Streetwise Professor

February 6, 2016

Putin Plays Pyrrhus

Filed under: Music,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:46 pm

The Assad regime and the Russians are on the verge of victory in northern Syria. In particular, the rebel stronghold of Aleppo is on the verge of falling.

This is not all that surprising. It demonstrates the decisive effect of airpower if–and this is crucial–it is operated in support of an even minimally competent ground force, especially one with armor. This is particularly true if the airpower is utilized ruthlessly, with little squeamishness about civilian casualties.

The few victories against ISIS–Kobane, Sinjar, and Ramadi–demonstrate the same point, as does the ineffectualness of the “allied” air attacks against ISIS in Syria and Iraq generally, because these attacks are not mounted in support of a coherent ground attack undertaken by an even moderately effective infantry and armor force.

The Syrian-Russian success also provides an interesting contrast to the Saudi fiasco in Yemen. The Saudis have bombed ruthlessly, with little military effect, because the bombing is not coupled with a credible ground campaign against the Houthis. This no doubt reflects the Saudi’s knowledge of the severe limitations of their ground forces.

These limitations made me laugh at the Saudi offer to deploy troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Even overlooking the logistical impracticality of this, the Saudis would be setting themselves up for an embarrassing failure.

The Russians and Syrians actually intensified their offensive in the lead-up to the farcical “peace” talks in Geneva. No surprises here. They are in this to win decisively, not to negotiate a compromise. And there is no better way to send that message than by victory on the battlefield on the cusp of talks.

This has left the US and Europeans and Gulf Arabs sputtering in ineffectual rage. John Kerry was particularly embarrassing (nothing new here!):

“Hospitals have been hit, civilian quarters have been hit, and in some cases, after the bombing has taken place, when the workers have gone in to try to pull out the wounded, the bombers come back and they kill the people who are pulling out the wounded,” Kerry told reporters in Washington. “This has to stop. Nobody has any question about that. But it’s not going to stop just by whining about it.”

But what else is he (or anyone else) doing about it other than whine? Nothing. It would have been better for Kerry to remain silent, rather than advertise his (and The US’s) impotence.

It is also interesting to note that Kerry is damning the Russians and Syrians for bombing civilians, yet is utterly silent on the equally bad (if not worse) Saudi air campaign in Yemen.

In response to the Aleppo debacle, Turkey has closed its border with Syria. Erdogan is no doubt attempting to create (exacerbate, really) a humanitarian crisis in order to goad the US and Europe into intervening. It will never happen. The Europeans lack both the will and the means. The US has the military capability, but not the will: whatever will existed at one time (which was minimal) disappeared when intervention meant a confrontation with the Russians.

So Putin will likely get a battlefield victory. But so what? He and his Syrian creature will conquer a depopulated and devastated country. This will have little impact on the strategic balance in the region, and virtually no impact on US interests. Yes, Erdogan’s imperial and sectarian ambitions will be thwarted. Saudi and Qatari sectarian supremism will be defeated. To the extent that the US is impacted, these are actually favorable developments.

Those in the West who fulminate over Putin’s success in Syria are ironically engaged in the vacuous zero-sum thinking that drives Putin. A Putin victory is not necessarily an American defeat.

But the zero-sum thinker Putin is probably gleeful at the shrieks of distress from Kerry, the head of the UN, the Europeans, and various anti-Russian elements in the Western media. It’s all music to his ears, and also quite useful to him domestically. Another irony, that: the more that Putin’s enemies in the West screech about what is happening in Syria, the more it helps him.

Putin’s victory may be hollow, though, and his glee short-lived. He initially attempted to utilize his intervention in Syria as a way of presenting Russia as an ally of the West in the war against ISIS in order to undermine the sanctions regime, and to bring Russia in from the diplomatic cold. However, his unabashedly pro-Assad campaign, his intensifying the offensive in the run-up to the Geneva talks, the resultant humanitarian and refugee crisis, and the minimal Russian targeting of ISIS will make it impossible for the Europeans to do anything that will appear to be rewarding him. Putin’s intervention, with its demonstration of the cynicism and pointlessness of American policy, and thereby make Obama look bad, will cause our petulant president to retaliate in his passive-aggressive way, but maintaining sanctions, and pressuring the Europeans to do the same.

