Streetwise Professor

October 7, 2015

We Need to Choose Our Battles, and Syria Isn’t It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:04 pm

The hysteria over Russian actions in Syria continues. The Russians are making token strikes-at most-against ISIS, and are focusing their firepower on other anti-regime forces in the west of the country.

Well, of course they are. Putin’s objective is to save Assad’s regime. Its core area in the west. The greatest threat is in the west. So that’s where the bulk of the blows will fall.

Today’s cruise missile attack, launched from the Caspian is partly showing off (especially showing off the fact that Iran and Iraq had to concur), but it also makes military sense as part of a preparatory bombardment supporting a counterattack by regime forces, which is apparently in progress. This demonstrates that the Russian air campaign is part of a coherent military operation which integrates air and ground elements. This presents a stark contrast to the air-only US campaign against ISIS, which cannot achieve any decisive result whatsoever. (It remains to be seen whether Russian air support is sufficient to overcome the extreme shakiness of the Syrian army, which wasn’t much to start with and which has been relentlessly ground down by four years of brutal war.) (In contrast to the coherent Russian effort, the US attacks in Syria yesterday involved destroying two “crude oil collection facilities.” Really. No excavators were available?)

There is also hysteria about Russian lying about what they are doing.  This is like attacking a cobra for striking. It’s what they do.

Most of the frenzy focuses on the Russians’ targeting of “our” rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Yes, this is quite deliberate, and a strike at the US for having the temerity of supporting the anti-Assad effort. Putin views this as a part of a broader struggle against the US.

So should the US respond to the challenge frontally, in Syria?  No. And it’s not even a close call.

First, what is the strategic objective to be gained? I find it hard to see an important security interest in Syria. And overthrowing Assad because he’s a monster could be justified, except that monsters-and arguably worse monsters than Assad-will take over. An Assad rout would likely result in a bacchanal of sectarian violence which would result in the extirpation of non-Sunni communities in Syria. There has not been one Middle East war that has ended in anything closely resembling peace, and the circumstances in Syria are even less favorable to such an outcome than in Iraq and Libya.

Second, the idea that the there is a serious “moderate” opposition in Syria is not true today, and arguably never was true. The FSA’s day passed years ago, and our track record of identifying moderate, secular forces in this region is appallingly bad.

Those that are pushing this fantasy include John McCain, who is detached from reality on this issue. Others include journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, who have been flogging this narrative for four years, and are frantically doing so now: the more implausible the narrative becomes, the more frenzied they become. One should note that Hassan is tightly connected with UAE, which has been the main supporter of the anti-Assad opposition from the beginning, and Weiss’s connections are murky, and his pom-pomming for a Syrian opposition that is lousy with Islamists raises questions.

(And by the way: I thought the CIA program to arm the opposition was supposed to be covert. Why are we blabbing about it?)

Third, what can be done? The idée du jour supported by left (Hillary Clinton) and right (several GOP candidates, including Rubio, Fiorina, and Christie), is a no fly zone. This is superficially appealing because it relies purely on American airpower, and thus does not require a ground commitment. This virtue is in fact a measure of the non-seriousness of the idea.  It would not have been militarily decisive before the Russians arrived because Assad’s air force played only a marginal role in the conflict. Now it would require a confrontation with the Russians, because it is the Russians that are flying. Why engage in a confrontation that could lead to unpredictable developments elsewhere, and which (per the above) would not result in any material strategic gainer the US?

Rubio goes further, plumping for a “safe zone” that somehow will magically be radical Islamist-free. How this would work outside of some Harry Potter-esque fantasy is beyond me. Further, note the “safe zone” idea is a favorite of Erdogan. Who has been a major supporter of the Islamist groups in Syria. It appears for all the world that Rubio has bought a bill of goods from the GCC and the Turks about the Syrian opposition.

If you look at the correlation of forces (as the Soviets put it), and the strategic stakes, deeper US involvement in Syria makes no sense. The odds of prevailing are low, and the gains from winning are trivial, and likely non-existent.

Russia’s aggressiveness is indeed a concern, and someone with Putin’s mindset will be emboldened if he believes that he will meet no resistance. But an asymmetric response, an indirect approach, is more advisable. Russia’s vulnerabilities are economic and financial, and its greatest sensitivities are on in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine.

One last thing. The sputtering denunciations of Putin, notably again by McCain and others, are profoundly counterproductive. They only contribute to Putin’s image as some sort of colossus, which only encourages more aggressiveness and more admiration for him. At the other extreme, the administration’s mewling protests that the Syrian intervention is a testament to Putin’s weakness is just plain pathetic, especially since it is not accompanied by any countermoves anywhere.

Unfortunately, this administration is has neither the intestinal fortitude nor the strategic dexterity to respond effectively, or even coherently. We will have to wait another 15 months at least for a reach change. Unfortunately, there’s not much to look forward to on that front, as none of the Republican candidates have impressed in the least. Rubio particularly disappointed not just because of the safe zone inanity, but because of his clueless remark that Syria is a battle for the future of Sunni Islam: (a) this is not our battle, and (b) it it mimics Saudi and Qatar Sunni chauvinism, and their interests are not ours, in the slightest. (How often has our anger at Iran blinded us to the fact that the Saudis are a deeply malign force too? I actually have a grudging respect for the Iranians. At least they are quite open about their hatred for us.)

We need to pick our battles, and Syria isn’t it. The obsession with it is distracting from the true objective, which should be to construct a coherent strategic response to Putin that exploits our comparative advantages, rather than confronting him where he can exploit his.


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  1. You’re right, that we have no real strategic interest in Syria itself. The Russians seem to see one, though, and it’s worth thinking through what they might see that there is to gain.

