World Affairs

The Russian Intervention in Syria

It seems that Soleimani made quite an impression on Putin. Rather than simply supplying Assad with more arms and ammunition as the Policy Tensor had imagined, Russia has chosen to deploy a significant number of military assets in Syria. What is the scale of the Russian deployment and what prompted it? What is Putin up to now? And where is this going?

What seems to have forced Putin’s hands is the recent setbacks suffered by Assad this year. Islamist rebel forces led by Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) conquered Idlib City in March and kicked regime forces out of all but one of their positions in Idlib Province by September. This has placed the rebels in a position to launch attacks into the Alawite heartland on the Syrian coast. That the primary purpose of the deployment is to thwart the rebel offensive is clear from the location and nature of Russian assets in Syria.

Al Assad Airbase

Instead of deploying assets to their existing naval base at Tartus, the Russians have deployed their forces further north in Latakia Province where they will be closer to the frontline. The center of activity is the Bassel al-Assad International Airport at Jableh in Latakia Province. Satellite imagery provided by AllSource Analysis has confirmed the presence of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, howitzers, trucks, and prefabricated housing for 1,500 personnel. The equipment in the field so far is consistent with the deployment of a single army brigade.

That’s right: Russia is deploying ground forces in Syria. On September 13, reports filtered in that fifteen buses carrying Russian troops arrived in Hama City and turned its Equestrian Club into military barracks. More troops are on the way. Transport aircraft continue to airlift assets to what is now a de facto Russian military base at the rate of up to two per day. Under the cover of a large military exercise involving a hundred thousand troops, Russia has buildup its military assets at Taganrog Central airbase in southern Russia. Located 800 miles from Latakia, the airbase is perfectly positioned to supply the war effort in Syria.

Putin’s goals are limited: Protect Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East at Tartus and make sure than the Assad can hold on to the territory still under his control. The troops in the field are mandated to thwart the rebel advance and perhaps conduct counter-offensives against JN et al. These limited objectives are likely to be achieved.

Given that the United States is conducting daily airstrikes in the vicinity, it is necessary to have military-to-military contacts to ensure that there are no incidents. The Russian intervention has changed the calculus somewhat in as much as it is now even harder to see how Assad could possibly be dislodged. The United States should finally surrender its futile opposition to Assad and play ball. A great power settlement in Syria is very much possible and was held up by US opposition to Assad. Now that the United States seems finally ready to fold, a deal is indeed likely in the coming months. 

That Putin has managed to force Obama’s hand is not altogether surprising. US policy in Syria has been ham-handed from the get-go. It was very much possible in the beginning to get ahead of the curve. The US could’ve armed moderate rebels while they were still viable and forced Assad to the table with the threat of military escalation. The Obama White House foolishly outsourced the arming of the rebels to the oil monarchies; with predictable results. Once the Islamists had essentially taken over the rebellion there was no choice but to back Assad. Yet, the White House could not drop its opposition to the Assad regime. This short-circuited any possibility of a great power settlement in Syria. Forging a Syrian army to oust Assad might have worked had it been given sufficient time and resources. But it served no discernible US interest and was not worth the effort given that the alternate strategy of backing Assad was always available. The actual effort of course was laughable.

Russia is not about to replace the United States as the dominant power in the region for the obvious reason that the United States continues to be vastly stronger than Russia. Strength alone is not enough however. If the US leaves security vacuums in the region, like it has in Syria and Iraq, others will be pulled in despite themselves. (Although one can’t help but feel that Putin must relish deploying Russian troops in the region for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.) The extent to which Russia has been pulled in will become clear in the coming months.

Russia is also not about to conquer the Islamic State. Despite all the anti-ISIS rhetoric emanating from Moscow, nothing so far suggests that Russian ground forces will even engage the fighters of the Islamic State. And even if they did, it would require a considerably bigger military deployment than a single army brigade to make an impression on Baghdadi. The existence of the Islamic State is the principal security threat to US protectorates in the region. It cannot be conquered without ground forces; as I predicted and is now amply clear after 4,700 airstrikes with little to show for them. And the Russian troops heading to Syria non-withstanding, no state has taken up the mantle. In particular, President Obama has effectively decided to kick the can down the road to the next administration.

