecturer Julien Théron*, and Riga-based independent journalist and POLITICO, Bloomberg, and Guardian contributor Leonid Ragozin to better understand what it is the Kremlin may be counting on and what a Russian-led victory would represent in what is supposed to be a post-Cold War world.

A means to an end

Russia’s relationship with Syria can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century, a period which saw “strategic shifts of alliances in the Middle East,” said conflict analyst Julien Théron. Britain and France were out of the picture after the 1956 Suez Crisis – a humiliating failed attempt to oust Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power and reaffirm European colonial presence in the Middle East. Ba’athism was well on its way to inculcating the Middle East with superficially socialist dogmas in the hopes of summoning an Arab national renaissance and a corresponding unified Arab state. Throughout this period, the Middle East, including Syria, remained conscious of the damaging effects of Western colonialism. The February 1966 split of the Ba’ath Party resulted in the creation of a Syria-dominated faction and an Iraqi-dominated faction, the latter being the party of Saddam Hussein. The former came to power with the ascension of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad to the Syrian presidency in 1970. Though Syria had long been a victim of repeated coups and instability in the years after its 1946 independence from France, Assad Senior transformed it into a regional power.

Moscow and Damascus – united in their anti-Western position – grew into reliable allies. Of course, they were never on equal footing: the USSR was a superpower, whilst Syria’s economic and military clout was restricted to its own region. The situation is similar today: Damascus clearly plays the role of Moscow’s pupil and quasi-protectorate, and the Kremlin sees Bashar al-Assad as nothing more than a convenient diplomatic asset, maintains Théron.

“Moscow is not massively tied to Assad personally,” said RUSI’s Sarah Lain. “The mood in Moscow last year was very much that Russia would trade in Assad if it could strike a suitable deal. But since then, Russia has made gains in Syria, emboldened its confidence, and realised that [strategically] any political settlement would be premature or pointless if Assad did not have the upper hand. So Russia has been helping him regain as much land as possible.”

Assad, recognising the weakness of his position, has benefitted tremendously from Russia’s presence. “Solidifying support from a nation like Russia has been helpful for Assad, [because it has served to] legitimise his position in a time when civil unrest has been against him,” said Lain. “Assad’s future is by no means guaranteed by Russia, but it might help him to step down in a way that could be beneficial for him [in the future].”

On a practical level, Russia would find victory in Syria useful, explained Théron. Firstly, he said, Russia has economic interests to protect, including a number of “business contracts, bilateral arms contracts, [promised] post-conflict reconstruction contracts, and involvement in oil production.” Secondly, Russia has military assets and positions to defend, including the Tartus naval base, the Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, and control of the regime’s air zone.

Moreover, he said, a presence in Syria has granted the Kremlin the opportunity to develop its hybrid attack strategies, to give its armed forces a field for practical experience and its private military contractors a field for experimentation, and to test the defensive potential of its aircrafts, warships, cruise missiles, and tanks. I suggest that such practical experience is necessary either to bolster Russian confidence and preventatively intimidate prospective opponents through a display of military might or to identify its weaknesses and hone its skills in time to apply its improved potential elsewhere.

Leonid Ragozin, who has also written for Aljazeera and The Moscow Times, maintains that the Kremlin also benefits from upholding friendly relations with Damascus because Syria’s Chechen community is pro-Assad and because Assad’s regime is the protector of Orthodox Christians in Syria. Though neither of these realities necessitate close ties with Syria, being conscious of them in diplomacy could facilitate Russia’s pursuit of certain domestic and foreign goals. In the case of the former, a friendly relationship with Assad ensures that Syria’s Chechens do not incite unrest amongst their oppressed brethren living in Chechnya and, in the case of the latter, it ensures that Putin is able to keep his promise to protect persecuted Christians in countries across the world, a responsibility that Moscow feels it has borne since the 15th century, when it dubbed itself the ‘Third Rome’ and vowed to act as preserver of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. So, the former reality helps to temper destruction from within, whilst the latter helps to maintain a gilded veneer without.

