Streetwise Professor

February 16, 2018

Putin’s Rock-and-a-Hard-Place Situation in Syria

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 11:17 am

The Syrian war has been dragging on for a bloody seven years, but now the sh*t is truly getting real–because now it has become a cockpit for global and regional power rivalries. The most fraught development involves the potential for escalating conflict between Iran and its proxies (notably Hezbollah) and Israel–and that puts Vladimir Putin and Russia into a very difficult position.

Last week an Iranian drone allegedly violated Israeli airspace. The Israelis shot down the drone, and then launched a massive attack that apparently destroyed half of Syria’s air defenses, losing an F-16 in the process.  The Israelis also bombed Iranian forces in Syria. Things have settled down a bit since then, but the potential for escalation is clearly present.

Despite Russia’s long-term (and by long-term I mean centuries-long) rivalry with Iran/Persia, the countries have been de facto allies in Syria because both have a strong interest in saving the Assad regime.  But the interests in Assad are vastly different, and now that the Syrian regime’s survival seems assured, those interests are not aligned.

Iran views the Assad regime as vital because under its control Syria is a vital component of Iran’s anti-Israel strategy.  In particular, Syria is the essential logistic bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  With Syria in unfriendly hands, Hezbollah would be completely isolated.  With Syria in Assad’s hands, Iran can funnel massive supplies to Israel’s arch-foe.  Given the centrality of Israel to Iran’s strategic ambitions, Assad is a vital Iranian national interest, and an ongoing national interest.

Putin’s interests in Syria were always more limited.  A naval base (which would be completely useless in a real shooting war given its isolation and Russia’s lack of a real blue water navy), a few airbases, and an ability to reassert Russia as a player in the Middle East. Those objectives have largely been achieved, and Putin was no doubt hoping that the stabilization of the Syrian regime would permit a drawdown of Russian activities there.

Furthermore, Putin has always tried to maintain good relations with Israel.  Netanyahu and other high-ranking Israelis have made numerous trips to Moscow.

But if Iran pushes issues with Israel, the Jewish state’s heretofore relatively benign approach to the Syrian regime (which has involved no more than occasional punitive strikes and a largely hands-off attitude in the Syrian civil war) will change. The regime is Iran’s and Hezbollah’s center of gravity, and if Iran escalates confrontation with Israel either from Lebanon or Syria directly, Israel will hit Assad’s regime very hard.  This will again put its survival at risk, and cost Putin what he has gained so far.

In other words, it is in Russia’s interest to restrain Iran, but it is not clear that Iran can be restrained. Putin has nothing to gain from an Iran-Israel conflict in Syria and Lebanon, and all that he has gained so far is at risk from such a conflict.  For its part, if Iran decides to escalate, it means that it has decided that the Syrian regime’s vulnerability to local forces has been largely eliminated, and it doesn’t really need Russia anymore.

All of which means that Putin is now largely at the mercy of a highly ideological regime with an agenda that not only does Putin not share (the destruction of Israel), but which he actually opposes.

Note that Russia has also been exploring cooperation with Iran’s other arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, especially in the field of energy.  Siding with Iran puts that at risk too.

So what will Putin do? Hard to know. But it is clear he has no real good options.

The other big story involving Russia in Syria relates to the devastating American response to an attack mounted on a base of US-supported fighters where some American advisers were located. The US responded with extreme–and I mean extreme–violence. In response to a battalion-sized attack, they threw just about everything in the arsenal at the assault–artillery, F-15Es, MQ-9 drones, AH-64 Apaches, B-52s(!), and AC-130s.

This extremely forceful response was clearly sending a message.  It reminds me of what Mattis told Iraqi tribal leaders: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.”  The assaulting force was f*cking with the US, and Mattis’ military responded by pretty much killing them all.

They’ll think twice next time. And that’s the point.