Putin is overplaying his hand elsewhere in Europe as well. The Russian media and government histrionics over the “Lisa” fake rape case in Germany has deeply angered Merkel who is already under siege over the migrant crisis (and especially the sexual assault crisis that has followed in its wake). Further, Putin met with Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s most strident critic on immigration.  This will also anger Angela.

Putin, of all people, should realize that if you strike at the king (or queen) you better strike to kill. If Merkel survives-which is likely-she will be ill-disposed to ease sanctions, especially since Putin is ratcheting up the conflict in Donbas as well. Long surviving politicians tend to have long memories as well.

In sum. Air power can be dominant when teamed with infantry and armor. Putin will likely win a tactical victory in Syria. But the victory will be strategically barren, and possibly counterproductive, because (a) the “winner” will inherit a blasted and dysfunctional battleground, and (b) this “victory” will set back Putin’s efforts to roll back sanctions.

If anyone “wins” out of this, it is Iran. The Iranians will maintain their pipeline to Hezbollah, and deal the Saudis a stinging defeat. So Putin will succeed as the mullahs’ muscle, and in the process he will gain the satisfaction of humiliating the US (which stupidly set itself up to be humiliated), but at the cost of perpetuating Russia’s economic isolation, which is exacting a terrible toll on a country already reeling from the collapse in oil prices. That is about as Pyrrhic a victory as one could imagine.

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  1. Thanks for the interesting point of views.

    “He initially attempted to utilize his intervention in Syria as a way of presenting Russia as an ally of the West in the war against ISIS…”

    Well, that is certainly what Putin wants (and wanted) everybody in the west believe. What never ceases to amaze me, is how willingly people in the west are ready to buy into this poor excuse of a smoke screen.

    The sanctions are but a minor problem for Putin. His real problem at the moment is the low price of oil.
    Putin and Russia has no more than a year or two to do something about it (before the Russia’s economical reserves are drained out).
    So what are his options?
    – Lifting the sanctions would be a temporary relief at the best.
    – Modernizing Russian economy would be too slow to be a real solution to an immediate crisis.

    So the only real option left, is to get the oil prices high again. Somehow.
    If the Saudi’s would agree to cut their production, many other producers would follow suit which would definitely rise the prices significantly.
    And that’s what Russia has been trying to do by diplomacy, and by increasing the pressure on the Saudi’s by supporting the shite camp (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah).
    Diplomacy and support for Saudi enemies is hardly the only tool at Putin’s disposal. So what else is there?

    A regional war!

    The best case scenario for Putin would be a long, regional war destroying or shutting down the oil producing areas in the Arabian peninsula.
    And preferably a one that Russia has some control of (through proxies like Iran, Assad) but no direct involvement.
    Which brings us into the Syria. Russian military presence there allows Russia to destabilize the region more easily, strengthen ties with Iran and add pressure to the Saudi regime.
    Russians are doing their best to escalate tensions between the Iran and the Saudi-Arabia, to draw Turkey in to Syria (causing potential disputes in the Nato) and so on.
    I’ve no doubt that Russia will even start a new aggression on its own, if its efforts to push proxies into war will fail.


    Comment by EV — February 7, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

  2. @EV-Thanks, and thanks for your thoughts. Yes, oil prices are Putin’s first order concern, but sanctions seriously limit Russia’s ability to deal with that. With the international capital markets effectively closed for Russia, Russian banks, and Russian corporates, they can’t borrow to get them through the current difficulties.

    Putin’s actions in Syria have made it more difficult for the Saudis to make a deal with Russian (and Iran) to restrict oil output. This means that the only way the Syria gambit will work is if things do spiral into a regional war. The problem is that Syria is far from the Gulf. Particularly now that it is back in the oil market, Iran does not want to cause a war that would jeopardize their ability to produce and export oil.

