More Thoughts on Russia and Syria

Friday, October 2, 2015 

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times the other day about Russia's involvement in Syria. Loyal readers of the Borderlands know what I think about this. Nevertheless, I couldn't help chiming in a bit more in response to this article. 

Something that Vladimir Putin said, which is quoted in this piece, struck my interest.  
In his Monday address at the United Nations, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, alluded to reports that thousands of volunteers had left Russia to join the Islamic State. “We cannot allow these criminals who have already felt the smell of blood to return home and continue their evil doings,” Mr. Putin said.
Does that remind you of anything? 

Some Americans might recognize the idea that it's best to fight the terrorists abroad so that you don't have to face them at home. We'll see if that works out any better for Russia in Syria than it did for the US in Iraq. 

As has been the case so many times in Russian history, domestic and international concerns are overlapping again in Russian policymaking vis-a-vis Muslims and Islam. Only the case that Putin is making--that Syria's ongoing conflict is only radicalizing people further--makes a lot more sense than George W. Bush's claim that attacking Iraq would somehow make Americans safer against attacks like 9-11. In the case of the Iraq War, the opposite has proven true, but as far as the sort of radicalization that Putin worries about is concerned, it's hard to deny that the numbers of foreign fighters in Syria, including Russian citizens who have joined the Islamic State, has grown considerably as the war has dragged on. Because Russia is in much closer proximity to Syria, and because Russia's population is approximately 14% Muslim, it doesn't strike me as at all surprising that Moscow would be concerned about the Syrian conflict festering for another

But there are obviously other interests at stake for Russia. The USSR and Russia have traditionally supplied and sold weapons to the Assad regime, so there's a genuine desire, I imagine, not to lose that or other markets, especially as Syria is one of Russia's last traditional allies in the region. A Russian military base on the eastern Mediterranean, moreover, is great for Moscow, at least in some ways. And if Assad stays in power, it's safe to assume that Russian companies will be given the contracts for reconstruction. So, this is about more than just "Russian pride." It's about real, material money and geopolitics.  

A credibility deficit

What I find particularly interesting about the NYT piece is the attitude of American officials that it describes. To them, the entry of Russia into the conflict appears entirely unwarranted and unjustified. 
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned last week that Moscow’s military buildup could amount to “pouring gasoline on a fire.” 
If Russia's actions constitute "pouring gasoline on a fire," then how should we describe the actions of some of Washington's closest allies in the region, whose policies have been facilitating the growth of ISIS? Indeed, how should the actions of the US itself be described? The US has already been much more involved in the conflict so far than Moscow--to the extent of raising an army and sending it to Syria with the express purpose of overthrowing Assad--so it's hard to take the tears of US officials and pundits seriously when they complain about Russian involvement. Indeed, it's worth noting that Russia, unlike the United States, actually has permission to be in Syria.  

One part of the piece that I found myself nodding my head at was this: 
“The government only controls 20 percent of its territory, has a huge manpower shortage and has stoked a sectarian war with a majority Sunni population,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Those are hard odds to overcome. The Russians can use their deployments to prop up the government for now. But over the long term, it will suck Russia into the quagmire. Solving Syria is going to take more than a Russian military intervention.” (emphasis mine)
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I think there's a very good chance of precisely that happening. The argument that I made then is that Russian involvement in Syria is likely to bring one of two results: either they actually do manage to weaken the Islamic State, or they get sucked into an Iraq-style conflict themselves. I agree with the view that Russia's involvement in Syria could very well end up being a blessing in disguise, but only if the US responds correctly.  

The criticism from some in the US is that the Obama administration has been "passive" in letting Russia "take over Syria," and that Russia isn't even interested in fighting ISIS, a point that is also raised in the NYT piece I discussed above. Sometimes it sounds like we're trying to "win" Syria in a competition with Russia, and that American pundits are primarily fearful about "Russians taking over Syria," as if anyone in the US outside of Washington actually thinks that it would be a good idea for the US to "take over" Syria instead. It's frankly comical to see American pundits who acted as cheerleaders for the US invasion of Iraq criticize Obama for failing to stop Putin from making what could very well end up being a similarly disastrous decision to send Russian troops into Syria.