Stephen Walt has proposed that the Islamic State can be contained. I have very serious misgivings about such a course of (in)action. Specifically, the Islamic State poses an existential threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It could potentially overrun the entire Arabian peninsula in short order on the backs of a very sympathetic populace. It may not be in a position to do so now, but it is bound to get stronger as state formation proceeds apace. It would be a grave mistake indeed to tolerate the existence of the Islamic State and run this risk for an extended period. In any case, there is no sign that the US security apparatus would tolerate a Salafist-Jihadist state bang in the heart of the Middle East to survive for long. If not this president then the next one will be going after the Islamic State. 

The big news is not the likely survival of the Assad regime or the Islamic State. Both of these were already baseline scenarios. The big news is the military alliance between Russia and Iran; something that has never obtained previously. The alliance is not a serious threat to the United States for the simple reason that Russia cannot protect Iran against the United States. In the event of a confrontation between the United States and Iran, Russia would be in no position to intervene. And in the worst case scenario, if the Russians did threaten to do so, their fleet could be bottled up in the Black Sea. In any case, the US could easily blockade both nations without incurring significant damage. 

So the military alliance is no game changer for the global balance of power. It does however have significant implications for the balance of power in the Middle East. The biggest losers as a result of these developments are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have expended significant resources to take down the Assad regime. The Islamist rebels on their payroll can no longer hope to topple the government in Damascus. Perhaps it is time to throw them under the bus. 

Advertisements
Standard
World Affairs

Soleimani Confers With Putin

Putin

Welcome to the Kremlin, General!

Soleimani

Thank you for having me, Mr. President!

[Putin and Major General Soleimani shake hands vigorously. They do the traditional shot of chilled frontier vodka before sitting down on red-leather, oligarch sofas.]

Putin

I must say: You have been doing some splendid work over there. Reminds me of the good old days when I was a field officer. 

Soleimani

Sir, you are too kind! My shabby exploits in the greater gulf region are nowhere close to being in the same league as your annexation of Crimea alone!

Putin

We are both equally men of steel, General; both of us, both of us.
Now, let’s get down to business. Give me the latest on the three-front war.

Soleimani

We are more or less holding the line on all three fronts, Sir. We expect Assad to hold his own…

[Putin interrupts Soleimani.]

Putin

I worry about that man.

Soleimani

We think he can hold onto the territory he has now. But if Assad needs reinforcements… Nasrallah [Hezbollah leader] is prepared to send another thousand troops; as am I.

The problem is that Assad is consuming ammunition at a faster rate that we estimated.

Putin

Of course; of course. Six?

Soleimani

Assad is asking for 12 planes’ worth again. I think 6 should be enough for the time being. We’re gonna need some leverage over Assad soon anyway. Things are proceeding quickly with the Americans.

Putin

I thought you won’t fold unless they gave way on Assad.

Soleimani

He is not going anywhere. But we may need him to be accommodative. Yeah, we need him on a short leash.

[Soleimani nods his head gravely.]

Putin

Hmm.

[Putin nods gravely as well; considers congratulating the General on the nuclear deal, but he is not entirely pleased with the turn of events. With $100 billion coming into Iranian coffers soon, he needs to maintain his own leverage against Soulemani. Our man decides to bring the General down a notch.]

I warned you about Salman [Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince].

Soleimani

We didn’t expect that the young prince would dare to place boots on the ground [in Yemen]. Bitch has balls!

Putin

Hahaha. No matter. Can the Houthis hold their own though?

Or they going to run back into the hills with their tails behind their legs?

Soleimani

We haven’t given up on these guys yet. Even if they can’t win, they’ll at least keep the Saudis occupied for a while.

Putin

Yes, yes. They are useful. When I was a teenager, back in the sixties, we went out of our way to defend the nascent Yemeni Republic against the Houthi hordes.

How times have changed!

Soleimani

[There is a diplomatic pause as Soulemani considers a response. He decides to change the subject.]

Speaking of useful. My guys are finding the geo-sat intel very, very useful! They all wanna know when we can go real-time.

[Russia operates thirty intelligence satellites and likely shares intel with Iran.]

Putin

Talk to Bortnikov [Director of the FSB] about that.  What about ISIS?

Soleimani

Both the fronts have stabilized. We don’t expect any major development until the winter. The Turks look like they might get kinetic. After Erdogan is done pummelling the PKK, that is. Although we are can’t be very confident. They are new to the game.

Of course, we still don’t know when the US is going to go after ISIS in earnest. We can do no more than hold the line until the US cleans up its own mess.

Putin

Agreed. Leave ISIS to the Americans; your new superpower ally!

Soleimani

We both know Americans can’t be trusted. Russia is our true friend.

Putin

Perhaps you should have told your true friend that you were talking to the enemy on Qaboos’ turf.

