Streetwise Professor

September 30, 2015

Let Putin Find Out the Hard Way

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:13 pm

I have no need to demonstrate my anti-Putin bona fides, but I just roll my eyes at the hysterical response to his intervention in Syria, and today’s launch of Russian bombing operations.  There is much shrieking about the fact that the Russians say they are bombing Isis, but in fact launched a raid on Homs where Isis was not present.

The Russian response is, basically: “Hey, they all look alike to us.” There is much truth to that.

This is not that complicated:

  1. Russia is intervening to save Assad from imminent defeat, and to protect its ports in Syria.
  2. Isis is not the most immediate threat to either Assad or the Russian facilities.
  3. Therefore, Russia will focus on non-Isis targets, while claiming to be fighting Isis.

This is really not that much different than the Turks using Isis as a pretext to attack their real enemy, the PKK.

Yes, this campaign will help Assad, and Assad is an evil bastard. But the Islamists that are dominating the anti-Assad forces are evil bastards too. Many are Al Qaeda offshoots, and others are indistinguishable from Al Qaeda in their ideology and agenda. Or from Isis, for that matter. They are Sunni supremacist Islamists. And wouldn’t you know, we are fighting Sunni supremacist Islamists around the world, and have been for going on 15 years.

There are no good guys in Syria. Stop pretending there are: there is considerable reason to doubt there ever were. And any differences between Isis and the non-Isis Islamists the Russians are bombing are trivial. They do all pretty much look (and act) alike. And what’s more, pretty much everyone in the West looks the same to them: they all think your head would look just splendid mounted on a spike in the front yard.

And yes, Assad’s forces will slaughter his foes if they win. But Assad’s foes will slaughter Assad’s supporters if they win. Syria is a charnel house being fought over by demons.  There is a symmetry of evil.

It is particularly rich that those who are shrieking about Russian involvement say that it will radicalize Sunnis.

Um, where are these people been? Since like 700AD, let alone since 2001 or 2011? Radicalization is a done deal, and the most that the Russians can do is gild that lily.

Moreover, I actually find myself agreeing with some in the administration here. If you truly believe that Syria is a pointless slaughter that we should avoid at all costs (and I believe that is the case today), why would you oppose Putin jumping in? The administration believes (rightly) that we have no current military options that would generate results that even remotely justify the costs: the military realities are exactly the same for Putin. Yes, he will likely secure a rump Syria with its shambolic Russian port facilities (which is more than we could gain). But his airpower is going to be no more decisive than ours, and he is putting himself at risk of getting sucked in more deeply in ways that will cost him blood and treasure that he can’t afford.

As I said before: don’t interrupt an enemy while he is making a mistake.

As for the US, Russian involvement is leading some to advocate getting more heavily involved ourselves. Another military adage is: don’t reinforce failure. Failure is the charitable way of describing US policy in Syria. Don’t reinforce it. Let it go. It’s past our ability to save, or even palliate. It’s done. Both sides.

Let Putin find out the hard way.

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  1. I agree. Any chance of a moderate opposition taking over Syria and being an improvement over Assad evaporated years ago while Obama dithered and hoped someone else would take over while still letting him take the credit while doing nothing. I think there was an opportunity for the first few years, but it’s been gone and it isn’t coming back.

    At this point, the only US interests would be to support the Kurds (the only other people in the Middle East besides the Israelis who won’t try to kill us), and make sure there is no terrorist state (ISIS) permanently occupying a major chunk of the Middle East.

    The only thing the Russian intervention is expose the gigantic decline in American prestige and influence in the Middle East, and that Obama is constantly outfoxed. It is harder and harder for Obama’s defenders to ignore the obvious. More people are willing to speak out against him. Unfortunately, it won’t do us any good as Obama is intent on running the Titanic into the iceberg for the next year and a half.

    The next President is going to have an immense challenge in re-establishing US foreign policy objectives and restoring American credibility (prestige won’t come until years after credibility is created).

    Comment by Chris — September 30, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

  2. US policy in Syria? Easy, to overthrow Assad by arming mercenaries like they have done in the past in many other countries like they have done plenty of times.

    Comment by John — September 30, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

  3. “There are no good guys in Syria.”

    Not a single decent person among the nation of millions? Why then I have met many?

    Comment by Dixi — September 30, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

  4. @Dixi-Don’t be obtuse and literal. There are no organized forces of good guys with guns. And funny thing we’ve found about this part of the world. Those who act friendly to us today are quite likely to turn on us infidels in the future. This has been understood for a long time.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 30, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

  5. Sunnis have been radicalized since 700 ad? That’s just silly. Sunnis were politically quiescent till the 70’s. It’s the failure of Arab socialism that brought radical islam to the masses.