Nevertheless, none of these benefits are as important as what Russia is gaining regionally and globally from its involvement in the Syrian crisis. Firstly, the civil war has offered Russia the opportunity to forge regional new alliances. “The great Middle Eastern game of alliances appears to be favourable to Moscow’s strategic interest with a progressive realisation of a Lebanese-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian axis,” said Théron, referring to the alliances that Russia is both upholding and building by backing its long-time allies – Syria and Iran – and engaging with new allies such as Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militia. Additionally, Russia has been able to improve relations with other Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey. Alliances across adversaries could give Moscow an impressive voice as a mediator in a region – the Middle East – that the United States and Europe are now inclined to withdraw from, as well as to secure access to the Mediterranean and trade passing through the Suez Canal.

Secondly, and most importantly, in presenting itself as an alternative to the West, Russia is able to use its campaign in Syria to assert itself on the world stage. “Syria is intended to show the world that the West is inefficient, that the West has failed, and that Russia can come and sort the situation out,” said Ragozin.

A long-forgotten ‘superpower’

Syria contributes to the Kremlin’s narrative on Russia’s return to power, said Théron. “Moscow is playing on the myth of being threatened by the West and presents itself as a noble and legitimate defender of its interests against the imperialistic Occident.”

According to Lain, Russia wants to prove a point: “[In Moscow’s point of view,] there is this unipolar world where the United States sets the rules and people follow them. [Russia] is trying to challenge that by exerting its position as a power that needs to be involved in the decision-making and forcing the international community, especially the US-led collation, to take it seriously … There is also a broader foreign policy aim to prove that the Western approach is not effective in dealing with issues in the Middle East and that toppling [leaders] perceived to be bad and [democratising a region] is not always the most successful approach to solving a crisis,” she said.

According to Théron, there is also an impression that the Obama administration has abandoned the game. He gave several concrete examples of American passivity in the face of Russian misbehaviour in the Syrian conflict, amongst which were the United States’ repeated failure to reprimand Russia for disrespecting ceasefires and its inaction in August 2016 when a UN investigation maintained that, despite having supposedly turned over its stockpile of chemical weapons three years earlier, Assad’s regime was responsible for at least two deadly attacks on its own people since 2013.

Over the course of the Syrian conflict, Obama has set many red lines – political points of no return whose violation he vowed would elicit a firm American response – but continuously failed to follow through on his warnings once these thresholds were crossed. As The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg astutely observed in his analysis “The Obama Doctrine”: “for some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world.” One example of this failure was comically vocalised in September 2013, when, whilst commenting on the consequences that Assad’s government would face if it failed to hand over its chemical weapons, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that America’s attack would be “unbelievably small.”

Théron maintains that the West’s weakness in Syria and hesitation to be too engaged in Middle Eastern conflicts has created a vacuum that an emboldened Russia has sought to fill by leading the way to resolution. “Russia is going forward with victory in mind,” the analyst said. Nevertheless, it is ironic that Russia, which, as mentioned previously, had spent years shooting down UN Security Council resolutions seeking to help those affected by the civil war, is suddenly presenting itself as a long-awaited saviour. In fact, Russia’s previous behaviour suggests that it never really prioritised negotiation or resolution to begin with and was, instead, strategically waiting for the opportunity to end the conflict on its own terms.

“From the Russian perspective, it is crucial to show the whole world that whatever Russia is doing in Syria is efficient and that it achieves results,” said Ragozin, who maintains that Russia also seeks to sow disunity in the Western alliance by showing the European countries that their choice to support the United States was an invitation for failure. Furthermore, said Ragozin, shifts in Western geopolitics, including the impending election of either of France’s leading candidates – François Fillon and Marine le Pen – and America’s election of Donald Trump, are likely to change the West’s position on Syria. “The stars have aligned favourably for Putin’s Russia; they really are spoiled for choice,” said the journalist.

Russia’s involvement in Syria is about both weakening and humiliating the West. “Without proper containment, [Russia sees that the] multi-vector approach – i.e. playing imperialistic power politics in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, the North Pole, and the Kuril Islands – is working. So it goes further,” said Théron. In pursuing its harsh strategy, the analyst maintains, Moscow creates a situation that “destabilises Europe with side effects, terrorism, refugees, and the rise of populism … and, [in disregarding] human rights and international humanitarian laws, … [aims] to make the post-USSR order collapse.”