    Here’s an outcome to be concerned about: they successfully defend Assad, and leave and arc of Shiite allies from southern lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, and into a soon to be nuclear Iran. All allied with them.
    The Saudi’s may look fragile to the Russians. From this new middle eastern allied arc they can pressure the Saudis: fund and arm opposition, propagandize, etc. Maybe the Saudi’s fall. Maybe they make an accomodation. THe gulf states would hardly be in a position to stand against the new wave of Russian/Iranian power.

    It’s just a scenario. But it’s not hard to see a path to a Middle east with an antagonistic Shiite alliance allied with Russia and dominant, and a set of Sunnis states cowed by it.
    It’s not a hard path, that is, while the US isn’t interested in concerning itself with that potential outcome, and where our allies have been sent clear signals that they should adjust their thinking regarding the US asserting its interests.

    Comment by John Barton — October 8, 2015 @ 10:06 am

  2. Agreed. The only thing Putin is doing is proving the ineptness and incompetence of the US which is something everyone in the world already knows. We’ve squandered any opportunity we had in Syria years ago. The only thing we can really do at this point is to support the Kurds. If the Gulf Arabs want to do something, let them.

    The real issue is the collapse of American prestige and influence in the Middle East. The key to rebuilding that isn’t complaining about Syria or doing anything specifically in regards to Syria. It is reformulating American aims and objectives int he new Middle East and implementing a coherent and realistic strategy. That isn’t possible with Obama, but it will be one of the main foreign policy challenges of the next President.

    The best move at this point is to let the Iranians and ISIS exhaust each other. It’s not the ideal situation given the options available to us five years ago, and decent leadership would have created a better situation than we have now, but what we have now is the only thing available to us. Best to acknowledge that and not cry over spilled milk.

    Comment by Chris — October 8, 2015 @ 10:30 am

  3. Agreed. As Kissinger said about the Iran – Iraq war: “I hope they both lose.”

    Comment by James Harries — October 8, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

  4. Until the revanchist fires are burned out among the those mentally deluded with their eschatological and irredentist manias, there will be no settlement or peace. To the extent these “states” ever existed, they have certainly devolved to Churchill’s description of them as “tribes with flags”. to expect a post treaty of Westphalia type of behavior is ridiculous – we are reverting back to the status quo ante of war without end, just some temporary armistices.

    While we do have no strategic interest in Syria as a whole there are some interests that we ,might want to support.

    1. a viable Kurdish sub state in Iraq and Syria capable of territorial defense.
    2. Keeping the delusions of “Erdogan Pasha” under control and giving the Turks ( and their minorities) time to wake up and realize they are being led by the Turkish equivalent of Putin.( Granted, the Turks are at least spared Vlad’s Kim Il Sun like delusions of ubermenschlichkeit).
    3. The de-legitimization of Hezbollah as an independent (non Syrian/Iranian proxies), at least in terms of Lebanese politics.
    4. Promote as much discord as possible between the various Hezbollah/Syrian/Russian and Iraqi factions as possible.
    5. If he won’t get out, tie up Vlad in a war of attrition that he cannot afford.

    Best Way to to do 2-5? #1.

    Finally it is certainly the the Eurines must create a viable refugee system in the Middle east if they are not to be buried, but it looks like the EU has been taking management lessons from Beirut’s Department of Sanitation.

    Comment by Sotos — October 9, 2015 @ 7:19 am

  5. “You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia'”

    As the US would be the first to tell you, it’s so easy to get into these little land wars in Asia and so hard to get out. First, let Putin actually accomplish something viable and have a bargaining chip to trade. Then we’ll worry about what he wants to trade it for. It’s putting a lot of faith in an air force that can’t even keep its planes in the sky to worry about his success.

    Comment by Pat — October 9, 2015 @ 10:23 am

  6. Prof can u recommend some books or articles on international strategy? I do not follow the discussion of this topic here or in the press successfully

    r we sure that Russian ground forces will b much engaged? in any case, it seems they joined bcause their boy was losing. they’re backing a harder asset than the US have, so far, but one expects diminishing returns from air strikes as they reduce JAN, Sham “hard target”

    is Russia not fairly well contained by other great powers-to-be, so near to Germany and China, and to MAD? won’t they partner with us, in the long term, in containing China and killing Islamists? isn’t that what they’re doing now?

    how much can we hurt them? what does it get us?

    I don’t have confidence in our being able to regulate world orders much better than we regulate markets

    Comment by Dots — October 12, 2015 @ 12:24 am

  7. @Prof,

    So, Syria is not “our battle”. Where then, in your opinion, goes the definite red line between “our” and “their”? Apparently, the “their” category contains a Shiite dominated Middle East with Iran and Russia even capable putting pressure on the Saudi oil output and therefore the price level. “Our”… Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland, the rest of the European Nato members …the US East Coast? Or, is there any…? Not only curious or trying merely to provoke, but potentially very much involved…

    Comment by Dixi — October 12, 2015 @ 8:27 am

  8. Syria is today’s target for Moscow because of all the new energy finds in the Eastern Mediterranean. Just as Georgia and east Ukraine were targeted as a result of energy developments and pipelines in those regions.

    Everyone knows that Obama is inept, so that demonstration was unnecessary, although it was fun for Putin. Fewer people understand that Putin himself is quite inept, but Putin is determined to demonstrate that fact even to the slowest-witted journalists and professors, over time.

    Moscow was involved in land battles in Asia long before excessive taxes on tea to the North American colonies were glitters in King George’s eye.

    Comment by Alice Finkel — October 23, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

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