World Affairs

Putin Armtwists Assad


Putin’s penchant for surprises is fast becoming legendary. Six months ago Russia unexpectedly intervened to save Assad’s skin. Now it says, again out of the blue, that it’s leaving. Declaring the mission largely accomplished, Putin said he has “ordered that from tomorrow the main part of our military groups will begin their withdrawal from the Syrian Arab Republic.” What now?

Observers caught unawares have an unfortunate tendency to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Recall how after the Michigan upset, FiveThirtyEight came up with eight different theories of how they got it so wrong. Many have engaged in similar kitchen-sink theorizing about the Russian intervention. The most common knee-jerk reaction is to resuscitate Cold War tropes. Apparently, Putin’s main goal in life is to impress Western audiences. According to the Economist,

Even keeping Mr Assad in his palace was a secondary consideration. Rather, his first and overriding objective was to reclaim Russia’s lost status as a superpower. He wanted Russia to be seen as America’s peer, and used Syria’s war as a means to that end.  

Putin’s assertion that Russia has largely achieved its objectives is revealing. Ostensibly, the main goal of the invention was to fight ISIS. Whatever happened to that? Just like the decision to intervene had almost nothing to do with ISIS, the decision to withdraw has little to do with the achievement of Russian objectives. Instead, the real goal of the Russian withdrawal is to put pressure on Assad.

It seems that Assad got emboldened by recent victories and started back-peddling on promises to accommodate the legitimate opposition. Perhaps he reckoned that with the backing of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and the tacit support of the Kurds and the United States, he could reestablish government control of the rest of the country. That would’ve been a recipe for a quagmire for Russia. Moreover, that would require that Russia backtrack from its understanding with the United States.

Contrary to the Neo Cold Warriors, the Russian withdrawal is not a PR stunt. Putin is arm-twisting Assad back to the table; doubtless with US encouragement. We don’t know if principals in the Obama administration were really unaware of the decision. Indeed, it might well have been their suggestion!

Then there are those suggesting that Russia’s limited operation exposed a fallacy in the president’s argument: That any military involvement in Syria would inevitably lead to deeper engagement. A moment’s examination reveals that that is utter nonsense. It is meaningless to compare an intervention in support of the state with one meant to topple it.

When a great power intervenes militarily in a weaker state, it can obviously expect to prevail on the field. When it does so in support of the regime, it is the regime that automatically takes charge afterwards. Whereas if it intervenes in favor of the rebellion, there is usually no one credible to take control of country: You break it, you own it.

Allow yourself to be cautiously optimistic. The surprising success of the ceasefire shows that there is considerably appetite for a truce on the ground. With Russia doing its bit to bring Assad around and the Americans showing flexibility on the expiry date on his head, we are getting close to a great power settlement in Syria.

Only those with their visions distorted by dated Cold War frames of reference can miss the emerging congruence of interests and the attendant cooperation evident at the top table.

World Affairs

A Dangerous Inflection Point in the Syrian War

Tensions between Russia and Turkey have escalated dramatically in the past few weeks, so much so that direct military confrontation cannot be ruled out.

Under the cover of Russian air power, Assad’s forces have almost completely encircled Aleppo. Assad plans to repeat the siege-and-starve tactic he followed to regain control of Homs City is May, 2014. The coming siege has prompted some 150,000 residents to flee towards Turkey, which has closed its border to the refugees.

US-backed Syrian Kurds are hoping replicate the achievement of the Iraqi Kurds and forge a statelet along the Syro-Turkish border. YPG forces exploited the opportunity opened up by regime gains north of the city to seize territory held by Turkish-backed rebels near the border, including the Menagh Airbase. Ankara responded by shelling their positions; ignoring US calls for restraint. Moscow has been effectively supporting the YPG by conducting airstrikes on non-Kurdish rebels in the region.

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Aleppo City is held by a motley collection of some fifty odd Turkish, Saudi and Qatari-backed rebel groups. Most of these groups are no more than neighborhood militias with dozens or hundreds of fighters. The biggest is Turkish-backed salafist outfit Ahrar al-Sham, which has tens of thousands of fighters and controls the strategically important Bab al-Hawa crossing, the only remaining line of communication into Aleppo.

Ahrar competes with Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) for leadership of the Aleppo rebels. JN controls the main water and power plant in the city and enjoys a degree of leverage over other groups.  It has disarmed and absorbed at least three US-backed groups in the past year.

Both JN and Ahrar have a significant presence outside the city and are likely to survive and perhaps even make strategic gains as a result of the siege. Other US and Turkish-backed groups are at risk of annihilation and absorption by the big two. The same goes for the Saudi-backed Jabhat al-Shamiya and Jaysh al-Mujahideen.

That the loss of Aleppo would be a turning point in the proxy war is not lost on the Saudis. Mohammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, is “willing to take military, financial and political risks in order not to fall behind in regional politics,” according to German intelligence.

