Streetwise Professor

September 19, 2015

Putin Has Made His Sandbox. Let Him Play In It.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:04 pm

In my humble opinion, too many people are way overthinking what Putin is doing in Syria. It seems pretty straightforward. A long-time Soviet and Russian client was on the verge of collapse: the loss of Idlib earlier this month, after a long battle which ground inexorably against Assad, represented a major blow. Syria is Russia’s only outpost in the Middle East, and is also important to Iran, with which Russia cooperates because they share a common enemy: the US. Absent Russian intervention, Assad’s destruction appeared imminent.

Meaning that this is more of a rearguard action, defending the rump of the Syrian state, than an offensive thrust. And it is a reaction to events, not a part of some grand geopolitical strategy.

Some get this.

Donbas is a precedent. Direct Russian military intervention only occurred last August when it seemed that the Ukrainian army was on the verge of crushing the rebels. Once the situation stabilized, Putin seemed-and still seems-to be willing to accept a stalemate.

As for the military effect, the major resources committed appear to be aircraft, and ground units to protect them and their bases. The US campaign against ISIS shows that air power alone is unlikely to be decisive. The Russians have Assad’s army to work with, but it is battered and demoralized after four years of war, and even with air support is unlikely to be capable of sustained offensive action. It is probably on a par with the Iraqi army in terms of combat effectiveness (and may be worse), and past months have shown that even with US (and some Iraqi) air support, the Iraqi army can’t wage offensive warfare. I seriously doubt the Syrian army can either, even with additional Russian air support. Thus, the most likely outcome of the Russian intervention is to stave off Assad’s defeat and perpetuate the stalemate.

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in Washington and Europe, but since they haven’t done anything in the past four years and had no plans of doing anything serious going forward, this reaction is decidedly overwrought.

The administration persists in its pathetic insistence that Assad must go. Today Kerry repeated this demand, but said Assad’s departure doesn’t have to happen on day one or month one. What about century one? That seems feasible.

The US wants to negotiate Assad’s departure, and somehow thinks it can enlist Russia in this effort. That is utterly delusional, especially now that Russia has upped its commitment to Assad. It is also delusional because by making it clear that the US will not do anything serious to combat Assad (especially since that would anger its new BFF, Iran). Our negotiation leverage is therefore bupkis. Therefore, it is better for Kerry and Obama to keep quiet, and let the world think that they are neutered losers, rather than speak up and remove all doubt.

The biggest loser in this is Israel. Iran cares about Syria primarily because it is its bridge to Hezbollah. Israel has periodically launched air attacks in Syria to prevent the movement of advanced weapons (especially anti-aircraft missiles) to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Russian presence complicates Israel’s problem greatly. But of course, this is probably a feature not a bug from Obama’s perspective.

The puzzle is Turkey. Turkey wants to see Assad’s destruction, and is perfectly fine with replacing him with Islamist radicals. Russian intervention reduces the odds of Assad’s defeat, and this is a defeat for Turkey. I have no idea how someone as erratic  as Erdogan will respond. One response will likely be greater covert support for the jihadists fighting Assad.

In sum, Putin’s actions in Syria will perpetuate a grim status quo, rather than cause a dramatic change in the strategic situation in the Middle East.  What happens going forward depends in large part on developments on the ground. If the current level of intervention is insufficient to slow the crumbling of the Assad regime, how much further will Putin be willing to go? His resources are constrained. As I wrote earlier, he faces daunting logistic difficulties in mounting a bigger intervention.

Regardless, we (in the US) are cast in the role of spectators: as Anthony Cordesman notes (perhaps stating the obvious), at present the US has no realistic military options in Syria. Obama made that choice four years ago, and reiterated his choice in 2013. Putin is now making his choice, and will have to live with the consequences: his options are no more palatable that the US’s (though he does have a coherent objective, which the US does not have and never had). We should leave him to it.

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3 Comments »

  1. This is priceless – IS must have gotten its propaganda pointers from Putler Khuylo:

    http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/605911/Islamic-State-ISIS-video-Syrian-refugees-Europe-caliphate

    ISIS baffled why refugees are fleeing Middle East and BEGS them to return

    In four seperate propaganda videos Islamic State fighters show heavily-edited shots of peaceful cornfields and bustling markets packed with fruit and vegetables which they say represent life inside the Caliphate.

    They juxtapose those with images of refugees abandoning a sinking dinghy and lying on train tracks in Greece, claiming that Europe is “humiliating” migrants.

    Amongst the images used to dissuade people from making the journey to Europe is the heartbreaking picture of toddler Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach. The three-year-old’s family were fleeing the death and destruction ISIS has wrought in their home city of Kobane.

    The terror group has even put up billboards in Syria showing a picture of a life-jacket next to one of a bomb vest, accompanied by the question: “What would you rather wear on judgement day?”

    In the film an unidentified ISIS militant warns that the lure of a better life in Europe is a “crusader deception”, adding: “In the refugee camps they are stealing your money and exploiting you.”

    The videos warn Syrians against fleeing “territories of Islam” for “territories of the infidels,” and says that those who do will be punished by the Prophet Muhammad.

    One jihadist tweeted: “The land of the caliphate should be more important for you than the crusaders #where_are_you_heading_refugees?”

    Comment by elmer — September 20, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  2. I was wondering:

    Why is it that Russia has no right to support an anti-government rebellion/civil war in Ukraine, while the USA has not only a right, but an obligation to support to support an anti-government rebellion/civil war in Syria and the efforts of Al Qaeda, ISIS, El Nusra to depose the President of Syria and to exterminate Kurds, Christi/ans and Shiites?

    Comment by Vladik — September 28, 2015 @ 2:55 am

  3. Let me correct my post:

    I was wondering:

    Why is it that Russia has no right to support an anti-government rebellion/civil war in Ukraine, while the USA has not only a right, but an obligation to support the bloody anti-government rebellion/civil war in Syria and the efforts of Al Qaeda, ISIS, El Nusra et al to depose the President of Syria and to exterminate Kurds, Christians and Shiites?

    Comment by Vladik — September 28, 2015 @ 3:03 am

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