Streetwise Professor

September 12, 2015

Let Vlad Have His Victory, and Hope He Pays Dearly For It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:07 pm

The last few days have seen a frenzy of outrage at Russia’s reinforcement of Assad in Syria, including the deployment of naval infantry at some bases in the country. As someone with a solid nine years of writing to establish my anti-Putin cred, I can still say that I don’t see what the fuss is about.

Russia has long propped up Assad. This latest activity is a continuation of that policy, and is driven by Assad’s deteriorating position. Since Assad is going down, Putin feels compelled to step up.

The intervention is limited. The very fact that naval infantry is involved indicates its limited nature. Dismissing Michael Weiss’s hyperventilating about these being Putin’s “Dirty War Forces”, and focusing on military realities, Russian naval infantry has little combat power, and very little offensive capability. It can seize and defend ports and airfields, and carry out some commando-type direct action operations. And that’s about it. A low-endurance, low-firepower, light force not suited for grinding ground combat in a large theater like Syria. It is there to defend ports and airfields that will be used for resupply and perhaps to intensify the air campaign against the anti-Assad forces.

The targets will in the main not be Isis. Other jihadi groups pose a more serious threat to Assad, and that is who he (and the Russians) will focus on. Indeed, by complicating air operations, Russian presence will impede the US campaign (such as it is) against Isis.

The main reason for the outrage at the Russian action is that it aids Assad, and Assad is a very bad man.

Yes, he is. And the time to do something about him is long past. Four years past. Three years at the low end. But Obama and the rest of the west harrumphed and said that Assad must go, but did nothing. Red lines were drawn, and trespassed, with no consequence. Since then, the war in Syria has descended into an apocalyptic battle between Assad and a mind-numbing array of psychotic, murderous jihadi groups: Assad’s enemies are very, very bad men too. (Even if Assad’s overthrow had been engineered in 2011 or early 2012, it is doubtful that any good would have come with it, given Obama’s and Europe’s neuralgia to securing the peace in the aftermath of the toppling of a dictator. See, for instance, Libya.)

Now it is too late to do anything to stem the holocaust. Regardless of who “wins”, the aftermath will be a bacchanal of sectarian slaughter.  And since stalemate is the most likely outcome, no one will win, and a bacchanal of grinding slaughter will occur anyways.

When questioned about Russia’s intervention, Obama recycled one of his tiresome memes, this one in the Putin-is-swimming-against-the-tide-of-history vein. He said the Russian effort is doomed to failure. This meme is quite convenient in that it relieves him of  any responsibility to do anything: history will take care of it! Given that at this time there is nothing that can really be done to prevent Syria’s descent into the abyss, and based on form, whatever Obama does is likely to make it worse, this is probably a good thing.

That aside, the issue becomes how do you define failure? With sufficient commitment of resources, Putin can likely ensure that Assad can maintain a rump state on the Syrian coast, and provide Putin a foothold in the Middle East. That’s enough for Putin.

As for vanquishing jihadi groups, let alone Isis, Putin couldn’t care less. Putin can realistically achieve his ambitions, and if he does, it is unlikely to have any material impact on US interests.  The effort is not doomed to failure, understood from Putin’s perspective, and the US should be rather indifferent to whether it succeeds or not.

Indeed, since Russian involvement is unlikely to have any effect on the magnitude of the Syrian catastrophe, but will be a drain on already strained Russian resources, it could well be a plus for the US. Why should we care if Putin perpetuates his Syrian ulcer? Indeed, a cynical realpolitik type would probably conclude that we should stand aside and let an already struggling Putin throw his scarce resources into a battle where stalemate is the best that can be achieved. As Napoleon said: “Don’t interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” A Putin stuck in a Syrian quagmire is less able to make mischief elsewhere.

Seriously, if perpetuating Assad’s rule over a wrecked Syria is victory, what would defeat look like? If that’s how Putin wants to fritter away his limited capabilities, so be it. It won’t make the carnage in Syria any worse, and doesn’t injure US interests. Let Vlad have his victory, and hope he pays dearly for it.


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  1. I find Putin’s moves very surprising as it has many costs, but few benefits to Russia. He’s no longer looking at what’s best for Russia. Instead, he is looking at great power politics. He sees there is an anti-Western bloc, and he wants to support it. Since the West doesn’t like Assad, he will do what is necessary for Assad to survive even though Russia actually has almost no interests in Syria.

    He probably also sees that he has only little more than a year of Obama as President so he needs to get in and do as much damage as he can. He knows any replacement is likely to be more competent and a better handle on American interests. I doubt he’ll be as adventurous after January 20, 2017.

    While Putin is portraying this as a move against ISIS, I’d be surprised if there are any actions taken against it. He knows Russia & Assad can’t defeat them without an even greater commitment of resources. Perhaps he is hoping Obama blunders into a major campaign that damages ISIS while he concentrates on the rebels, then just perhaps they are weakened enough for Assad to take over more of Syria.

    Three way partition of Syria more likely know – Assad, ISIS, and Rojava.

    Comment by Chris — September 14, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

  2. We should also not forget the factor of distracting the attention from Crimea.

    Comment by LL — September 14, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

  3. Chris
    I don’t see the costs from Putin’s point of view. Moneywise, he need only commit a bit more than a training excercise, and maybe have it paid for by someone else (Iran, via Assad).
    As for global strategy, he’s already got his enemies, and only the upside of cocking a snook at the west is in his sights. Add the distraction value and maybe a bit of leverage over Crimea and a bit of maritime sabre rattling ver Ukraine. In hindsight, it’s a no brainer.
    But why now, not earlier?

    Comment by James Harries — September 14, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

  4. Damn, should have thought of it.
    Why now, not earlier?
    Because kerry and barry have just given Iran $150 billion to splurge on confounding the enemy.

    Comment by James Harries — September 14, 2015 @ 5:24 pm


    Comment by Dixi — September 17, 2015 @ 1:13 am

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