    But I can see Putin hoping for things to spiral out of control. He should be careful what he asks for, though. The US may stand aside and watch Syria burn. They will not stand aside in the Gulf, and when it comes to Russia, the US has escalation dominance. But I can see Putin miscalculating, especially since he might think he can take advantage of a lame duck administration and the uncertainty of a transition of power in the US. He has a penchant for that, and like other authoritarians, the longer he is in power the more detached from reality he will become.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 7, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

  3. Thanks for your reply professor.

    “With the international capital markets effectively closed for Russia, Russian banks, and Russian corporates, they can’t borrow to get them through the current difficulties.”

    That’s true. And for that reason Russia has been using their oil reserve funds (apx. 50 billion 2015). They still have around 50 billion left plus the 40 billion in the pension funds, should they decide to use that too. However, within the next 12 to 24 (or so) months these funds have been drained. So, something has to change. Quickly.

    In theory, Putin could buy more time by cutting military and security spending. He could also give in on Ukraine (to lift the sanctions). These kind of hopes are, in my opinion, pipe dreams. Putin just cannot afford to look weak.

    Moreover, Putin sure tries to drive the EU apart, hoping he could get rid of the sanctions that way. But he has crossed so many lines (by the influence operations, nuclear threats etc.) and managed to antagonize so many prominent politicans (including Merkel) in so many EU countries, that in the short run his changes of getting the desired results are slim at the best.

    For these reasons, I think Putin is seeking the solution for his current problems from the middle-east.

    “Iran does not want to cause a war.”

    I agree, they don’t at the moment and as far as the current regime goes. But Ruhani has a powerfull opposition that has another priorities. Moreover, the hard line opposition would be more than happy to form an alliance with Russia. Stronger and economically more capable Iran may be in Russia’s interest in the short term, but in the longer run Russians would not be that happy about the Iranian oil pouring into the market. So I’d bet they’ll do what ever they can to support the hardliners and undermine the current regime.

    “But I can see Putin miscalculating, especially since he might think he can take advantage of a lame duck administration and the uncertainty of a transition of power in the US.”

    I agree on this too. Putin takes calculated risks, and miscalculation is certainly a possibility as you said. However, I think he does his best to avoid confronting the US interests directly. Instead of direct confrontation, he’s trying to get the others to fight his war. And, sadly, given the situation in the region, that shouldn’t be so hard.


    Comment by EV — February 8, 2016 @ 3:21 am

  4. If the Saudi’s would agree to cut their production, many other producers would follow suit

    Actually, I think one of the (secondary) reasons why the Saudis aren’t cutting their production is because they know, from experience, the gangsters, despots, thieves, liars, and charlatans who make up OPEC would do no such thing. It’s basically a prisoner’s dilemma, with each party hoping if they are the only one cheating they will reap the rewards at the expense of everyone else. Besides, the current accounts of a lot of these countries are so short on funds they probably can’t afford to take a revenue hit in the short term in the hope the price will go back up in the medium term.

    My heart is bleeding for them, btw.

    Comment by Tim Newman — February 8, 2016 @ 4:54 am

  5. “Turkey has closed its border with Syria. Erdogan is no doubt attempting to create (exacerbate, really) a humanitarian crisis in order to goad the US and Europe into intervening. It will never happen.”

    I can think of another reason for Europe to leave that situation well-alone: One less migrant route into the EU…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — February 8, 2016 @ 8:19 am

  6. The most effective use of airpower is ground support, and always has been. There is a role for strategic airpower, but it has always achieved less than its proponents promise with the dubious exception of the Kosovo campaign. At this point, the Spanish Civil War analogy is right on the money. Russia gets to have fun with its Condor Legion while Iran plays the hapless role of Mussolini sending in actual ground troops. Assad isn’t quite Franco, but he’ll stay in power.

    I don’t think Putin intends for Syria to take back the whole country. The eastern “useless” half of the country can be safely jettisoned. The western half has the population and resources. Assad simply wants to survive. Russia just wants to keep a base and cause trouble for the West. Iran just wants to keep the land supply route to Hezbollah open.

    The Free Syrian Army is likely to be crushed. Any remnants will be absorbed by Jihadists who will carry on some fight. But if Aleppo falls, much of the pressure comes off Assad. It is possible the FSA will hold for a while, but the odds are now stacked against it. Perhaps some remnant will survive to make it to the YPG lead Syrian Democratic Forces.

