Streetwise Professor

July 23, 2017

Ending CIA Arming of the Syrian Rebels Sparks More Zero Sum Thinking on Russia

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:14 pm

The latest establishment freakout is over the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the CIA’s program to arm anti-Assad rebels. This episode displays prominently all of the establishment’s mental defects and psychological obsessions.

The first question relevant in appraising the wisdom of the CIA program is whether it is in America’s interest. The objective of the program was to assist in the overthrow of the Assad regime. Which benefits the US how, exactly?

Overthrowing is merely the first–and in some respects, the easiest–step. What comes next? Who/what replaces the existing regime? We’ve seen this movie in the Middle East, and it has never ended well. The aftermath of Khaddafy’s fall is probably the most illuminating example, and anyone who contemplates it for a moment should be very dubious about what wold happen in Syria post-Assad. After all, many of those the CIA was arming in Syria were either jihadists or inferior in combat power and will to jihadists: a post-Assad Syria would likely either be a jihadist state, or a collection of warring statelets, many (if not most) of which would be dominated by Salafists and provide operational bases for anti-western terrorism.

How is that in American interests? We are approaching our 17th year in Afghanistan, the objective of which was originally, and largely remains, to deny Islamic terrorists a base: so why would we want to pursue a policy that would likely give them one that is much more proximate to vital US interests?

The second question is: even overlooking whether the mission objective is wise, has the operation been successful? Here the answer is a resounding “no!” The anti-Assad forces have been losing ground steadily on the battlefield, and have no prospect of winning going forward. Why reinforce an obvious failure? Especially when many of the weapons supplied could well be turned against the US?

AHA! The establishment responds: the opposition lost because the Russians intervened! We are therefore advancing Russian interests by terminating the program!

This is indeed the focus of most of the establishment criticism: yet more evidence of Trump’s pro-Russian stance!

This argument epitomizes zero sum thinking: something that makes Russia better off makes the US worse off, and vice versa. Therefore, we should do something that (a) is unlikely to “succeed”, and (b) even if it “succeeded” would likely be adverse to US interests, because stopping it pleases Putin.

This is exactly what I mean by “mental defect” and “psychological obsession.” This is not strategic thinking: it is dangerous foolishness driven by a monomaniacal focus on Russia.

There is a sick irony here because zero sum thinking is one of Putin’s defining characteristics. His obsession with the US leads him to pursue things which either are adverse to Russian interests, or which utilize resources that could be much better deployed elsewhere, because he believes inflicting pain on the US somehow helps Russia. Thus, those who criticize the end of the CIA program because it will help Putin are mirroring the object of their hatred.

Bizarre.

And so what can Putin “win”? He maintains influence over a country that was a dung heap and economic basket case even before it was all but destroyed by six years of civil war. Check out how much the USSR threw down the Syrian rathole–fat lot of good that it did them. Putin has basically added another wrecked country that will be a dependent on Russia for economic support for decades to his collection of stellar allies. (Note too Putin’s efforts to make deals with Venezuela, which is hurtling into chaos and destruction.)  It is an ulcer.

If that’s what he wants to do–why get in his way? This seems to e a classic case of “never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake.” Oh! He will be able to retain an expand a naval base! Which, (a) he could never support in the event of a shooting war involving the US, and (b) could be obliterated in  a trice. It makes him feel important, but has zero strategic value.

Further, insofar as proving he’s a playa in the Middle East is concerned, this has also come at a cost which hardly seems worth it. He has alienated the Saudis and other Sunni states, and has enmeshed himself with the ally from hell–Iran. Good luck with that, Vlad.

And indeed, Iran seems to be the main beneficiary of Assad’s survival. For this reason, if the debate over supporting the anti-Assad forces takes into consideration his survival’s effect on the balance of power, the focus should be Iran, not Russia. In particular, Assad’s Syria is the vital link between Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s fortunes would take a serious blow if an anti-Iran regime rules Syria. Which explains why Hezbollah has spent much blood, and Iran has spent much treasure and blood, in fighting for Assad.

Well, truth be told, Hezbollah is not primarily an American concern. Yes, we have unfinished business with them (e.g., the Marine barracks bombing, among other things) but it is not high on the list of threats to the US. Hezbollah is first and foremost an Israeli problem, and arguably is an existential threat or at least a potential one, to Israel.

But if you’ll notice, Israel has pretty much stayed out of the Syrian war. It certainly has not publicly called for his ouster, nor is there evidence that they have worked to support the opposition or to undermine him. Indeed, Israel’s behavior suggests that they think he is the devil they know, and better than the alternative.

Israeli involvement in Syria has been primarily focused on striking direct support for Hezbollah, such as missile shipments from Iran destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Israel has attacked these directly, rather than indirectly by going after Assad.

Note too that the Israelis have not been exercised with Russian intervention in Syria. In fact, Putin and Netanyahu have engaged in several businesslike meetings, and the two countries seem to have an understanding about Syria.

The US should take a clue from the Israelis. If they can live with Assad, the US can too. Yes, Assad is a butcher, and a man who has shown he will commit pretty much any crime to survive. But given that Jeffersonian democracy is not on offer as a successor, and indeed, any successor is likely to be virulently anti-American, a source of terrorism, and as big (or bigger) butcher than Assad, why continue an intervention that has proved a failure on its own terms? And no, “because continuing to arm the rebels angers Putin” is not the answer to that question. At least, it’s not for anyone in possession of his/her faculties, and not gripped zero sum thinking and an unhealthy obsession with Putin. Conditions which, alas, do not characterize the American political class at the moment.

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5 Comments »

  1. “Oh! He will be able to retain an expand a naval base! Which, (a) he could never support in the event of a shooting war involving the US, and (b) could be obliterated in a trice,”

    Add in (c) he needs a navy that can actually operate without being followed by tugboats to rescue the,.

    Comment by The Pilot — July 23, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

  2. Thank you for your insightful views and commonsense logic. You help me understand many the problems the world is facing.

    Comment by Peter — July 24, 2017 @ 1:25 am

  3. “Jeffersonian democracy is not on offer”: nobody has ever accused Assad of owning slaves.

    Comment by dearieme — July 24, 2017 @ 4:23 am

  4. The whole Russian expedition in Syria was just meant to be a huge distraction from its endeavor in Ukraine and as a distraction, it worked. We should be concentrating on eliciting Russia’s compliance in Ukraine (and Eastern Europe in general). If that takes abandoning Syria, so be it.

    Comment by LL — July 24, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

  5. “It certainly has not publicly called for his ouster, nor is there evidence that they have worked to support the opposition or to undermine him.”
    Actually, there is. Israel opposed the Southwest Syria ceasefire and is well known for its support for the rebels at the Syrian-Israeli border.

    Comment by E. Harding — July 25, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

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