The Kingdom’s aggressive new foreign policy was on display in Yemen, where the Saudis rashly intervened to push the Houthis back to the hills and restore their man to the helm. It is on display again in Syria: Riyadh is deploying fighter jets to the southern Turkish airbase of Incirlik.

Turkey is considering a military intervention in northern Syria. This is not because Ankara has any illusions that it can put up a fight with Russia, with or without Saudi help. Turkey is counting on Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty which states that “an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies.” In other words, Turkey may be betting that the United States will deter Russia from directly attacking its Nato ally.

The situation is starkly similar to the July Crisis. Back then, German guarantees prompted Austria to attack Serbia, a Russian protectorate. Today, US guarantees may prompt Turkey to attack Syria, a Russian ally.

It is time to diffuse this dangerous confrontation. It would be extremely damaging to US credibility to back-off after the event. On the other hand, unlimited guarantees to Turkey could embroil the United States in a major military confrontation with Russia that would serve no conceivable US interest. The US needs to inform Turkey post-haste that the United States is not going to war to protect Turkish interests in Syria.


World Affairs

Strategic Realignment in Asia

It took merely the threat of ineffective sanctions from the West to prompt Herr Putin to deepen strategic ties with China. Under a $400 billion gas supply deal between the two great powers, Russia will supply the emerging giant with a trillion cubic metres of gas over thirty years. This marks a strategic realignment in Asia, and will make Washington’s task of containing China considerably more difficult in the decades ahead.

Of the three great powers in China’s strategic neighbourhood, Russia is the only one significantly exposed to Chinese land power. Japan is located off shore and protected by American naval might and nuclear weapons. India stands to lose only its northeastern periphery in the face of Chinese land power—a strategic penetration of India’s heartland again being ruled out by mutual deterrence. By contrast, three-quarters of Russian territory and a third of its population are located west of the Urals—Russia’s Asiatic periphery—and totally exposed to Chinese land power. When China becomes as strong as the United States, even an alliance with all the other great powers would not be able to protect Russian interests in Central Asia, Mongolia, and Siberia.

India China Russia

To put it bluntly, bandwagoning with China is Russia’s only viable option. This was probably going to happen sooner or later. The fact that it is happening now is the result of the Washington’s ham-handed response to the Ukrainian crisis. Imagine Washington’s response to Mexico becoming China’s junior geopolitical ally. And unlike the non-existent threat to the United States from the south, Russia has been repeatedly invaded from the west. Extending Nato all the way to the Russian border may have seemed like a good idea to proponents of American primacy when Russian power hit its nadir in the 1990s. With the Putin restoration, Russia has resumed its role as the dominant land power in Eurasia. Now, it only serves to sour Western relations with Russia, thereby pushing Russia prematurely into Chinese arms.

Alongside Russia, the Obama White House risks losing India as well. As the invitation extended to the leaders of India’s neighbours to attend his swearing in ceremony demonstrates, Mr. Modi has sound strategic instincts. He intends to preside over a decade of rapid modernization. Modi’s dream is for India’s great power status to be unambiguous: India ought to become powerful enough to deal with other great powers as equals. This is a tall order. But any significant increase in the war-making capabilities of the Indian state will open up hitherto unavailable strategic possibilities. Sensing Mr. Modi’s disconnect with Washington—which denied him a visa for a decade because he presided over a pogrom—the Chinese are hopeful for a strategic opening. Is a Sino-Indian alliance a real possibility? And even if the Chinese are open to it, does it make sense for India?

India’s geostrategic location is very favourable. It dominates the Indian Ocean and is protected in the north and the east by the Himalayas. If India were to become a naval power of the first rank, it would be in a position to impose naval supremacy on the entire Indian Ocean. It would then control all the sea-lanes between Suez, Singapore, and the Cape of Good Hope; which together account for half the world’s sea-borne commerce and energy. It cannot achieve this without a surrender of US’ global naval primacy. On the other hand, India’s only great power neighbour is China which is considerably stronger than India, and therefore, India’s biggest security concern. Geopolitical realism suggests an alliance with the United States against China. However, bandwagoning with its more powerful neighbour could also be a very attractive option, especially if it expects China to prevail against the United States. If India were to become a revisionist power—a real possibility after Mr. Modi’s election—it could conceivably fight on the Chinese side, with the understanding that once the Americans are kicked out, India and China would divvy up Asia into separate spheres of influence: China preponderant in the Western Pacific and India preponderant west of Singapore.

Such strategic possibilities will only open up if Mr. Modi is successful in catapulting India into great power status. India will not be a polar power—strong enough to decide the outcome of a war between the two most powerful states—so it would be well advised to either sit it out or join the winning coalition. Even so, it would be strong enough to affect the relative probabilities, thereby making it an attractive partner. This means that Mr. Modi has significant leverage against the Chinese and the Americans; leverage he ought to, and will, milk to secure advantageous trade agreements, technology transfers, diplomatic support, and arms deals. As India’s growth rates start climbing, Mr. Modi’s leverage will only increase.

The world is starting to look more and more like the late nineteenth century. That’s great. The policy tensor is bored of unipolarity.