Ragozin warned, however, about running too far with the idea that Syria has contributed to Russia’s self-perceived rebirth as a superpower. “Words like superpower are propaganda terms that are only useful to an extent,” he said. “To boost Putin’s ratings in Russia and consolidate his constituency, it is important to project this image of Russia being a superpower. This does create a temporary surge in ratings in Russia, but they [never] last long. The occupation of Crimea [also] created such a surge, but [Russia’s] intervention in Syria did not bring about anything like that.”

Sadly, the economic situation in Russia continues to deteriorate and support for pro-Kremlin political party United Russia continues to fall. The country’s GPD per capita has drastically worsened since the start of the Ukraine conflict and approximately 13.4 percent of Russians are now living in poverty. What is more, Putin’s likability rating fell from 37 percent in March 2015 to 29 percent in July 2016, showed a report from Russia’s independent polling agency Levada Center.

Averting our eyes from Ukraine?

According to Ragozin, Syria serves one principle function for Russia – it is a cover-up operation for Ukraine. “I think Russia is in Syria because it needed a way out of the Ukraine situation and wanted to shift the international community’s attention to something else,” said the journalist, who breaks the succession of events up into the following: Russia started a war in Eastern Ukraine as a cover-up operation to ensure that the occupation of Crimea was off the negotiating table and then intervened in Syria to freeze the Donbas situation for years to come.

“But why Crimea? Would such a small imperialistic ambition really have warranted contributing to such devastation in Syria?” I asked. According to Ragozin, Crimea was never really that important. “Occupying Crimea was a spontaneous development caused by the Euromaidan [and] a symbolic act of defying the West. They managed to consolidate society under chauvinistic and imperialistic slogans for a few more years. They managed to buy time. But the goal was to make sure that Ukraine continued to bleed, so that it could never evolve into an alternative Russia – a better place for Russian speakers than Russia itself, a role model,” the journalist said.

It all comes down to Russia’s fear that Ukraine could become a successful democratic country and flourish both politically and economically. Russia’s economy was stagnating and the social contract between Putin’s government and society was starting to break apart even before the Ukrainian crisis and Western sanctions, Ragozin said. “On many occasions, Putin has said that he wants to be president of the majority. If you look at poll figures prior to the Ukrainian crisis, you will see that his rating was [slowly approaching] 50 percent, which would have made him a president of the minority, not of the majority. This was a critical problem for Putin and his entourage. They needed new ways of consolidating the electorate. They solved it by precipitating the Ukrainian crisis and occupying Crimea.”

In December 2013, Levada Center reported that – at 61 percent – Putin’s public approval rating had fallen to its lowest level since June 2000 – the last time it was at 61 percent. From 2000 to 2008, thanks to an oil-fuelled economic boom, Putin was able to fulfil his social contract with greater facility and, accordingly, enjoyed a rating of 70 percent and higher. Sometimes, this figure even rose above 80 percent.

Ragozin maintains that the Kremlin also precipitated the very crisis that led to the Euromaidan by offering then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich a $15 billion aid package and lowering the price of Russian gas deliveries not, as was reported, after the leader had decided to shelve an agreement he was intending to sign with the European Union in Spring 2014, but instead of it.

The journalist’s hypothesis goes hand in hand with what analysts see as the Kremlin’s fear of colour revolutions and general social unrest both in neighbouring countries, examples of which include Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004-2005), and within Russia itself.

“Putin is very concerned with colour revolutions and what he perceives as Western influence. Syria was a prime example of Russia creating an opportunity for itself to influence and combat US influence,” said RUSI’s Lain. She was hesitant, however, to see Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war as a distraction from Ukraine, calling this tendency amongst some analysts an exaggeration. “The idea that you would go into one country purely to distract from a war in another country is a bit farfetched,” she said. “Surely, there were other strategic reasons.”

