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

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. 

World Affairs

The Islamic Statelet of Syria and Iraq

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What is unfolding as of writing in Mesopotamia is nothing short of the worst case scenario. The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq—the most odorous of the Islamist militants—has taken over not only large swaths of northern Syria, but also now nearly a third of Iraqi territory. The Sunni-dominated eastern part of Iraq is now essentially under its boot, although there are other armed Islamists in the region. The ISIS is so radical in its aims that even al Qaeda considers it beyond the pale. For the past six months it has gained steady control of Anbar province, including the major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. It was reported yesterday that it has conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. It now controls most of the province of Nineveh, once the heart of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the mightiest empire the world had ever seen before the rise of Rome.1

This situation was not foreseen per se, but the dangers inherent in ceding the Syrian rebellion to Islamist militants were. The policy tensor was far from alone in sounding the alarm. The Obama White House was warned by the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Agency against outsourcing the supply of weapons to the oil monarchies, and letting regional players pour money and weapons into Syria. The baseline scenario (sans a US intervention) laid out by the policy tensor was “the country increasingly becoming a safe haven for a resurgent al Qaeda and a source of regional and global instability.” Unfortunately, what has obtained is considerably worse. What we are witnessing is the establishment of an über-Islamist theocratic terror state without precedent. Even in the Middle Ages no one attempted such lunacy. One very nearly has to go back to ancient empires that practiced human sacrifice to find a precedent. Even the Phoenicians, who slaughtered their young in great numbers at the altar of Moloch (Hercules),  were more civilized.

The nuanced strategy proposed by the policy tensor in September 2013 is no longer viable. The situation calls for a much more radical response. Even at the current juncture, both Baghdad and Damascus are incapable of crushing ISIS. Once ISIS grows much stronger, even other armed groups who are ideologically opposed to it will not be persuaded by weapons and money to take it on. The Obama White House’s foreign policy failures are beginning to bite. The baseline scenario is no longer fighters emanating out from the conflict to thirty countries where they will be chased by drones ten years from now. The baseline scenario now is a vicious caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, that already is, and will become, a much more dangerous staging ground for terror attacks against everyone: what is left of the Iraqi state, the Kurdish Autonomous Region (we should just start calling it Kurdistan), the oil monarchies, Israel, the West, Russia, China, and India; basically everyone who does not submit to the rule of their literal interpretation of the Koran.

What is required by now is a radical overhaul of the White House’s Middle East policy. The White House now needs to back Tehran and Damascus in crushing the radical Islamists. It pains me to say this, but there is no choice left but to support Assad. That this would be the choice that was faced at a later date was clear from the beginning. The only security interest of the United States in the Syrian conflict was to prevent the resurgence of al Qaeda. As I said before, if you are not going to do the job yourself, Assad is the best man for the job. By inadvisedly staying out of the conflict, the Obama administration has cornered itself into a situation where now it has no choice but to support Assad. A thaw with Iran—and the attendant realignment in the Persian Gulf—wouldn’t exactly be the worst thing from a strategic perspective. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the Persian Gulf. The only way the United States can put Gulf affairs on auto-pilot and ‘pivot to Asia’ is by breaking bread with Iran.

The security situation in northern Iraq has brought up another, long-ignored, opportunity. The Kurds, who has been running their own region for decades now, have no choice but to fend off the ISIS. The United States should finally lift its veto against Kurdish independence, and sign up the Kurds for the fight ahead against ISIS. It’s going to be nastly and long. If you can’t afford to put boots on the ground, you need to bankroll some very competent people who will fight for you. The drones just aren’t gonna cut it. With the carrot of US support for independence, the Kurds can be persuaded to spearhead the fight; and fight competently they will. It’s all hands on deck now.


1 Assyria was the only great power to survive the spectacular collapse of the Bronze Age in 1194 BCE. All the other great powers of the Late Bronze Age—Egypt, the Hittites, and Mitanni—succumbed under the onslaught of the Peoples of the Sea; Assyria survived nearly unscathed only because its center of power lay far inland, protected from the invading hordes.