    They are all the same in Syria? And alwayes have been? No, that’s not how it works. People respond to lack of security by hiding in ethnic or religious identities. Happened in Iraq, happened in Syria.

    Comment by Krzys — September 30, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

  6. This is a golden opportunity for the USA and its “allies” in the region. We
    can dump a totally impotent strategy in the area and let two of our enemy factions
    wear each other out.

    Comment by eric — September 30, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

  7. It’s been amusing to watch the Fearless Free Thinkers over at ZeroHedge suddenly become pro-war cheerleaders now Vlad The Greatest Genius Of All Time is the one doing the bombing. Naturally, they are reprinting Kremlin press releases via Russia Today. LOLZ

    Comment by Quint — September 30, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

  8. No, no – the US needs to keep warning Putin about his mistake… That almost guarantees that he will press-on, just out of spite (per usual Russian foreign policy).

    Comment by HibernoFrog — October 1, 2015 @ 1:39 am

  9. @Prof
    As much as I usually appreciate your opinions (the very reason of regularly following this blog!), Prof, I need to disagree now. For sadly, such simplistic phrases as ”no good guys” when a full-blown genocide is going on for the 4th year are, to the letter, exactly the platitudes one can regularly hear from the mouth of any Putin-apologist when referring to the war in Ukraine…
    Yes Syria is a bloody mess. Yes, the opposition is fragmentized. Yes, after four years terror and incomprehensible atrocities against the whole civilian population the country is full of deeply traumatized people eager to grasp at the tiniest straw of hope for survival, be it Allah, an asylum in Europe or, against all odds, overthrowing the tyrant. And the best date for the best option, to arm the opposition, long time gone (thanks to Obama and us, the helplessly indecisive Euros always waiting for the US making the first move).
    But still, to talk of people who for four years ago started a totally peaceful protests against a bloody tyrant and Putin’s bed partner and best brother-in-atrocities, as “our” inevitable enemies is the best way to make sure they, someday, may (will?) be. It is also precisely what Putin and Assad have been striving for from the very start when giving the order to start shooting dead peaceful protesters in cold blood. We both have seen all this before…it is nothing but the Chechnya wars all over again.

    Comment by Dixi — October 1, 2015 @ 2:05 am

  10. @Dixi

    Right on. It’s beyond tragic what happened in Syria. I’m not sure we could’ve really helped, but a decisive action early on could’ve prevented the worst. Looking at Libya, it might be still unstable and violent, but the enormous slaughter of the last 4 years could’ve been avoided.

    Comment by Krzys — October 1, 2015 @ 6:30 am

  11. Dear Prof

    While i pretty much totally agree with you, i disagree in one part. If we had a really smart administration with capable people in the counterinsurgency department, i might want to fool around to try and make life a lot harder (under the radar of course) on the ground and in the air in Syria for Vlad. Somehow, let a few hundred man portable anti aircraft weapons loose into Syria?

    But again, totally agree with you that when your adversary is making mistakes, get out of his way, fast.

    Comment by jeffreyL — October 1, 2015 @ 10:07 am

  12. There is going to acceptance of de facto partition of Syria into three – possibly four – constituent parts, but it will be a while before that turns into a de jure partition recognized by the international community. There will be an Alwaite/Non-Muslim minority state (which also has heavily secularized Sunnis who have benefited from the state) based on Latakia which will also control Damascus. Kurdish Rojava is in the east. Then there will be a Sunni state along the Euphrates and in the middle. The possible fourth state is the Druze Al Jebel which will only happen if the Druze decide to risk a separate state rather than kowtowing to a greater power.

    The only question is who will rule the Sunni state – currently divided between the “Rebels” (mainly Al-Qaeda dominating substantial minority factions like the FSA) and ISIS. Neither Al-Qaeda or ISIS is acceptable to anyone within the region, but no one intends to be the one to destroy them. Russia can’t do it. The Israelis won’t. The US no longer has the appetite to do so, even after Obama leaves no US President will be sending troops there. The Arabs can’t do it. There is no moderate rebel group who could do it – they’ve already been defeated and suborned. The Turks have the ability and the proximity to do it, but unlikely while Erdogan is President.

    This situation cannot last forever, but massive changes need to occur before any end game can be determined. In the meantime, it’ll be stalemate with central Syria turned into a free fire zone.

    Civil wars can last a long time, especially when factions are supported by outsiders. There is likely to be another 5-10 years before complete exhaustion sets in.