    The Syrian Democratic Forces will probably be positioned to take over the western half of the country. It is mainly a cover for the Kurdish YPG, but there are some Arab elements and there is evidence that Arab special forces are assisting their offensive. Likely the YPG will be content for them to administer the non-Kurdish regions.

    ISIS will serve as a buffer between the two until the two sides (Syria/Iran/Russia and Arabs/Turks/West) come to an agreement on de facto or even de jure partition.

    Comment by Chris — February 8, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

  7. Chris,

    You said:

    “I don’t think Putin intends for Syria to take back the whole country. The eastern “useless” half of the country can be safely jettisoned.”

    Please, take a look at the map showing the gas and oil fields in Syria.
    You might want to re-evaluate the uselessness of the eastern parts after doing that 🙂

    While you might be right in many ways, your analysis of Syria implies everything is so clear and simple.
    It suggests the players in Syria have simple goals and straight forward motives that can be easily understood.
    Sorry, I have to disagree with you on that.

    Comment by EV — February 8, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

  8. when Russia started last year Syria was supposed to be another Afghanistan, with large combat losses for the Russians. seems like it’s worked out ok for them, and fast

    I’m displeased that Russian anti-aircraft weaponry and surface to surface missiles see so much of Israel in range. I’m not sure about their anti-ship capabilities, either

    they’ve certainly run an impressive ad campaign for Russian weaponry. Saudi looks less potent running our systems in Yemen, probably for the reasons you stated above, and we look less potent running them in Iraq. we have no serious ground support because we don’t accept the Shia irregulars. Baghdad will choose Iran, our princely dowry notwithstanding. restraining the Iraqi Shia from victory won’t win their loyalty

    if the US, which confronts Daesh-held territories with humanist restraint, spending jet-fuel on bloodless flyover patrols and expensive precision-guided bombs on feint muzzle flashes, while confronting those allies whose flesh is at risk on the ground with the misgivings of Sunni states who back yahoos thinly differentiated from Daesh, and our humanistic squeamishness about Shia nationalism. we r a Turkish proxy, thousands of miles from our shores and tens of miles from Turkey’s border

    Comment by Dots — February 9, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

  9. EV, I am aware of the oil and gas wells in the east. While an important contributor to the government revenues, Syria is a very small energy producer. Before the war, it was at the level of Australia and Thailand.

    1) It’s not important from a global strategic view.

    2) I don’t see either Russia or Iran caring who controls that except in the most minor tactical level (they don’t want ISIS in control of it, and would prefer Assad’s enemies don’t have it). How much of their own resources do they wish to extend to actually control it? Probably not a whole lot – their main interests are in the west.

    3) Assad would probably like to regain control, but unless the situation drastically changes, it would several bridges too far. Assad’s manpower was at its limit when the Russian intervention began. I don’t think they have enough to expand to the east. Consolidating actual control in the West will task their resources hard enough. Sending forces out west – even with air support – makes them vulnerable.

    Given this, I don’t see anything wrong in the brief analysis I laid out. I’m doing this as a comment on a blog. It has to be simple. But that is not a problem. War, like murder, is a simple art. If you start making it complicated, the less effective things tend to be. In war, you have to define your objectives and stick to it, especially with limited resources.

    I could be wrong, but so far nothing has surprised me in the Syrian conflict. We’ll see what happens.

    Comment by Chris — February 10, 2016 @ 11:43 am

  10. “when Russia started last year Syria was supposed to be another Afghanistan, with large combat losses for the Russians. seems like it’s worked out ok for them”
    In 1979 the Russians armor and airpower allowed them to cease every major city in Afghanistan. How’d that work out for them? This is going to be a grinding occupation. And this assumes the Sultan doesnt go mad and simply send 3 tank divisions to chop up every Shiite formation on the way to Latika.

    Comment by d — February 11, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

  11. maybe you’re right. I hope it doesn’t get that bloody

    Comment by Dots — February 21, 2016 @ 4:59 am

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