A balance of Muslim power in the Middle East

So far, Iran and Russia have made great efforts to demonstrate that they are a united front on Syria. However, according to Lain, Iran wants to gain more political influence in the region and Russia’s preoccupation with securing its economic presence could cause concerns in the future, especially in light of Russian fears of extremism in the North Caucasus. This risk of future antagonism exists largely because of Iran’s vulnerable position as a Shia country encircled by Sunni forces and fearful memories of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

At this juncture, I asked our analysts whether Russia was at all concerned about propping up Shia power in the Middle East whilst it has its own potentially restive and fairly sizeable mostly Sunni, Muslim population in the Caucasus. According to the Pew Research Center, Shia Muslims only make up 10-13 percent of the world’s total Muslim population, whilst the Sunnis make up 87-90 percent; these statistics are also reflective of the Shia-Sunni distribution within Russia itself. “I do not think that Russia thinks in these terms,” said Ragozin. “Russia wants to have allies amongst the Shias and the Sunnis.” Indeed, Russian-based Islamic associations and leaders, such as academic and chairman of the Russian Society of Islamists Tawfic Ibrahim, have been vocal about the importance of unity amongst the country’s Muslims in the fight against extremism and the Islamist State group.

Théron agreed, saying that if there is, indeed, a risk of Sunni retaliation, it is a small one. According to the analyst, Russia has been sufficiently clear on the consequences of nationalist or Islamist Sunni rebellions in its own borders. “Chechnya and Dagestan are examples of how far Moscow is ready to go to kill any kind of contestation,” said the analyst. In the case of Chechnya, in particular, fear of Kremlin-appointed local leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is infamous for his attacks on dissenters, is enough to quell any separatist sentiment for the time being.

Furthermore, “the political manipulation of religion, [namely Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam], is well established in Russia,” said Théron, giving the examples of Orthodox bishops blessing missiles being shipped to Syria, Chechnya’s deputy mufti Aslan Abdullayev stating that Russia’s policy in Chechnya has brought stability and nudged worshippers back towards their mosques, and Russia’s Patriarch Kirill declaring a ‘holy war’ on terrorism.

Finally said Théron, Moscow has made a conscious effort to be transparent in its attitudes towards Sunni Islam. “An international conference on Sunni Islam was held recently in Chechnya,” the analyst said. “It gathered more than 100 clerics, with the noticeable exception of Saudis, in order to separate Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies from the rest of the Sunni world. This conference aimed to stabilise Sunni areas inside Russia by assuring Russian Muslims that the Kremlin is not leading a religious war against Sunnis … [it also] ostracised Saudi Arabia – the archenemy of Moscow’s ally Iran.” Wahhabism and Salafism are two strictly orthodox sects in Sunni Islam which, merged since the 1960s, support the implementation of Sharia law. The latter in particular contains a minority group that endorses jihad. This conference, according to Théron, was also useful in feeding the narrative that Moscow is fighting against Sunni radicalism, a position that must be clear if Russia is to further unite its own Muslim population to support its political agenda. And a united population is one that is less likely to be restless.

“The Russians have a counter-terrorism priority in Syria, though it obviously does not match up perfectly with that of the West,” said Lain. “[They are prioritising] taking foreign fighters out of Russia. [Russia’s security service] the FSB has opened a corridor for fighters to go to Syria from the North Caucuses and is basically closing the door behind them to make the fight another country’s problem, [at the same time as] concentrating them in one place to bomb them like they did with Chechnya.”

Conclusions

It seems that any practical benefits, whether economic, military, or ideological, that Russia is able to reap in Syria are relatively unimportant for Putin. Instead, this war – in all of its complexity and distressing human tragedy – represents a lucrative and hither-to unprecedented (since the dissolution of the Soviet Union) opportunity for a one-time superpower – now frail, turbulent, and rancorous – to remind a world nestled in a false sense of security that the bully still stands on the playground. Ironically, in Russia’s eyes, the bully is none other than the West and its strategy is one of self-defence. However, in relying on force, not within its own borders, as was the case with Chechnya in the 1990s, but on an international scale, Putin gas given a clear message: Russia – in the broil of an existential crisis – finds the post-USSR order wholly unsatisfactory and is prepared to change it. It is, therefore, unlikely that January’s negotiations in Kazakhstan will prioritise terminating hostilities out of respect for justice, compassion, or humanitarianism. Questions of influence will surely be on the forefront of any diplomatic efforts.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s use of the terms “irresolution” and “naïveté” in describing the Obama administration were perfectly on point. Whether it intended to or not, the West, collectively, ended up treating Putin as an equal in so far as it assumed that he too, regardless of his practical interests in backing Assad, respected the rules of the game. It is likely, however, that Putin was playing a whole different game to begin with and that the West, with its red lines and hesitation and carefulness-bordering-on-complaisance, allowed its diplomatic nature and politesse to be taken advantage of as if these honourable values were flaws.