    Comment by Chris — October 1, 2015 @ 11:53 am

  13. Continuing on with what jeffreyL said, this could turn into something of an Afghanistan for Russia. Syria’s Arab neighbors can’t stand Assad, and probably can’t stand Russia either after their promotion of Iranian nuclear aims. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the anti-Assad forces end up with some quite sophisticated weaponry coming their way, which will be used against Russians. I find it hard to believe the Russians will come away from there unscathed.

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 1, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

  14. I sympathize with those who balk at generalizations. Yet for 8 years in Iraq we watched as nearly every faction apart from the small secular Iraqi political led by Allawi and, generally, the Kurds take every opportunity to screw over their rivals and the US, to mount rebellions cannibalizing cities, or to join with Al Qaeda in Iraq and its cognates until they were inevitably harassed beyond even their patience by their new masters. We saw a man whose political ascendancy was made possible by our sacrifice turn around and publicly repudiate continued thankless US assistance, providing our anti-war president with the pretext to remove that assistance, leading to present disaster.

    They have All chosen narcissism and disaster and betrayal whenever possible, in detail. What else are we to conclude than that a critical majority of Iraqis, at a minimum, are worthless people undeserving of their own sovereignty, never mind whether they are competent to retain it? By what rule of morality or international relations or strategy is it better to defer to the “surely there are ten good men” sentiment, when it leads repeatedly to disaster and sucks in global powers, than to simply destroy what offends against the international order, such as it is, and reorder the place once and for all, by force, as has been done literally innumerable times in history, and successfully?

    Putin should not be regarded as doing other than setting up a center or power and thereby political gravity I’m the region by which he intends to order things to the Sino-Soviet Bloc’s liking. That is why he should be opposed, just as he everywhere opposes us. It is moreover an open question whether Russian guidance not only directed the insurgency against the US from its proxy Syria during Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s also possible Russia helped create IS: Iraq was its closest partner in the region, it’s intelligence services were dominated by the KGB as much as the Cubans’ has been, it is that intelligence service that supposedly heads IS now, and it did not become IS until the Chechens came to be co-leaders of the ruling group.

    It would be a supreme tragedy if all that we’ve gone through results in the same Soviet-dominated tools of international mischief as obtained in the same countries during the Cold War, yet this time re-invigorated and with the momentum to seriously threaten the Israelis and the House of Saud, however horrendous the latter may be.

    Comment by Kilthru — October 1, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

  15. @jeffreyL-The problem is there is no guarantee that the missiles would be aimed at Russians only. Given the fact that on multiple occasions weapons we have supplied to those we have allegedly trained have ended up in Al Qaeda-related groups’ hands, it is very likely that any MANPADS we supply would be aimed at us, and by that I mean not just military aircraft but civilian aircraft as well. These weapons are at the top of AQ’s shopping list, and no doubt Isis’s too.

    We might have had the opportunity to create a credible opposition force in 2011 or 2012 (at the latest), but now the anti-Assad forces are so completely Islamized that this strategy is impractical now.

    Further, apropos your “if we had a really smart administration.” We have the exact opposite, and one which (unlike say Reagan’s) is not committed in the least. Obama’s involvement is limited to the minimum amount necessary to get the political heat off his back. It is more than plausible-likely actually-that Obama wanted the effort to train opposition forces to fail, and put so many constraints in the way that he achieved that result. The administration’s “we didn’t want to do this, and now you see why” response makes it pretty plain that was Obama’s MO all along.

    This country cannot afford to go to war under his “leadership.” We have already seen too often the consequences of his passive-aggressive approach to fighting battles he believes he has been dragged into.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 1, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

  16. @Dixi-I am glad you appreciate my opinions, and don’t mind disagreement. I’m Streetwise, not Streetomniscient 😉

    Yes, there are atrocities beyond measure in Syria. Yes, there were grounds for optimism in 2011. But as you note, the arming the opposition option has come and gone. The opposition is now thoroughly radicalized and Islamized.

    My remarks are limited to the people with guns, and who are likely to obtain guns in sufficient numbers to make a difference. From a military perspective (and that’s what I was analyzing) that’s who matters. I do not say that everyone in Syria is an inevitable enemy. Most aren’t, but most don’t matter when it comes to the current war. You can’t gainsay the truth that the choice of combatants is (a) Assad/Putin, or (b) a kaleidoscopic horror show of Islamist groups who if they won would oppress those for whom you sympathize, and who would be inveterate enemies of the US and the West.