The biggest mystery is the identity of “them all.” Was it regime paramilitaries leavened with a few Russians, or a force predominately made up of Russian mercenaries? The Russians first denied Russians were killed, but after some widows went public it admitted to the deaths of 5 Russians.  Other reports, supposedly sourced from Russian military sources, put the casualty toll in the hundreds, with 100-200 KIA. (The Russian government dismisses these reports as “disinformation,” but its credibility is near zero.)

The big question is why was the attack made? A purely regime-directed operation that used Russian mercenaries without the knowledge or approval of the Russian military? (Highly doubtful.) An attempt by the Russians to test the Americans, or to send a message? (If so, the answer was given with extreme prejudice.) One theory floating around in Russia is that the mercenaries (from the firm Вагнер) had become inconvenient to the Russian military and government, and were set up to be destroyed.  I have no idea–I just hope that Mattis, Trump, et al do.

Then there’s the conflict between the US and Turkey over support for Kurdish fighters (who were the only anti-ISIS troops who can, in the words of George Patton, “fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag”).  Turkey has mounted an attack into Syria, and Erdogan has threatened to give the US an “Ottoman slap” if we interfere. (By the way–did the Ottomans have nukes? Just wondering.)

All in all, Syria makes Game of Thrones look simple, and now the potential for a conflict between the big dogs is greater than ever. It’s hard to see this ending well for anyone–Vladimir Putin least of all.

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  1. Prof, whats your take on the Mueller indictments? I am sure it is full of hot air, but would love to see your view on it.

    Comment by Swami — February 16, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

  2. @Swami–I know who you are 😉 Your secret is safe with me.

    As to your question . . . a pathetic joke, that’s my take. Trying to show he’s doing something. If there is no evidence of Trump involvement, or campaign involvement, he should have turned over the file to main Justice and let the case proceed through normal channels, and focused on expediting his actual investigation.

    This is another baleful consequence of Rosenstein’s absurdly overbroad assignment to Mueller. To call it a fishing license is too generous.

    Comment by The Professor — February 16, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

  3. A good piece of analysis, as one usually finds on this blog. The question I cannot answer is if either side – Russia or the US – understands the other’s redline (not an Obama redline, but a Trump redline). If not, the situation could become explosive very quickly. If Putin were wise, he should drawdown its presence in Syria, claim a victory in preserving the Assad regime and continue to supply it with military aid, and work behind the scenes with Israel to destroy Hezbullah. Russian interests do not require any larger investment.

    The real question is what the US is going to do with its erstwhile ally, Turkey. While we can all laugh at the rhetoric of the Erdogan regime, sooner or later a serious crisis is going to arise because US and Turkish interests in the Middle East are no longer aligned.

    Comment by Dandalo — February 16, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

  4. Mercenaries – Putler is using them all over the place.

    Inconvenient? Well, Putler has to pay them, and he’s low on money.

    Comment by elmer — February 17, 2018 @ 10:56 am

  5. growing cost of intervention and use of mercenaries

    see comment at about 1:41

    Comment by elmer — February 17, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

  6. Iran aligns with the Assad regime because Assad is an Alawite and so is his power structure. The Alawites are a branch of Shia Islam, making Assad a natural ally of Iran’s Shia thugocracy.

    Sunni Muslims are a large majority in Syria. Were Assad to fall, the Sunnis take over, and Syria turns from an ally into an enemy of Iran. And of Hezbollah. All that, no matter that the Sunnis, like the Shia, hate Israel and detest Jews.

    If anything, Sunnis hate the Shia more than they hate Jews. The reason being the Shia are millennial hegemonic competitors whereas the Jews are merely despised dhimmi upstarts.

    The Iranians and the Arabs also have a huge racial hatred for one another, stemming largely from the imperialistic gloating the Arabs have historically indulged about their purported 7th century defeat of Persia, making the religious competition that much more exciting (and satisfying).

    So, if Assad loses, the Iranian thugs lose an ally, lose their easy connection to Hezbollah, no longer have a presence next to Israel, and gain a traditional and implacable enemy.

    Comment by Pedric — February 21, 2018 @ 9:05 pm

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