To play devil’s advocate, what alternative course of action could the West have embraced? If the West truly had faith that Assad’s opponents – the Free Syrian Army – were moderate in their nature, it may have taken a more confident stand against Russia’s power play. Even so, having seen the consequences of eliminating Saddam Hussein, the West could never have played a truly active role in taking down another secular dictatorship keeping a lid on uniquely heinous Islamist terrorists, because the risk of such a venture could have been far worse than enduring humiliation at Russia’s hands. It is unclear precisely how successful the rebels would be at filling a void left by Assad and their failure would create a dangerous power vacuum that could easily be filled by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, or by ISIS.

Furthermore, can it be said with certainly that the Free Syrian Army is a force for good? In a December 2016 editorialIndependent journalist Patrick Cockburn cited UN chief of humanitarian affairs Stephen O’Brien’s suggestion that the Syrian rebels in east Aleppo were stopping civilians from departing. It is ironic that the Western media has barely investigated O’Brien’s statements considering how extensive its coverage has been of ISIS’s use of civilians as human shields in neighbouring Iraq. Why does the Western media, as Cockburn wrote, focus on “descriptions of the inhuman savagery of President Assad’s forces indiscriminately slaughtering civilians,” but shy away from describing similar atrocities perpetrated by those fighting against Assad? It just may be that the West’s irresoluteness in the Syrian war is actually a consequence of its own uncertainty. If this is the case, it would be safe to conclude the West’s decision to side itself against Assad and, therefore, against Russia was not a moral one, but one based entirely on its desire to maintain a West-East geopolitical balance. In being passive in its practical commitments, however, the West inadvertently allowed Russia to take the reins.

In regards to Ragozin’s hypothesis that Russia’s interference in Syria is nothing but a distraction from Ukraine: it must be acknowledged that, whilst the world has focused its eyes on Syria, ISIS, the rise of raging populism in Western democracies, the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, and Brexit, the war in Ukraine rages on. The annexation of Crimea, which left the world speechless and aghast just under three years ago, is no longer being challenged, and, other than Western sanctions, no efforts have been made to restore this land to Ukraine. Blood continues to be shed and lives continue to be taken, but this war is now largely forgotten. Meanwhile, Ukraine has not made any substantial progress in improving its standard of living or eliminating corruption since its change of leadership in 2014. As a result, just as Ragozin said, the country has proven unable to transition to a true democracy and land of opportunity.

Since the early days of the Syrian conflict, foreign policy think tanks such as the Brookings Institute have published papers advocating for “the creation of safe-havens and humanitarian corridors … backed by limited military power.” Such proposals were, of course, strategically intended to help the West in its endeavour to topple Assad, but they would also have served a greater, human purpose. Sadly, the zones never materialised. Why is it that human life never became a priority for either parties? Ultimately, powers on both sides of the equation have comfortably stood by as hundreds of thousands of innocent people – as if pawns casually flicked off of a chessboard – took their last breaths not in defence of noble human principles, but for the egotistical and calculated pursuit of power. Whether the casualties were Syrian or Ukrainian or of any other nationality makes little difference, and any new world order achieved as a spoil of such turmoil will be forever tainted.

Putin and Erdogan are not benevolent humanitarians, but the West will likely welcome their initiative in brokering peace in Syria if not out of fatigue or the same politesse that it exhibited previously, then out of necessity, necessity that has arisen out of the West’s own inaction. Forcing Russia out of the equation is likely to invite antagonism and possibly retaliation, and this is not a risk that the West should be willing to take lest any aggression escalate into a grander, global catastrophe such as another world war. Provocation between countries that command such formidable nuclear arsenals should be avoided at all costs.