    Like Kissinger said about the Iran-Iraq War: It’s a pity they both can’t lose. It is a choice between demons, and yes, the Syrian people e are the biggest losers in this.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 1, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

  17. If we concede that there is no realistic strategy, American or otherwise, that will prevent the solidification of an ISIS state, then the consequences will be nuclear warfare.

    Any strike by Iran or ISIS or whomever against a nuclear weapons state (US, Russia, Israel, France, India, etc) will see massive retaliation and many, many dying in this region, innocent and guilty alike.

    But both ISIS and Iran are VERY vocal about their plans to use nuclear weapons against the West.

    At some point, preemptive action will be considered. The American best hope might be for Russia to so piss off ISIS that the threats against Russia drive Putin to clean them out. Of course, other Muslim countries might get into the game too, much like in Yemen. Given their poor military performance so far, jumping into nukes will be tempting.

    I doubt the West will take any action – Obama has shown us where that leads.

    Looks like Richard Fernandez’ “Three Conjectures” continues to play out.

    Comment by Whitehall — October 1, 2015 @ 8:40 pm

  18. Right, give nuclear war a chance

    Comment by The Pilot — October 1, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

  19. @Kilthru

    “I sympathize with those who balk at generalizations. – See more at:

    After phrases like this one can always trust on more generalisations…And we did not need to disappoint at this time either.

    “Yes, there were grounds for optimism in 2011. But as you note, the arming the opposition option has come and gone. The opposition is now thoroughly radicalized and Islamized.”

    I largely agree. Even though the notion about the only opposition left being throughly islamized and the moderate opposition being totally disappeared as a credible threat for Assad is not that simple to combine with the very fact that the Russian airstrikes so far has been targeted at the bases held by more moderate rebel factions (the ones having even received covert arms support from the intelligence services of the United States and its allies) not the Islamic state… But, anyway, Putin et co has followed the old KGB-line: combine – from the very start – any military operation with a full-scale propaganda campaign libelling the opponent as terrorists (if their Muslims as in Chechnya) or as fascists (if non-muslims). Then even if the propaganda is bound to be all but convincing at first, make sure that, in the end, it will be. And that, my friend, will be achieved with time and terror…

    Comment by Dixi — October 2, 2015 @ 1:32 am

  20. So. What are the chances of having the Marines setting up the camp somwhere in the eastern Ukraine – based on the official request of the Ukrainian government of course and with a polite warning to the Russians one hour before? Delivered to the nearest embassy by a messenger boy?

    Nah. Just kidding.

    Comment by LL — October 2, 2015 @ 6:01 am

  21. It’s been Assad’s and Russia’s strategy to always target the most politically palatable opposition forces first and leave the outside world with no choice but the Islamic supremacists as a proxy. Unfortunately for them, the Saudis have no compunctions in this regard.

    The risk that SWP ignores is the potential contagion of Russian/Iranian control over Iraq as the U.S. withdraws and the Russians move in. One objective of both actors is high oil prices, something they can accomplish by a variety of means not requiring huge logistical support.

    Comment by srp — October 3, 2015 @ 1:09 am

  22. […] mostly agree with what Streetwise Professor has to say about the Syrian situation but I propose a conspiracy-theoretical […]

    Pingback by What outcome would be perfect for Moscow? | The Dilettante's Winterings What outcome would be perfect for Moscow? | On summer time — October 5, 2015 @ 12:32 am

  23. Apropos “if we had a really smart administration”, presumably such as Reagan’s, we would be training Osama bin Laden only for it to come back and bite us. Apparently, we don’t know our enemies.

    Comment by srini — October 5, 2015 @ 10:57 am

  24. @srini

    If and if. Let’s continue with more ifs and buts…if no Reagan, then no Red army collapse in Afghanistan and…it would still by the Elbe River…or even further to the West?

    Comment by Dixi — October 6, 2015 @ 1:00 am

  25. Dixi,

    Red army would have collapsed without Reagan. They were already teetering and drop in oil and gold prices would have made it very difficult for them to carry on. You need to get out of reading Reagan mythology.

    Comment by srini — October 6, 2015 @ 8:04 am

  26. Except that Reagan administration, whether because of its smartness or just by accident, has never trained or supplied Osama bin Laden, so the whole point is, well, pointless.

    Comment by LL — October 6, 2015 @ 11:20 am

  27. @srini

    Forecasting is pretty difficult. Especially, when it comes to forecasting the future. Afterwards, all is clear. Especially, all those alternative scenarios of future developments never having materialized…

    Comment by Dixi — October 6, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

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