And the apparent news that Russia, at least for this week, has been targeting mainly non-ISIS regime opponents underscores the degree to which Russia is, essentially, free to pursue any policy they wish to in Syria. Then again, it's probably worth remembering that, of all the foreign forces active inside (and above) Syria at this moment, only the Russians have actually been invited by the internationally recognized government of Syria. Russia is able to do what it wants in government-controlled Syria because the Syrian government wants them there. 

It is of course the case that Putin is mostly interested in carving out a corner of influence in the Middle East, perhaps without even having to really fight ISIS. But my sense is that, regardless of what Putin & Co's intentions may be, a sustained Russian presence in Syria will end up with Russia getting sucked into a wider war. As Americans might remember from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, missions like this have a tendency of creeping way beyond recognition.  

Map courtesy of ISW

Take a deep breath...

When it comes to Syria, I'm still more or less where I was two years ago, when I saw little compelling interest for the United States to get actively involved in yet another regime change in the Middle East. What most Syrians want, I imagine, is an end to the war, which also should be the main priority of Washington. But the Obama administration should also stop its efforts to remove Assad. In case anybody has forgotten, just because someone is a tyrant, that doesn't make it necessarily a good idea to overthrow him. There can be unintended consequences to such actions, of which the Islamic State is itself one of the most severe that we have seen to result from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Yes, Moscow is likely more interested in establishing a presence in Syria than in fighting the Islamic State, and the emergence of yet another fighting force in Syria hardly seems to be the best path to bringing peace to that country. But it's happening, and the US--which foolishly has been devoting its efforts in Syria to training an army of "moderates" with Turkey--is in no position to complain about Russian or Iranian involvement in the conflict. This is something that we're going to have to live with. 

Map courtesy of ISW

So, my prescription is to calm down and take a deep breath, for starters. If anything, the US should be trying to find a way to work with both Iran and Russia in Syria, an undertaking which, I think, would make a lot more sense to me than following the disastrous lead of Turkey's president Erdoğan. 

Map courtesy of ISW

Indeed, it's in the interests of both the US and Russia to put an end to their "not-so-great" game in not only Syria, but also more globally. The US should be using Syria as an opportunity to find common ground with Iran and Russia, hopefully with the result of finding some way of ending the conflict and mitigating, to at least a small extent, the misery that has been inflicted upon Syrians for the past four years.

End the not-so-great game

Syria isn't a prize to be won in America's competition with Vladimir Putin, it's a country whose people are suffering. The time for these "not-so-great" games has passed. Shouldn't the refugee crisis in Europe, at the very least, spark an international interest in working to bring about some kind of peace settlement in Syria? By now, there must be enough countries who feel it's in their interest to end this fighting, even if that means working with Assad.


In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration finally got serious about the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia, and the fighting in Bosnia was brought to an end rather quickly from that point forward. In a similar way, the Clinton administration's support for Kosovar Albanians versus Serbs in 1999 was decisive in not only thwarting what appeared to be the making of another genocide, but also in creating Kosovo as an internationally recognized state and US ally. It would seem that a coalition working by air alongside Syrian Kurdish forces on the ground, whether or not Russia is involved, would have a much better chance of succeeding than the current plan of partnering with Ankara to use the Incirclik base in Adana to bomb ISIS while giving a free hand to Turkey to weaken the only forces that have thus far proved effective in fighting ISIS--the Kurds. This pushmepullyou approach to weakening ISIS is, predictably, not going anywhere fast. 

Working in concert with a variety of states, the US can likely defeat ISIS. For now, though, I think the main things to do include:

a) Concentrate on bringing peace to as much of Syria as possible, even if that means working with unsavory characters.

b) Stop insisting upon Assad's departure. 

c) Try to find some sort of constructive way of working with both Iran and Russia. 

The way that this latest, and ugliest, chapter of the not-so-great game between the US and Russia is unfolding brings US policymakers not only risks, but also opportunities. We'll see if the Obama administration is able to take advantage of them. 


Russia and Syria: The Not-So-Great Game 

The Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

10 Questions Regarding Syria

The US, Turkey, ISIS and the Kurds: What's Going On? 

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