[Secret negotiations between Iran and the US on a nuclear deal began in Oman.]

Soleimani

We should have; we should have. Russia has been there for us in our hour of need.

Putin

Don’t forget that.

[Putin suddenly decides this is the perfect note to end the conversation; lest Soleimani forget his place in the scheme of things. Putin rises up and offers his hand.]

Very well, General. Keep up the good work!

Soleimani

Mr. President.

Standard
World Affairs

A Terrible, Very Bad, No Good Idea

The United States is pursuing a strategy in Ukraine that it will come to regret. The White House has leaked a proposal to give precise, real-time locations of surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine to the government in Kiev. Such an information pipeline has an extremely high military value to the government fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east. The rebels’ anti-air capabilities have been critical to holding back the central government’s advance. They have brought down a significant number of Ukrainian warplanes, including at least five in the past 10 days. That the government in Kiev is seeking ways to counter these capabilities is, thus, not surprising. What is surprising is that the United States is considering providing high-value, actionable military intelligence to it. It would constitute a major escalation in the proxy war. It is plain to demonstrate that Moscow would have no choice but to respond by escalating its own support for the rebellion. If push came to shove, Moscow will send in a military force to secure its perimeter. The West has simply no way to counter that. A more counter-productive policy is hard to imagine.

The Ukrainian government’s counter-offensive has achieved a moderate degree of success over the past few weeks. Government forces have recaptured a number of towns in recent fighting, including the city of Lysychansk. These developments prompted Russia to escalate the flow of arms to the rebels. Putin is acting out of fear of losing in eastern Ukraine; not out of inborn imperial ambitions, despite claims in a certain well-respected Western newspaper to the contrary. The demonization of Herr Putin in Western media is a bad sign. Not because Putin is a great guy. Whatever his personal qualities, he is simply trying to shore up Russia’s security, just as any responsible Russian leader would. The reason why it is a bad sign is because, while such a moralizing tone may be useful to mobilize Western public opinion, it is inconsistent with a dispassionate evaluation of realities that bear on actual decision-making.

Any serious analysis of the situation has to begin with the observation that Ukraine is squarely in Russia’s backyard. A Western-allied government in Ukraine is inconsistent with Russia’s security interests. The eastward expansion of Nato by the Clinton administration was ill-considered. It did not seem especially stupid in 1991-1998, when Russia was weak and the US could impose its will in Russia’s backyard. But it ought to have been foreseen that Russia would inevitably regain at least some of its former strength. And when that happened, the United States’ marginal interests in the region would undermine the credibility of its extended deterrence.

The US has continued to meddle in Russia’s backyard. This has predictably backfired. The first to crumble was the American penetration of the Caspian Sea region. The realignment of the region’s major polities was effected without violence in the mid-2000s. Russia managed to arm-twist the post-Soviet republics to scuttle plans for a pipeline to the EU that would bypass Russian territory. Georgia wasn’t so lucky. Believing that Washington had its back, the small state foolishly confronted the Kremlin over break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian military intervention in 2008 ensured that the provinces would never return to Georgian control, and reestablished Russia as the regional hegemon in the Caucasus. There wasn’t much Washington could do about it except issue diplomatic protests. Washington’s meddling in the Ukraine eventually convinced a faction of Ukrainian oligarchs that the time was ripe to reorient the country to the west. US diplomats and intelligence services played a key role in destabilizing the Ukrainian polity. Just as in the Caspian Sea region and the Caucasus, Russia responded to the heightened threat aggressively.

A peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crises is impossible without Western recognition of Russia’s security interests. While the United States can support and arm the western oriented central government in Kiev, it does not have sufficient interests at stake to militarily counter a Russian military intervention. The best it can do is create trouble for Russia. For now, Washington seems to have doubled down on its meddling. This is very bad news for the Ukrainian people. It is also a bad strategy for the United States. A much more conflictual relationship with Moscow precludes cooperation in Syria and Iraq, and over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Much more threateningly, it pushes Moscow closer to Beijing. If Russia bandwagons with China—as it will if Washington doesn’t stop meddling in Russia’s backyard—it will make balancing China considerably harder. In that scenario, China will not have to worry about its western perimeter, freeing up power resources to confront US primacy in the maritime zone. China is not the Soviet Union. It has the potential to be stronger than the United States. And the US has never before faced an opponent that was potentially stronger than itself. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be, shall we? Washington can start on a much more prudent policy by scuttling the proposal to supply actionable military intelligence to Russia’s troubled neighbour.

Standard